Ludwig Senfl is one of those composers that you really should have in your playlist. He was a Swiss-German composer who spent most of his composing years in Germany, and was instrumental in bringing the Franco-Flemish sensibility to Germany that had already taken France and Italy by storm.
A collection published in 1544 by Georg Rhau (1488-1548) included 11 of Senfl’s pieces that reflect the transition to Protestant sacred music after the great debate between Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Maier von Eck (1486-1583, a German Catholic defender and philosopher) in 1519.
Although he was a Catholic all of his life, Senfl sympathized with the Protestant argument and borrowed from Protestant musical sensibilities. His works were representative of the Protestant Reform movement in music, even though most of his work was for fellow Catholics.
Senfl was born in Basel, Switzerland and moved to Zurich when he was barely a toddler. I didn’t find anything about his parents or siblings, or why they made the move. He lived in Zurich from 1488 until 1496, when he joined the Hofkapelle of Maximilian I in Augsburg, Germany. Except for a brief visit in 1504, he doesn’t seem to have gone back to Switzerland. If you’re doing the math, that’s a pretty young age to leave home forever. I also didn’t find out if he ever married, but he was a priest for a while, so perhaps he was disinclined to take a wife.
Little Ludwig left home to become a choirboy in Maximilian I’s (1459-1519) court. He was promoted to be a singer in the Imperial Chapel in 1507 and succeeded Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) as imperial chamber composer ten years later. The chapel was dissolved when Maximilian died in 1519.
Senfl, by then a grown man of considerable accomplishment, found work temporarily in Passau (in southern Bavaria), and in 1523, became “first musician” of the Munich court. Although staunchly Catholic, he admired Martin Luther (1483-1546) and sympathized with the Reformation efforts. He maintained a lively correspondence with Protestant Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) for many years, and it’s through these letters that we have most of the information about Senfl’s personal life.
Senfl traveled with Maximilian to Vienna in 1497, and again between 1500 and 1504, when he studied at a special school for boys whose voices had changed. This was also part of his training to be a priest.
While he was in Vienna on the second trip, he was lucky enough to study with Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), serving as Isaac’s copyist from 1509. He copied much of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus (which is a collection of 375 Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motets) and completed it after Isaac’s death in 1513. That’s when Senfl became the official court composer.
In 1518, Senfl lost a toe in a hunting accident, which put him out of commission for nearly a year. When Maximilian died in 1519, Senfl (along with all the other court musicians) was unemployed. Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, refused to pay Senfl the stipend he was promised upon Maximilian’s death, and Senfl fell on hard times. He traveled extensively looking for work, continuing to write music in his spare time.
Although he never became a Protestant, Senfl attended the Diet of Worms (about the Protestant revolution) in 1521, and was sympathetic to Luther. His intelligent receptivity to new ideas got him examined by the Inquisition and as a result, he voluntarily gave up his priesthood. He maintained correspondence with both staunch Lutheran Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) and with Martin Luther (1483-1546), starting in 1530. Luther, by the way, liked Senfl’s work. He also liked Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521), Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518) and Heinrich Finck (c1444-1527).
In 1523, he finally found regular work again at the Bavarian court chapel in Munich for Duke Wilhelm (1493-1550). This was a place with high musical standards, and a place that was tolerant of Protestants and their sympathizers. Senfl would stay there the rest of his life.
Within his lifetime, he won the praise of musicians throughout German-speaking Europe, and examples of his work appeared in numerous treatises. Those German-speaking areas that stayed Catholic produced few composers during the 16th century, and those few didn’t contribute new elements or innovations to the music of the Catholic Church.
Senfl is the most significant representative of the Netherlands/German style of motet and Lied composition in German-speaking regions during the Reformation. His work was eclectic in content and purpose, both in its secular and sacred forms. His melodies were enduring and maintained their popularity in Germany more than a century after his death.
He modeled much of his work on the Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation, particularly Josquin. He used many already archaic features, such as cantus firmus (the practice of having the chant on which the polyphony is based sung slowly in one voice while the other voices wind around it) and isorhythms (repeating rhythmic patterns).
He wrote seven complete Masses, eight Magnificats, numerous Latin motets, German Lieder, four-voice Latin odes, and a few instrumental pieces. These form both the climax of the old German music and a highpoint of the new style at the beginning of the Reformation, which led to the virtuosity that would be Bach. Most of Senfl’s sacred texts were written for his Protestant patron and friend Duke Albrecht.
His German Lieder were secular songs, and he had a talent for writing highly singable melodic passages in parallel imperfect intervals (thirds and sixths), which was a kind of homage to the old-style of organum (these were usually parallel fourths, which is considered a “perfect” interval). The character of these songs varies widely, from simple settings of cantus firmus to contrapuntal powerhouses (where the voices move in opposite directions from each other—one up the scale and another down it, for instance), such as canons (like rounds) and quodlibets (cheerful popular tunes). His texts included courtly love songs, folksongs, comic ditties, and satire, and many of them became the basis for the Tenorlied (using a Lied melody as a sort of cantus firmus) that was popular in the early 16th century.
Senfl’s taste in technique and subject didn’t lead to a lot of innovation, but he did experiment. For instance, he wrote one piece where he disregarded polyphony and melody altogether and made the singers produce onomatopoeic bell sounds.
Senfl’s reputation stems mainly from the 250 German secular songs that he wrote. They illustrate every imaginable approach to the traditional German song melodies, from simple chordal harmonization to masterly canonic pieces with sharply contrasted counterpoint in the non-canonic parts. His Latin odes, with the tune in the descant (highest voice) set in a simple homophonic manner (like a chant), represent the style that later became common to German Protestant settings.
The quodlibet was Senfl’s specialty. In these, two or three different song tunes were combined in a dazzling contrapuntal display and despite the potential for chaos, remained distinct and recognizable.
Although his Lieder technique owes much to the German polyphonic tradition established by Finck and Isaac in the previous century, Senfl shows a greater range of emotions than his predecessors. Many of hos Lieder use a cantus firmus form of construction and close or free imitation in the other voices, meaning that the melody was repeated in an inexact but recognizable fashion.
Having studied with Isaac and the Spaniard Cristobal Morales (c1500-1553, biography to come), Senfl’s work reflected the “internationalization” of the Flemish style. His use of imitation is often freer than Jacob Clemens non Papa’s (c1510-1556)—as long as the general shape of the motif was perceptible, he allowed himself to vary the intervals considerably and to distort the rhythm.
Of particular note is Senfl’s Missa dominicalis super l’Homme arme, in which the chanson tune in one voice is combined with plainsong in another. This combination is even more remarkable because it appears throughout the Mass, not solely in one isolated movement. Composers such as Josquin, Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505), and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518), restricted the use of a double cantus firmus in a Mass like that to a single movement, most often the Credo.
In some passages to the L’Homme Mass, Senfl uses the borrowed melody freely, making interpolations and other digressions. The popular tune is in the tenor (except in the Benedictus, where it doesn’t appear at all), and the chant in the discantus (the high voice), except in the Agnus dei, where the two cantus forms exchange positions. The other two voices sometimes imitate phrases from one cantus or the other.
His motets show great skill with counterpoint and variation that’s supplemented by the warm lyricism of his own melodies. One particularly fine example is his Ave rosa sine spinis, which is based on the tenor of Comme femme, which is an interpretation of Josquin’s Stabat Mater.
Ludwig Senfl died in Munich after three years of illness, according to correspondence with Duke Albrecht. It isn’t known what he died of or the exact date, and no one knows where he was buried.
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