Het Sweelinck Monument (the Sweelinck monument) was a major project to record the complete works of Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck undertaken by Harry van der Kamp. Working with his vocal ensemble, the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, van der Kamp began by accounting for all of Sweelinck’s vocal music. At the end of last year, the project was brought to conclusion with a six-CD collection on the Spanish Glossa label of all of Sweelinck’s keyboard works. Because many of those compositions are variations on both sacred and secular songs, the recordings include the sources sung by a vocal quartet of members of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, soprano Nele Gramß, alto Marnix De Cat, tenor Harry van Berne, and van de Kamp himself as bass.
Obviously, however, the focus of this collection is on the keyboard work. Van de Kamp assembled eleven keyboardists, performing on organs and harpsichords in both the Netherlands and Germany, to make the necessary recordings. In alphabetical order these performers are Bob van Asperen, Pieter-Jan Belder, Pieter van Dijk, Pieter Dirksen, Leo van Doeselaar, Gustav Leonhardt, Reitze Smits, Marieke Spaans, Harald Vogel, Alexander Weimann, and Bernard Winsemius.
Sweelinck was born in the Dutch city of Deventer in either April or May of 1562. The family moved to Amsterdam shortly after his birth; and his father, Pieter Swybbertszoon, served as organist of the Oude Kerk (old church) from about 1564. Sweelinck himself became organist of the Oude Kerk in 1577 and kept that post for 44 years. There is no evidence that he ever left Amsterdam, and he died there on October 16, 1621.
If Sweelinck himself never traveled, his influence certainly did. He holds the distinction of being the only composer included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book that is not English. His highly imaginative approach to keyboard counterpoint was known to Johann Sebastian Bach. If Bach did not include Sweelinck’s music in his pedagogical efforts, the author of his Wikipedia page goes as far as to suggest that Sweelinck’s approach to fantasia may well have inspired the BWV 903 “chromatic” fantasia and fugue in D minor.
This may be a bit of a stretch, but personal experience has encountered a generous number of jaw-dropping moments in Sweelinck’s fantasias. For the most part, these are based on the seed of a relatively short motif; and most likely Sweelinck’s “inventions” built around such a motif emerged from his skill as an improviser. Whether his scores are the result of documenting improvisations after they had matured to a point where he was performing them consistently the same way or whether he could improvise in his head and commit his thoughts to writing will probably never be resolved. However, the documentation of that capacity for invention may have played a key role in inspiring Bach to seek out his own approaches to invention.
Since personal experience cannot be put aside, it is probably worth observing that playing Sweelinck’s music is likely to be more fun than listening to it, particularly when it involves fantasias that will out extended durations of time. (Some of them are particularly fascinating, since they begin as “two-part inventions,” to which a third part is added about midway through the composition, sometimes followed by the addition of a fourth part.) The good news is that the necessary skill set for even sight reading this music is far more modest than that required to play Bach’s compositions. As a result any reasonably seasoned amateur can appreciate Sweelinck’s impact on the keyboard repertoire. Nevertheless, those who only listen to the performances in this collection are likely to enjoy many of Sweelinck’s techniques for taking simple material and turning is around in a prodigious number of ways, just as one can enjoy the many things that John Coltrane could do with a familiar tune like “My Favorite Things.”