Sweelinck: recital programme notes

Mayfair Organ Concerts
The Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair

Tuesday 21 August 2021

Andrew Benson-Wilson
plays music by
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
d. 16 October 1621

Toccata Noni Toni SwWV 297
Fantasia Chromatica SwWV 258
Puer Nobis nascitur SwWV 315
Fantasia [à 4: Echo] SwWV 261
Bull: Fantasia op de Fuga van M:Jan Pietersn
Ricercar del Noni Toni SwWV 280

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was known as the Orpheus of Amsterdam. He was organist of the Oude Kerk from the age of about 15. Famed throughout Europe as an organist, composer, and teacher, he attracted many students. A number of them returned to Hamburg to found the 17th-century North German organ school that culminated in Buxtehude and Bach. In Calvinist Amsterdam the organ wasn’t used during church services, but Sweelinck played variations on Geneva psalm tunes before and after services to help the congregation learn the melodies. He was also employed by the City authorities to give regular public organ recitals.

The Toccata Noni Toni is an example of the early Italian Toccata style, where it originated as improvisatory keyboard doodling to help the other musician tune their instruments or to set a pitch for singers. It is one of four Sweelinck pieces included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, with the title Praeludium Toccata

The Fantasia Chromatica is a polyphonic tour de force, opening with a highly experimental example of triple invertible counterpoint. It is based on a descending chromatic theme that appears throughout the work in different note lengths, accompanied by nearly 20 countersubjects. There are several significant musical moments occurring at key proportional intervals, including the Golden Section.

The variations on Puer Nobis nascitur are based on a medieval Christmas carol, first published in the 1582 Piae Cantiones. It was known in Amsterdam as Ons is ghebooren een kindekijn.

The Echo Fantasia is one of a number of similar pieces by Sweelinck. It would have made use of the Oberwerk and Rückpositiv manuals of the Oude Kerk organ, both of which had a different compass and alignment to the Hauptwerk manual.

The Fantasia op de Fuga van M:Jan Pietersn was written on by John Bull two months after Sweelinck’s death. Bull was organist of Hereford cathedral and the Chapel Royal and the first Gresham Professor of Music. His colourful personal life led to his settling in Flanders in 1613, becoming organist of Antwerp Cathedral.

The Ricercar del Noni Toni is one the most powerful and polyphonically complex of all Sweelinck’s keyboard works. The rather stark six-note theme appears throughout in a variety of inventive musical formulations and numerous countersubjects.

© Andrew Benson-Wilson 2021

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 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 Klosterneuburg 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”. Other concerts include return visits to the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

Andrew’s 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 reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew now reviews on his own website: andrewbensonwilson.org. Details of UK recitals can be found on organrecitals.com.