Middle Ages and Renaissance Music in German-speaking territories

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance music in the German-speaking countries focused strongly on international developments. However, a separate vocal and instrumental repertoire emerged gradually. Especially the Reformation had far-reaching consequences for the music in what was to become Germany.

In the Middle Ages and early modern times, Germany was still not a unified state in its current form, but a patchwork of duchies, counties, commercial and Imperial states which were of different sizes and political importance. Where "German music" is mentioned below, it is always in relation to the geographical distribution of cultural centres.

With foreign help – or the search for a proper identity

In the fifteenth century, German music was searching to codify its own musical language, and was strongly oriented towards international repertoire. Various manuscripts are proof of this, such as the Emmeram Codex, the Lochamer song-book, or the seven Trent codices all containing a large number of pieces of Burgundian, Italian and English origin. Furthermore, composers attempted to acquire this "foreign art" by making contrafacta, where the original music is provided with a new text underlay. Conrad Paumann (c. 1410–1473), born in Nuremberg, completed organ tablatures of works by Guillaume Du Fay (1397–1474), and the Tyrolean Knight Oswald von Wolkenstein (c. 1376–1445) provided French and Italian vocal music with a German text.

For example, Die minne fueget niemand (preview www.amazon.de) is a contrafactum of the chanson Talent m'est pris. Internationally circulating repertoire could finally be adapted because foreign composers were hired by German courts and chapels. Johannes de Sarto (c. 1430–1440) and Johannes Brassart (approx. 1400/1405–1455) were both employed by Emperor Albrecht II (on whose death in 1439 the funeral motet Romanorum rex was composed by de Sarto) and Friedrich III. This heralded the beginning of a real "invasion" by Franco-Flemish composers, which lasted until the end of the 16th century and decisively determined musical life in German-speaking countries.

The Development of a "German School"

At the same time there gradually developed a genuine German vocal and instrumental repertoire, one which was used especially in secular courts, universities and cities. The singer, composer and theorist Adam of Fulda (c. 1445–1505) worked for example at the Court of Frederick the Wise of Saxony and at the University of Wittenberg, which was founded in 1502. Heinrich Finck (1444/1445–1527) was employed – after previous travels in Poland and Lithuania – by Duke Ulrich of Württemberg in Stuttgart. Paul Hofhaimer (1459–1537) held, among other positions, a post at the Court of Emperor Maximilian I, who conferred on him in 1515 the status of a Knight. Hofhaimer was musically so influential that his students were referred to as "Paulomines".
Ach Elslein (preview www.amazon.de)

These composers contributed crucially to the development of the German song. The lyrics were based on folk poetry on the one hand and (to a lesser extent) on courtly poetry on the other hand. A pre-existing, monophonic melody (whose origins go back to the tradition of Minnesang) was quoted in the tenor, and new parts were composed in order to produce full harmonies and a polyphonic texture. These so-called tenor songs were to culminate in the works of the Flanders-born Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450/1455–1517) and his student, the Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl (c. 1490–1543). A well-known work is Senfl's Ach Elslein, which has been transmitted in numerous publications and manuscripts, as well as in instrumental arrangements.

In the field of instrumental music, Germany played the role of an internationally recognized leader in the second half of the 15th century and during the first decades of the 16th century. The virtuosity of the musicians not only affected instrument-making, but also resulted in a wealth of music theory treatises on various technical aspects of instrumental playing. Whether it was Conrad Paumann in his Fundamentum organisandi or Arnolt Schlick (c. 1460–after 1521) with his Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten (Speyer, 1511), new standards were set for the organ. And Hans Judenkünig (1445/1450–1526), with his publication Ain schone kunstliche Underweisung in disem Büechlein, leychtlich zu begreyffen den rechten Grund zu lernen auff der Lautten und Geygen (Vienna, 1523), provided us with an important guide for playing the lute.

The Reformation from a musical perspective

The Reformation, instigated mainly by Martin Luther, had far-reaching consequences for music. While the reformers Zwingli and Calvin allotted music no meaningful role (it was either completely banned or limited for use in but a small group), it was Luther's idea that believers should participate actively in the service, that lead to a large Chorale repertoire with German texts. Some of the Chorale melodies were newly composed by Luther or others in his immediate musical environment (e. g. Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott), but most are based on secular songs on the one hand and Gregorian melodies on the other. For example, Christ lag in Todes Banden is related both melodically as well as in terms of content to the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes.

This originally monophonic repertoire was quickly discovered and incorporated into polyphonic structures. In Johann Walter's Geystliches Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524) there may be found some early traces of this. In the following decades it developed into different styles. In addition to homophonic settings in which the chorale melody is quoted in the upper voice (as in Lucas Osiander's Fünffzig geistliche Lieder und Psalmen [Nuremberg, 1586]), there are also many contrapuntal pieces that have been artfully drafted.

The distinction between Protestant and Catholic repertoire is often unclear. Thus, Protestant composers set Latin texts, and vice versa, Catholic composers draw easily on German Chorale melodies to produce new works. The coexistence of both strands is present, for example, in the œuvre of Hans Leo Hassler (1564–1612). He was Protestant, but in the service of the Catholic Octavianus Fugger in Augsburg. In Hassler's works Protestant and Catholic forms easily exist side by side, and at the same time indicate the commercial needs of composers wishing to write for different "markets" and remain suitable for various occasions.

Music Publication in Germany

Music printing contributed not least to the distribution of music. Soon after Ottaviano Petrucci 1501 initiated the advance of polyphonic music printing in Venice with his collection Odhecaton, many printers followed his example North of the Alps. Thus, Erhard Oeglin (in Augsburg) worked among others on behalf of Emperor Maximilian I, and was the editor of the repertoire of Maximilian's Court Chapel (including works by composers such as Isaac, Senfl and Hofhaimer). The publishing industry was to experience a heyday in trading cities such as Nuremberg (with Johann Petreius, Johann vom Berg and Ulrich Neuber, and Hieronymus Formschneider) and Munich (with Adam Berg).

Many German songs were published – one important project was Georg Forster's five volume Frische teutsche Liedlein (Nuremberg, 1539–1556), but there were also "foreign" genres (such as the French chanson, the Italian madrigal, and the lighter villanella) as well as religious music (masses, motets, hymns), dances and instrumental music. This linguistic and stylistic diversity reflects not only the international orientation of German composers, but also the taste of the audience. In addition, merchants importing these foreign genres must be held responsible. Music patrons and collectors like the Fugger family, who entertained important trade contacts in Venice, brought numerous madrigal and villanella publications to Germany from their extensive travels. Both these genres exerted a clear influence on the German song.

The late 16th century: stylistic plurality

The above-mentioned presence of Franco-Flemish composers would last until the end of the 16th century. While Philippe de Monte (1521–1603) worked at the court of Emperor Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II in Vienna and Prague, it was the court chapel in Munich under Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594) that gained an international reputation. Lasso's extensive output includes all the genres available at the time; occasionally, he wrote some experimental music: the cycle of Prophetiae Sibyllarum was only allowed to be printed  after Lasso's death, as it was previously regarded as exclusive possession of Duke Albrecht V and as an example of musica reservata. It made use of a very unusual musical language, evidenced by some surprising harmonic turns.
Section of Prophetiae Sibyllarum (preview www.amazon.de)

The interaction between German and foreign composers also came about through travel. And thus it was that important English composers such as John Dowland (1563–1626) and Thomas Simpson (1582–1628) were present at German courts, with their German counterparts often moving abroad for their training. Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) spent his formative years with Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557–1612) in Venice at the beginning of the 17th century, and it was to give significant impetus to not only his own music, but also – in general terms – left deep traces in German music.