Which man is behind the greatest Dutch composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck? Four hundred years after his death, harpsichordist and organist Tineke Steenbrink (44) and journalist Botte Jellema went looking for their podcast Sweelinck Nu for Radio4. “It resulted in a search for something that is not there, the pursuit of a shadow,” sighed Tineke Steenbrink.
Sweelinck for an hour
Editor Mischa Spel has compiled a playlist for Sweelinck. It can be found online on spotify’Sweelinck in a handful of highlights’
Her colleague – and Sweelinck biographer – Pieter Dirksen (60) and singer Harry van der Kamp (74) tried the same. Their studies of the enigmatic genius have now spanned nearly half a century. And sometimes they discover something new, a snippet about the composer, in whose life the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and the nascent Dutch Calvinism deeply affected. At the time, many thought it was better to remain invisible. An advice that Sweelinck seems to have taken to heart.
“There is no document in which he is reprimanded,” says Dirksen. “That remains remarkable for a man, who presumably remained a Catholic during a period when Protestants were trying to perpetuate their power. Apparently everyone admired him and Sweelinck navigated cleverly between all the religious quarrels.” “In fact, I think he wanted to reconcile those opposing forces,” says Jacob Lekkerkerker (46).
Mild and determined
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was born in Deventer. The year of his birth is still disputed, although Dirksen now thinks he knows for sure that it is 1561. Three years later, the family moved to Amsterdam, where his father got the job as organist of the main city church, the Catholic Saint Nicholas.
As a five-year-old toddler, Sweelinck witnessed the iconoclasm. His father died six years later, and at about sixteen the young organist was given a tenure in his father’s church; then a Catholic bastion. But the religious exchange rates fluctuated constantly. Five years later, isolated Amsterdam had to hand over power to the Protestants. They initially wanted to tear down the church organs, but the city council prevented this. Amsterdam decided to pay Sweelinck, because the new religion did not allow instruments during the service. Only before the organ had to massage the psalm melodies into the ears of the faithful and afterwards Sweelinck was allowed to accompany the congregation with his improvisations.
“The unaccompanied unaccompanied singing of psalms has really taken a toll here,” says Steenbrink. “It must have been hard to hear: those few thousand people who ‘sang out’ faith at the top of their lungs.”
“I suspect that as soon as the singing started, Sweelinck fled the church so as not to have to hear the screams,” Dirksen grins.
“When foreign musicians walk into a Dutch church on Sundays, they are stunned by the violence of voices, not much has changed there,” says Lekkerkerker.
A few rooms further on hangs the portrait of Sweelinck, painted by his younger brother Gerrit in 1606, the year of Rembrandt’s birth. “I see a gentle but determined man who has done what he wanted to do, through all the religious violence of his time,” says Van der Kamp.
Lekkerkerker agrees with this suspicion: „I tried to form an image on the basis of such a painting. Then I saw in the pulpit the young and brilliant theologian Arminius who argued that free will plays a role in the salvation of human beings. Sweelinck came here every day, he witnessed those debates. Who shows me that painting? Someone who was here every day for forty years.”
“Sweelinck moved with the religious and political tide,” says Steenbrink. “Not much has changed in that regard. We, musicians, do not polarize, but seek connection. That longing is also in that portrait.”
“That painting is very special,” says Dirksen. “So alive. I feel like I can really see him. I see a humane man with a great appearance. The image reflects his music, which is human and all-encompassing.”
Sweelinck was silent
Sweelinck’s life’s work was the sounding of all one hundred and fifty psalms from the Genevan psalter. Van der Kamp captured them all with his Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam in the impressive Sweelinck Monument. In his eyes, the composer tried to reconcile religious sharp-snipers during the twelve-year truce with the Spaniards, when the foreign enemy briefly disappeared behind the horizon, but domestic religious strife rose all the higher.
“He wanted to stand above the squabbling”, thinks Van der Kamp. “His psalms were to guide everyone, build a bridge between the sworn adversaries. But music didn’t have that much power, much to his chagrin and frustration. His last psalm books and cantiones have been published, but without the composer’s usual preface. Sweelinck was silent. Drawing, I think.”
Dirksen: „The Netherlands then boiled over. Sweelinck had that bad luck. The noise turned out to be temporary, but he couldn’t have known it. Only a year after his death did Amsterdam cool down again.”
Festival Light at Sweelinck
This whole year all sorts of things happen around the 400th anniversary of the death of composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck:
In Sweelincks Old Church in Amsterdam organist Ton Koopman (15/10) will play his music, Harry van der Kamp’s Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam will sing in a vespers service (17/10), and a new collective will perform arrangements of the psalms (5/11). The Scottish artist Susan Philipsz uses Sweelinck in her exhibition The Fall, named after Mein junges Leben hat ein End (from 26/11). The Sweelinck Cantorij performs his work during Sunday church services. Info: oudekerk.nl
From October 16, Amsterdam will be dominated by the Sweelinck Festival. There are concerts, exhibitions, lectures, workshops, a symposium and a Sweelinck walk (all year round) at several locations in the city. Composer Joey Roukens wrote the piece Distorted fantasy, an ode to Sweelinck, especially for the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Info: sweelinckfestival.nl
Tineke Steenbrink made a podcast about the composer with journalist Botte Jellema with the title Sweelinck Now.
Pieter Dirksen recently published the biography Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Orpheus of Amsterdam. Info: pieterdirksen.nl
The exhibition is in the Amsterdam City Archives Sweelinck, City Musician of Amsterdam to see. In the Treasury until January 9, 2022, free entrance.
Sooner or later all four of them had their own Sweelinck moment, the time when his music settled in them for good. It happened to Steenbrink when she was eleven during organ lessons with the variations on Onder een linde groen. “The music never let go of me.”
Dirksen was also still a young teenager when he heard Sweelinck on one of the first records by harpsichordist Ton Koopman. “Those pieces were overwhelmingly different from anything I knew. The magic of it. I immediately started nagging my parents about those blue Sweelinck bindings with his keyboard works. And then I started studying his keyboard works like crazy.”
Lekkerkerker needed a little longer. „I didn’t quite know what to do with it, until one day the Sweelinck Cantorij sang here in a church service with a trombonist playing the melody. Suddenly the sound came alive, rippling through space like an endless sea of inspiration.”
Sweelinck’s work ‘dribbled in’ at Van der Kamp. He first sang it fifty years ago with church musician and conductor Jan Boeke. “We made Psalm 42, the panting deer, escape from the hunt. Magnificent. Boeke belonged to the proclamation, who thought that you should sing such a text as if your life depended on it.”
In Radio4’s annual Top400, which can be heard again next week, Sweelinck – as the largest Dutch composer – was ranked 196 last year with his 150 psalms. The highest ranked compatriot was Simeon ten Holt on ten with his cult hit Canto ostinato.
Which individual piece by Sweelinck also has that potential?
“Mein junges Leben hat ein End”, says Dirksen immediately. “A world melody, a masterpiece of simplicity. We don’t know where he got it from. Sweelinck usually varied on existing themes. In the Renaissance, elaboration was more important than invention. It was only about two or three centuries later in Romanticism that the emphasis was placed on originality.”
“Funny, my choice too”, nods Lekkerkerker.
“Great piece,” says Steenbrink. “I often play it at weddings, as an ironic nod to marriage.”
Van der Kamp chooses the song Susanne un jour. “Many composers adapted that piece, but his is the best. We recently sang it in Vilnius, where they barely know Sweelinck. Many people were crying. And then I think: there’s something about that piece.”
“The same thing strikes me here in the Oude Kerk: musicians and audiences are still enthusiastic about him,” Lekkerkerker agrees. “His music fits effortlessly in the traditional context, but just as well in the experimental one. So Sweelinck will outlive us too.”
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 14 October 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of 14 October 2021