The German part songs of Ludwig Senfl
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The German part song had a long development before it reached it most productive period in the first half of the 16th century. By 1450 it had crystallized into its definitive form and style. It was not until the turn of the century, however, that the great stimuli of the Franco-Flemish style, the rise of music printing, and the vernacular liturgy of Lutheranism, and the new respect for the German language conspired to produce a truly great art form in the German part song. Ludwig Senfl was opportunely born c. 1486 into this milieu. A pupil of the great Netherlander Heinrich Isaac, he was the most prolific part song composer of the century - a century, incidentally, of prolific men. He enjoyed the patronage of several of the most important men of Germany, including the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I, Wilhelm of Bavaria, and Albrecht of Prussia. Luther, Hofhaimer, and Simon Minervius were great friends and admirers of Senfl. He died in c. 1543 in Munich. His posthumous popularity is attested to by many publications of his part songs and the number of tablature arrangements they went through. Theoreticians also admired his work, for his music was still being quoted as a model for students at the end of the century. Among the secular part songs there are two "poles" of style between which all the polyphonic songs lie. One we have chosen to call the "accompanied style," in which the texture is completely contrapuntal, though non-imitative. The other is the "motest style" in which each of the accompanying voices anticipates each phrase of the cantus before it appears in the cantus voice (usually tenor). For a variety of reasons, the vast majority of the polyphonic songs fall between these two extremes. One reason is that the alto voice had retained much of its old contratenor, "filler" character and thus took little part in the imitation; conversely, the soprano often formed a very close relationship with the tenor, almost always using some imitation or parody. These two traits tended to draw the extremes of style in toward the center. Another technique, midway between the two poles, is for one voice to parody the cantus, either whole or in part, which the other voices are much freer. Similar to this is the use of the complete cantus in more than one voice, sometimes even in strict canon between the two cantus voices. Even farther in this direction is Senfl's very frequent use of a combination of two or three different cantus firmi in the same piece. This is very common for Senfl, but a genuine rarity among other composers of the century. Diametrically opposed to these several types of polyphonic songs are the homophonic settings. These are almost wholly confirmed to Volkslieder. Before c. 1532 the so-called "familiar style" of the renaissance is not uncommon, but with the publications of 1534 and later a new style appears, reflecting Senfl's preoccupation with the metrical, syllabic, chordal Odenstil of the German humanists. A frequent usage in these homophonic songs is an echo effect between two pairs of voices, or between a duet and tutti. As is usual with Senfl, no categories are strict, and homophonic and polyphonic elements often mix freely in the same song. The nature of the accompanying parts in certain songs clearly indicates an instrumental performance, though only a few can be so definitely identified. There are many borderline cases, and most of the songs in the accompanied style could with impunity be performed on instruments. The writing of the motet style is generally much more "vocal" in nature and is most effective when sung. Senfly is one of the few German composers of the century to show an interest in cyclical constructions; indeed, he is the only composer to write cycles of part songs. These are variation-like sequences of compositions on the same cantus. Some are simply series of settings on the same text and melody in which the counterpoint becomes more complex in each successive piece. Others are through-composed, embodying several different strophes in different settings. The most unique of these is Senfl's version of the Seven Last Words of Christ, which consists of nine individually composed strophes in his most dramatic style of writing, presenting one extended narrative. It is one of the earliest examples of its kind. Senfl normally tries to create a strong musical setting capable of rendering the general mood of the text. He is almost never inspired by individual words of the text. Occasionally tone color is exploited for expressive purposes, but actual text painting is found only in one part song: "Das gleut zu Speier," in which the voices imitate the pealing of bells. The sacred part songs are very close in style to the secular ones. Being more serious, they more often tend toward the motet style, and hence are generally longer than their secular counterparts. Canonic cantus is quite frequent, but combinations of two different cantus firmi are only used when the subject matter justifies the juxtaposition. Homophonic settings are almost non-existent, and the only cycle is the above-mentioned Seven Last Words. Arriving at a period of nascent nationalism, Senfl brought the part song to heights of contrapuntal mastery and gave it the new chordal style he developed from the metrical odes. His contribution to the German part song was great, and he created a vast literature of several hundred songs that deserve much more modern performance than they receive.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University, 1956