About this work
Though in our own time he is known as a composer of keyboard music, seventeenth century Europeans saw Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck pre-eminently as a teacher. He taught nearly all of the organists who would eventually be known as the North German Organ School, the lineage of which eventually would lead to Bach. His pupils from Hamburg were so prominent that Sweelinck -- who never went to Hamburg -- was called the "hamburgischen Organistenmacher" (maker of Hamburg organists) despite the fact that he never entered the the Hanseatic city. Among those who flocked from Germany to Amsterdam to learn music from Sweelinck were Andreas Düben (in 1606-1609), Samuel Scheidt (around 1608-1609), and Peter Hasse (1614-1620). One remarkable set of chorale variations for organ survives with contributions by all four composers! Whether or not the three pupils met, it seems reasonable to assume that the men's variations either reflect his tuition, or even a friendly competition. In any regard, the lengthy set of variations offers a priceless opportunity to experience the differences in the four similar musicians' style, and their skill.
Sweelinck only contributed four variations to the set, but they clearly demonstrate the mastery that the other three men sought to learn from him. He presents the very first "variation," traditionally a simple chorale setting of the secular (or liturgical, as in this Lutheran chorale) melody. Sweelinck is not content, however, with the simple position of honor, but takes the opportunity to insert some clever harmonic surprises into even the basic chorale. His second variation is a two-voiced invention on the chorale melody, in which he not only retains these harmonic surprises, but also inserts (unlike the two-voiced variation later by Düben) a high level of textural interest. Sweelinck's third variation hides the chorale cantus firmus in the middle of an even more varied series of musical textures, while still retaining his relative harmonic freedom. Hasse offers a three-voiced tenor chorale with much less variety and less technical challenge, though Samuel Scheidt's tenor verse -- the last variation of the entire set -- almost surpasses Sweelinck in complexity. Sweelinck chooses to conclude his contribution with a four-voiced motet-style variation in which, however, the chorale melody migrates from voice to voice. He does not bother to write variations with the melody simply in the melody (as all three of his pupils do), nor with the melody in the bass (an even simpler procedure). He leads off the variations and challenges his students to maintain pace.