Now is the perfect time to discover the renaissance master Heinrich Isaac

Peter PhillipsThu 23rd March 2017

Peter Phillips, the founder and director of The Tallis Scholars, on why the 500th anniversary of the death of Heinrich Isaac should not pass unnoticed

Heinrich Isaac died in Florence on March 26, 1517.

We know what happened to the reputations of renaissance composers: they bombed from the moment the composer died, were occasionally mentioned in treatises over the following centuries, until finally groups like mine took their music up and established a following for them on the contemporary concert-giving scene. There have been just a few exceptions: those who wrote for the Anglican church have been sung almost without break in religious services; Palestrina was put on a pedestal; and Josquin’s good name survived for more decades than most after his death, until he too vanished from sight.

The one deviation to this parade of death and resurrection is Heinrich Isaac. Having established a standing in his lifetime, after he died he continued uniquely to flourish. This was made possible by the fact that his music came to be worshipped by German musicians as the source of their national musical culture. This devotion has had its ups and downs historically – Hitler was not slow to tap into it – but the essence was that Isaac’s music had so dominated the musical life of the Hapsburg court in Vienna from 1497 until his death exactly 500 years ago, that the tradition there always acknowledged his influence. It is perhaps no accident that the peak of his posthumous fame was achieved in the Vienna of the 1890’s which resulted, for example, in a critical edition of one of his publications by Anton von Webern, prefaced by a remarkable essay on Isaac’s counterpoint. An irony here is that while the Nazis lauded Isaac, they suppressed Webern.

But long before the Romantics got hold of him Isaac had been prized – by Protestants as well as Catholics and not least by JS Bach. One source of the fascination was his simple but supremely beautiful valedictory song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen which, with the text modified as O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, had been naturalised as a Lutheran chorale and set by Bach.

And then, just as Josquin was coming up, and Palestrina was beginning to be loved rather than merely respected, Isaac began to slip away. This is perverse in a number of ways. The decline cannot be seen as a reaction to his previous fame, which few remember outside Germany and Austria. Furthermore the music which has recently been put on the concert map by him has been shown to be of the highest quality. I suppose that in today's rediscovery of renaissance music - still in a relatively early stage - there is only so much appetite for new marvels, and for the moment Josquin is sweeping the board. One might remember, however, what an agent for Ercole, Duke of Ferrara, wrote when the latter was wondering who to appoint as maestro di cappella:

‘To me [Isaac] seems well suited to serve Your Lordship, more so than Josquin, because he is more good-natured and companionable, and will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120.’

To me Isaac’s music represents a necessary counter-balance to Josquin’s method. Josquin liked intimate textures whereas Isaac flourished in big gestures, wide and splendid sonorities, and dashes of colour above and around sustained chant melodies. He was often asked to write motets which celebrated the important political summits of the day: Optime pastor was composed to mark the meeting of Maximilian I's Chancellor, Cardinal Lang, with the newly elected Pope Leo X in December 1513; Virgo prudentissima was probably composed in about 1507, when Maximilian I was laying plans for his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Isaac is reckoned to have been one of the most all-round talented musicians who have ever lived, the kind of composer who could do anything with any material, complicated or simple; but for me he was at his most telling in these astonishingly imposing ceremonial pieces. I suspect modern politicians would pay a lot to be serenaded by an Isaac. Perhaps they will encourage their publics to mark this very round-number anniversary; and so bring one of the greatest composers of any period back into the light.

Suggested recording

Heinrich Isaac Missa de Apostolis and Motets

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips

(Gimmell, CDGIM 023)

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips is founder and Director of The Tallis Scholars

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