Novemeber 2013

On Thursday, November 21st, Sara Hessel, Music Director at Classical 89.5 KMFA and host and producer of their Ancient Voices program, will give a Perspectives Gallery Talk on music in the age of Maximilian I. In advance of her presentation, Sara provides a glimpse into the life of one of the most intriguing rulers of the Renaissance.

God’s blessing rest with thee, dear Augsburg, and with all thy honest citizens. Many a happy time have we enjoyed within thy walls…

-Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor

He was a soldier, an avid hunter, a would-be Pope, and an Emperor. But above all things, Maximilian I was a lover and patron of the arts, especially music. He cultivated a cultural atmosphere that helped Germany grow from being something of a backwater in that area into a musical powerhouse, which eventually produced composers like Schütz, Buxtehude, and Bach.

Paul Hofhaimer at the organ from Triumphzug

Paul Hofhaimer at the organ from Triumphzug

Growing up as the son of Emperor Friedrich III, Maximilian may have come into contact with some of the great musicians of the day, like the blind organ virtuoso Conrad Paumann, but his childhood was marked more strongly by hunger and want than by musical and artistic pursuits. As a very young child, Maximilian lived through a siege that left his father’s court largely without provisions. One account relates that the family was forced to eat dogs and cats to survive. Maximilian also apparently suffered from a speech disorder that left him unable to speak in complete sentences for much of his childhood, which was later corrected.

In many ways, Maximilian’s true education began in 1477, when he left his Austrian home for the Low Countries. It had been arranged for him to wed Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, the only child of Charles the Bold. Luckily for them, the match was not only politically advantageous, but happy.

Sadly, Mary died as the result of a hunting accident after only five years of marriage. It was said that Maximilian could never hear her name without crying, even decades after her death. The marriage produced two children who also became avid music lovers: Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria.

The Low Countries were prosperous, and the artistic and musical wonders Maximilian saw and heard at the Burgundian Court left an indelible impression on the young man, and he later modeled his own Imperial Hofkapelle after it. Music at the courts of Philip the Good and Charles the Bold was without parallel, and Franco-Flemish composers of that period were in high demand, especially in Italy.

A group of musicians from Triumphzug

A group of musicians from Triumphzug

One composer whose influence was felt in Italy, Flanders, and the German lands was Heinrich Isaac. A well-educated and widely traveled composer, he served Duke Sigismund of Austria and the Medicis of Florence before becoming Maximilian’s court composer in 1496. Known for his masses, motets, and secular works (both vocal and instrumental), only recently has his reputation been overshadowed by his Flemish contemporary, Josquin. At the time, they were mentioned in the same breath as the two greatest composers in Europe.

What would Isaac say if he knew that from his large and varied output as a composer, he’s best remembered for the simple, heart-rending song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (Innsbruck, I must leave you)? According to legend, the text was written by Maximilian himself, who was known to have loved that city. Isaac’s plaintive melody still resonates with anyone who has ever felt a strong emotional connection to a place.

Ludwig Senfl, c. 1510

Ludwig Senfl, c. 1510

Ludwig Senfl joined Maximilian’s Hofkapelle as a choirboy when he was about ten years old, and remained in the Emperor’s service until Maximilian’s death in 1519. After his voice broke, he was granted a three-year period of study in Vienna, after which time he became Isaac’s pupil and assistant. He replaced Isaac as Imperial court composer upon the latter’s death. While Senfl composed some stunning sacred music (such as his Ave Maria for six voices), his true brilliance lies in the composition of secular songs. Whether composing new works from the ground up, or arranging German folk songs, Senfl’s musical imagination still astonishes, even in the year 2013!

Paul Hofhaimer occupied a special place among Maximilian’s composers. For one thing, the two knew each other all their lives, having been born within a few months of each other. Hofhaimer learned his art at the court of Maximilian’s father, Friedrich III. He later became Maximilian’s court organist, and was respected as one of the top-tier performers of his generation. Maximilian later knighted him, which allowed Hofhaimer to move in Maximilian’s circle as his social equal. He was a gifted improviser, and his ‘Salve Regina’ allows us to experience how he might have improvised on a Gregorian theme.

Can Maximilian’s influence as a patron of music still be felt? It certainly can. In 1498, the Emperor endowed a musical foundation in Austria, which is known throughout the world today as the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

– Sara Hessel, Music Director at Classical 89.5 KMFA & host of Ancient Voices

Recommended Recordings:

Heinrich Isaac: Ich muss dich lassen. Capilla Flamenca. (Ricercar CD)

Ludwig Senfl: Im Maien. Fretwork and Charles Daniels, tenor. (Harmonia Mundi CD)

Paul Hofhaimer: Salve Regina, played by organist Guy Bovet on the world’s oldest playable organ (c. 1430, Sion, Switzerland). Available as mp3 download.