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Hans Leo Hassler was responsible for bringing Italian innovation to Germany during the somewhat dry spell that preceded Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). If it hadn’t been for his lieder and his interest in polychoral music, there would have been no B minor Mass. Does that seem too strong? Read on!

Like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and others of the 17th century, Hassler wrote biblical motets of a rather large scale, which was a definite nod to the Venetian fashion. So much so, in fact, that one source said that Hassler out-Italianed the Italians. Not only that, but Hassler was considered the last great Lied composer of his century, a sound that remains distinctly German to this day.

Hassler was born in Nürnberg. His father was famous organist Isaak Hassler (c1530-1591), and he had two brothers who were also composers, Jakob (1569-1622) and Kaspar (1562-1618). Isaak taught all three of his sons to play the organ, and all would go on to make names for themselves. The three siblings were ennobled by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) as a result of their awesomeness.

He worked for a time at the church or St. Moritz in Nürnberg and in 1600, became head of the town band. (In those days, important towns had their own bands that performed for state events as well as in the public squares and parks on the weekends.)

Hassler was the first German to study in Italy, and his style is tinged strongly by the Venetian element.

Hassler had heard the polychoral music that was popular in Venice through Leonhard Lechner (c1553-1606), who was an associate of Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594, biography to come) in Munich. These songs in multiple choirs intrigued him, and he visited Venice in 1585. While he was there, he studied with Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1586). Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554-1612), Andrea’s nephew, became Hassler’s friend and colleague.

After Andrea Gabrieli died in 1586, Hassler returned to Germany and was appointed court organist to Octavian II Fugger, of the great Augsburg banking family. Hassler’s fame spread rapidly and in 1602, he returned to Nürnberg as chief Kapellmeister of the town and with the reputation of a composer “whose like has not been found among the Germans up to this time.” In that same year, he was given the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in Prague, so he must have visited there periodically, although records are vague.

He was a Protestant, but he directed the Catholic music services in Augsburg and wrote a number of Masses for them. Some the texts of his Latin motets are of a Catholic nature, some are more Protestant in tone, and many were usable by both faiths.

His secular music was set to German words, and his sacred music is mostly Latin motets and Masses. At the time, Latin motets, particularly those by Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594) and Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl, 1550-1591), were used in the Lutheran church. It was these works that paved the way to his connection with the Protestant court of Dresden, when he began writing Lutheran hymns. By 1608, he’d become chamber organist and music librarian to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden.

Hassler was a teacher to Melchior Franck (c1580-1639, Protestant composer), and when it was time to move on, he was succeeded as organist at Augsburg by Christian Erbach (c1570-1635, organist and composer). Hassler was a composer, organist, and a consultant to organ builders. In 1596, with 53 other organists, he examined a new instrument with 59 stops at the Schlosskirche, in Groningen. He used his fame as an organ-construction expert to develop a clockwork organ that was later sold to Emperor Rudlolf II (1552-1612).

In 1600, with his old friend Giovanni Gabrieli, Hassler composed a wedding motet for Georg Gruber, a Nürnberg merchant living in Venice. Hassler was the chief town musician for Nürnberg from 1601-1608, and achieved the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in 1602. While there, he was appointed to Emperor Rudolf II’s court.

In 1604, Hassler took a leave of absence and went to Ulm, where he married Cordula Claus. I didn’t find any family information about her nor did I find her dates. He seems to have been a businessman with many interests in addition to his music, and perhaps he met Cordula through his business dealings.

Hassler composed sacred music, including Masses, motets, psalms, and Lutheran chorales, and he composed secular music, including madrigals, canzonettes, instrumental dances, and keyboard ricercars. He was most famous for his German Lieder, which were often in the Italian style, and about which there will be more in a minute.


 

Composer Biography: Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

Hassler’s work is distinctive in that he borrowed from every conceivable source. He set two Italian texts into Italian-style motets, and he borrowed from such notable predecessors as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594). He let the qualities of the languages of the texts he chose influence and affect his melodies—German is weightier than lithe and limber Italian. (For more on this, consider reading The Sound of a Culture.)

His early works show the influence of Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and his later ones reveal the deep impression made upon him by his studies in Italy. Like Michael Praetorius, he was a prolific composer of Latin and German sacred music, as well as secular and instrumental music. He was no innovator, but he coordinated and developed current styles and earned a lofty reputation for his practical approach and craftsmanship.

As the first German to go to Italy, it was his influence that made Italian music much more popular than German music in Germany, and started a trend for German musicians to finish their education in Italy. Italian musicians like Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594), had been working in Germany for years, but represented an older style of music, the refined Renaissance style of Italian polyphony. By Hassler’s time, new trends were emerging in Italy that would ultimately define the Baroque era. Hassler, and later Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), brought the concertato style, the polychoral idea, and the freely emotional expression of the Venetians to the German culture, representing the first non-German Baroque development of any importance.

Hassler’s secular music, including madrigals, canzonette, and songs for voices, ricercars, canzonas, introits, and toccatas for instruments show the character of the Gabrielis, but with more restraint.

In the Masses and motets of his maturity, his natural propensity for writing light, almost poplar, melodies (like the Lieder) and for very careful workmanship is coupled with a grace and fluidity derived from the madrigalian dance songs and a fondness for polychoral structures. The result is a sacred style that makes up in charm and sonority for what it lacks in profundity. Hassler incorporated polychoral techniques, textural contrast, and occasional chromaticism in his works.

Polychoral writing appeared in Italy as early as 1544—by the end of the century, writing for double and even triple choirs was common in Italy, and unlike his earlier pieces, Hassler’s later works attempt to capture the splendor and richness of the Venetian style. The Protestant composers who wrote in this German-Venetian style include Hassler, and Johannes Eccard (1563-1611), Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), Georgius Otto (c1550-1618), Andreas Raselus (c1563-1602), Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559-1625), and Philippus Dulichius (1562-1631). Giovanni Gabrieli was a real trend setter in this arena, and of course, no one topped Englishman Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

In his Italian secular music, Hassler shows his thorough familiarity with the up-to-date style of Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Luca Marenzio (c1553-1599). The specifically Venetian influence is felt most in Hassler’s double-choir madrigals and Lieder.

His “simpliciter” works are in four parts with the melody in the highest voice, but his “fugue-wise” pieces treat the successive phrases of the hymn in the motet style that would be followed throughout the 17th century and beyond. Hassler would be surpassed in both variety and probably in artistic achievement by Michael Praetorius, but Praetorius wouldn’t have done it—nor would Bach—without Hassler’s influence.

Hassler’s Lieder, however, were a different story, and not as derivative. In them, he incorporates the Italian madrigal elements, but for the most part, he put the melody in the top voice—not polyphony, but distinctly chordal music. (For more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony.) His melodies are distinctive and easily memorized. One love song that was popular was “Mein gmüth ist mir verwirret,” which he later adapted to the Passion chorale “O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden.”

His compositions were first published in 1590: a set of 24 four-part canzonette. His 1596 “New German  Songs in the Manner of Madrigals” includes music in four to eight voices, all of it too chordal to be truly madrigalian and using his own texts. His collection of choral and instrumental works of 1601, “A Pleasure Garden of New German Songs, Ballets, Galliards, and Intradas” is also strongly chordal. This latter collection is thought to be his best work and contains 39 vocal and 11 instrumental pieces.

Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) borrowed one of Hassler’s pieces. It was his five-part Mein gmüth is mire verwirret (My Mind is Confounded), which has a religious text only in the superius (highest) voice. Bach used it in his St. Matthew’s Passion.

Hassler’s style of writing the melody in the highest voice profoundly influenced his younger German colleagues. The affect is clearly evident in the Lieder of such men as Melchior Franck (c1579-1539), Valentin Haussmann (c1560-1613), Christoph Demantiums (1567-1643), Johann Staden (1581-1634), and Hermann Schein (1586-1630). The last two belong to the Baroque period more than to the Renaissance, partially because of this Lieder influence.

Despite his Protestantism, Hassler wrote many Catholic Masses and directed the music for Catholic services in Augsburg. Hassler dedicated both his Cantiones sacrae and a book of Masses for four to eight voices to Octavio Fugger, his long-time Catholic patron. Due to the constancy of Catholic patrons and his own Protestant beliefs, Hassler’s compositions represent a blend of both religions’ musical styles and could often work in either church.

Hassler only wrote two pieces specifically meant for Lutheran services while in Augsburg, the Psalmen simpliciter, written in 1608, which was dedicated to the city of Augsburg. Psalmen und christliche Gesange was written in 1607 and dedicated to Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611).

Hassler is considered, like Bach and Praetorius, to be one of the most important German composers. His works sounded fresh and unaffected, combining vocal and instrumental literature without continuo (an improvised bass line), or with continuo as an option. His sacred music introduced the Italian polychoral structures that would later influence many German composers, including Bach.

In 1608, Hassler moved to Dresden to be the chamber organist to the Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611) and eventually became Kapellmeister there too. By this time, he had already contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1612. After he died, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) were appointed to fill his spot as organist in Dresden.

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & CO., New York, 1994.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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