Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

1562 1621

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck



Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was a famous Dutch composer, organist, and teacher in the 16th and 17th centuries. He is most memorable today for his renown as a teacher, though he was also a leading composer of both vocal and keyboard music.

Sweelinck was the eldest son of Peter Swybbertszoon and Elske Sweeling; it is unknown why he later chose to use his mother’s name for his compositions. He was born in Deventer, where he would live his entire life. Sweelinck’s father was also an organist, in addition to both his paternal grandfather and uncle. With little interruption, Sweelinck succeeded his father at the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam and his own son, Dirck, succeeded him.

Sweelinck’s early general education took place in the Oude Kerk, under Jacob Buyck, the pastor. These studies ended in 1578 with the Reformation of Amsterdam. Details on his early life are vague, but it seems that he studied in Haarlem. This would account for the only period in his life in which he left Amsterdam for more than a few days at a time. It is also rumoured that he studied in Venice with Zarlino, but this seems to be unfounded. Sweelinck’s only other known teacher, besides his father who died when Sweelinck was 11, was Jan Willemszoon Lossy, a countertenor and shawm player in Haarlem. Though Lossy was not an organist, it is possible that he taught Sweelinck composition. It is also speculated that Cornelis Boskoop also taught him organ; Cornelis briefly held the position of organist at the Oude Kerk as the direct successor of Sweelinck’s father.

Though his teachers are not all known, it can be assumed that if Sweelinck had indeed studied in Haarlem, he would be familiar with Claas Albrechtszoon van Wieringen and Floris van Adrichem, two well-known organists who performed daily in the Bavokerk in Haarlem.

Cornelis Plemp, a friend and student of Sweelinck, stated that Sweelinck was an organist for 44 years, meaning he began working at the age of 15. However, church records from the Oude Kerk are not complete from 1577 to 1580. His position at the church is documented from 1580, at the age of 18.

Sweelinck led a very plain and uneventful life that he regulated very well. He only travelled outside of Amsterdam for his professional activities, which included inspecting new and restored organs, presenting music he wrote for several mayors, and his work as an advisor for the restoration of the organ in the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam. Sweelinck left the country only once, to go to Antwerp, Belgium in 1604, where he bought a harpsichord for the city of Amsterdam; this was his longest journey.

Sweelinck is most remembered for his work as a teacher; he was famous throughout northern Europe. His students were among the founders of the 17th century German organ school, which eventually led to Bach. Some of his most important students include his own son Dirck, Pieter Alewijnszoon de Vois and Claude Bernardt. Some of his later German students include the four organists who held the principal posts at Hamburg: Urich Cernitz, Jacob Praetorius, Johannes Praetorius and Heinrich Scheidemann. He also taught Samuel and Gottfried Scheidt, Melchior Schildt, and Paul Siefert. Sweelinck was named the “Hamurgischen Organistenmacher” for having taught the four organists posted to Hamburg. By others he was named “Master Jan Pieterszoon of Amsterdam.”

Upon the death of his widowed mother in 1586, Sweelinck took it upon himself to care for both his brother and sister. In response to the circumstances, the church doubled his salary. Further salary increases and free rent suggest the church’s contentment with Sweelinck. It has also been rumoured that Sweelinck was also the carillonneur, but this is facetious, as this post can be traced to the organ builder, Artus Gheerdinck. Sweelinck’s job description also did not require him to supply music for ceremonial or social activities of the city magistrate. The limited amount of activities were designed to allow him to work as a teacher. He was only required to provide music twice daily, for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. Neither was he required to play in the church services, as the Calvinists viewed the organ as a worldly instrument, banning it from services.

Sweelinck’s students were the standard to which other organists were compared to, and for that reason some city counsels, at their own expense, sent their most talented organists to study with him.

Though his influence didn’t reach past 1650, Sweelinck is considered the most important composer of the golden era of the Netherlands. His work, though not innovative, sought to define and perfect the forms others created, and through his students, he was able to indirectly reach northern Germany with these styles. Sweelinck also influenced the music of Samuel Scheidt and Anthoni van Noordt directly.

Sweelinck’s compositions consist of 254 vocal works and 70 keyboard works. His vocal works include 33 chansons, 19 madrigals, 29 motets, and 153 psalms; all of these works were published. His keyboard works were, however, not published during his lifetime, though they were distributed quite freely and many manuscripts survive. Most of Sweelinck’s vocal works are written in the French language, and not one of them is written in his native language, Dutch. This can be explained by the fact that none of the sacred texts were written for Dutch church services. The majority of the vocal works are for five voices and his first publication was a set of chansons (1594). His set,Rimes françoises et italiennes (1612), features 12 chansons and 15 madrigals which are both elegant and transparent in style. They also tend to feature artistic writing and long canonic parts. Some of the madrigals from this set were influenced by composers such as Maria Ferrabosco and Andrea Gabrieli.

Sweelinck spent much of his creative life composing the Cinquante pseaumes de David (1604), which is considered “a monument of Dutch music.” The polyphonic text he uses comes from the French Psalter of Marot and Bèze, and not the Dutch Psalter. In total, four books of psalms were written, the last published after his death.

He also composed 27 motets based on the text from the Catholic liturgy, dedicated to Cornelis Plemp. This set, entitledCantiones sacrae (1619), is both musically and religiously different than his sets of psalms.

Except for a few unimportant works for lute, all of Sweelinck’s instrumental music is for keyboard instruments, which features many fantasias and toccatas inspired by his knowledge of English and Venetian keyboard traditions. Sweelinck is most responsible for these styles reaching northern Germany.

In 1621, Sweelinck died in Amsterdam and was buried at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam.