German Renaissance Organ Music c1460-1577. Programme notes

The Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford.  25 November 2015
German Renaissance Organ Music  c1460-1577

Andrew Benson-Wilson

Conrad Paumann (c1410-1473) Gloria de Sancta Maria Vergine
Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537)      Salve Regina  5v.
Hans Buchner (1483-1538)         Gloria patri in la quarto toni
Hans Kotter (c1485-1541)           Kochersperger Spanieler
Arnolt Schlick (c1460-c1521)    Da pacem
Bernhard Schmid I (1535-92)    Ein gutter Wein ist lobenswerdt    –    Sicut mater consolatur

Queen's photo.jpgThe start of the Renaissance is difficult to define. In organ music, around 1450 seems a reasonable date, with music from the likes of the Buxheimer Orgelbüch and the Faenza Codex combining elements of Medieval and Renaissance styles. By this stage, the organ had a fully chromatic keyboard, sometimes more than one manual, and independent stops were beginning to be separated out from the Medieval ‘Blockwerk’ – the equivalent of single mixture where one note plays a chorus of ten or more notes.

The first piece demonstrates this transitional phase. It comes from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, an enormous volume of music written between 1450/70 by around eight different scribes. It is likely that the organist and theorist Conrad Paumann (c1410-1473) was the driving force behind the collection although, as he was blind, he was not one of the copyists. He was born in Nuremburg, but built his career as Court Organist in Munich. Many of the Buxheimer Orgelbüch pieces are transcriptions of vocal works, but Paumann’s Gloria de Sancta Maria Vergine is obviously a new composed organ piece, intended for liturgical ‘alternatim’ performance. This has the choir singing alternate chant verses while the organ plays verses, based on the chant, in between the choir verses. There are eight verses for the organ, the first and last being substantial pieces, suggesting a ceremonial performance. The chant is usually heard in the bass or tenor, below a florid treble line.

A couple of generations after Paumann, the famous organist and teacher Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), was organist to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors in Innsbruck, Passau and Augsburg. He was ennobled by Emperor Maximillian I and referred to as the “First Organist to the Emperor”. He later became organist in Salzburg Cathedral. He taught an influential generation of organists who became collectively referred to as ‘Paulomites’. His Salve Regina is also in ‘alternatim’ form, with five verses. By this time (c1500) organs had more than one manual, a fully developed pedal division, and a wide range of often colourful stops. Hofhaimer makes full use of these resources in this piece.

Before music by Arnolt Schlick, a contemporary of Hofhaimer, we hear two pieces by Hofhaimer pupils. Buchner (or Hans von Constanz, 1483-1538) became organist of Constanz Cathedral. Like Paumann, he published a Fundament or treatise on organ composition and performance, which included an enormous collection of organ music. This powerful Gloria patri in la quarto toni is a short but monumental piece written in five-parts with double pedal, and clearly intended for an important occasion.

Hans Kotter (c1485-1541) was also a pupil of Hofhaimer. He held posts in Saxony and Switzerland, where he was detained and tortured because of his Protestant faith. He spent the last years of his life as a schoolteacher. He collected organ pieces by several composers and composed several short Praeludia. His curiously bouncy Kochersperger Spanieler is an almost Medieval take on a Spanish song. It is found in the large collection of music made by the Swiss humanist Bonifacius Amerbach between 1513-1532.

Arnolt Schlick (c1460-c1521) was a contemporary of Hofhaimer and met him several times, for example at the coronations of the Emperor Maximilian I in Frankfurt in 1486 and Charles V in Aachen in 1520.  He was, like Paumann, blind. He was born in Heidelberg, the son of a butcher and became Court Organist for the Elector Palatine. His detailed treatise on organ building, Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten, was published in 1511. It described his ‘ideal’ organ, with two manuals and 18 stops, and suggestions that contrasting and distinctive sounds should be used. The following year he published a collection of music, the Tabulaturen etlicher lobgesang und lidlein uff die orgeln un lauten, which includes these three verses based on Da pacem It is not clear if this was intended for liturgical alternatim performance, or as an independent variation set. The chant theme appears in the treble, tenor and bass respectively in the three verses. Schlick’s writing is harmonically curious, including at one point a very unusual A flat chord, a serious discord in the organ tuning of the day but one that Schlick specifically mentions in his writings.

We finish with an example of German organ composition from the middle of the 16th century with two pieces by Bernhard Schmid the elder (1535-92). They are in the form of intabulations, based on vocal pieces (in this case both by Lassus) but with a plethora of added keyboard figurations. This style is generally referred to as ‘Colorist’ and is often derided as a debased form of composition. However, it was very influential both at the time, and with later composers, notably Scheidemann who wrote several such pieces for performance in Hamburg churches when the choir wasn’t present. Ein gutter Wein ist lobenswerdt is a drinking song (‘A good wine is praiseworthy’) and was perhaps intended to be played in a secular rather than sacred setting, possibly on one of the small chamber organs that were becoming popular. These usually contained a Regal or other distinctively voiced reed stop. Sicut mater consolatur is based on a sacred motet by Lassus. Bernhard Schmid the elder (the son of an even elder Bernhard, and the father of another composer, Bernhard the younger) was born and worked in Strasbourg as organist at the cathedral and Thomaskirche. In 1577 he published the Zwey Bücher einer Neuen Kunstlichen Tabulatur auff Orgel und Instrument, containing many such intabulations.                                                                                  © Andrew Benson-Wilson 2015

Andrew Benson-Wilson specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from 14th century manuscripts to the late Classical period.  His playing is informed by experience of historic organs, understanding of period performance techniques and several internationally renowned teachers.  The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works (with Chapelle du Roi) was Gramophone Magazine ‘Record of the Month’.  The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk.  He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.

Andrew’s concerts have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel organ in Klosterneburg Abbey in Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia – via St John’s, Smith Square.  According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital was ” one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”.  More recent concerts include the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche. He is giving another recital of Renaissance organ music for a special 400th anniversary concert in the Christ’s Chapel of God’s Gift in Dulwich on 10 July 2016, with music composed in the years around 1616, a period of enormous invention on the cusp of the late Renaissance and early Baroque.

Andrew is a regular writer on early music and organ topics.  His little book, “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities.  After 20 years as the principal concert and organ CD reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew has now set up his own review website   Future UK recitals can be found at

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