Jacobus Handl

Jacobus Handl


• 1550 1591


Jacob Handl was one of the most-respected and serious composers of the late Renaissance period in Austria. (He was so high-minded that even his secular madrigals are in Latin.) At the same time, his music was often highly complex, chromatic, and dissonant.

His origins are a bit obscure. If his family had been Slovenian, his natal name might have been Jakob Petelin, the surname in that language meaning "rooster" as do "Handl" and the Latin "Gallus," which he also sometimes used.

The location of his education is a matter for guesswork. Scholars suggest Reifnitz itself, or perhaps a Cistercian monastery in Sticna. Around 1565, he went to Austria to make his fortune. He enjoyed staying in monasteries and lived for a while at the Benedictine abbey in Melk. He arrived in Vienna about 1568 and it is sometimes stated that during this period he became a monk. Historical records are incomplete concerning his movements, but it is known that in 1574, he was a singer in the imperial chapel of Maximilian II. Handl decided to travel more and made his way through Austria, Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia.

In 1579 or 1580, he was appointed choirmaster to the Bishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc, Czech Republic), Stanislas Pavlovsky. He remained there for five years and then took the post of Kantor of St. Jan na Brzehu, Prague, a post he retained until death. There was a lively literary group centered on that church and it is likely that they performed secular choral music. The position also meant that Handl would sometimes appear and perform at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. Because of these contacts, Handl gained a high reputation for his literary knowledge and compositional skill.

Most of Handl's work consists of sacred Latin settings. The bulk of it is a group of 374 motets making up music for the Proper of the Time, certain Marian festivals, the Common of Saints, and several festivals from the Proper of Saints. The musical style is derived from Netherlands polyphony. He also wrote 20 masses, often on themes he had devised for motets. His secular music uses texts from Ovid, Vergil, Catullus, Horace, and other classical Roman poets.

Handl's rhythmic notation is very subtle, his textures are often very complex, and his music is full of canons. Nevertheless, as a good Counter Reformationist composer, he took care to make the words understandable. His lines often create fully triadic harmony, but there are also chromatic progressions skillfully used for emotional effect. His use of syncopations is remarkable; his rhythmic imagination is hard to match in the era or for many ages afterward. His style may represent one of the most astonishingly accomplished summations of the music of the prior century, but it did not make much mark on the much simpler early Baroque style that followed it, and it remained to the twentieth century to rediscover him.