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Musical improv began way before we thought: May 1 composer birthday Jan Sweelinck

Musical improv began way before we thought: May 1 composer birthday Jan Sweelinck featured image

Jan Sweelinck wasn’t a mover and shaker in terms of leaving one city for another in the quest for job promotions – he maintained only one post his entire career, as organist of the Oude Kerk in 1577 when he was 15. He may have stayed in one spot geographically, but musically, did he move and shake over the keyboard! As a composer, organist, and teacher, he was producing music that linked the Renaissance to the Baroque era, and is considered one of the first major keyboard composers in Europe.

Sweelinck did travel some as an organ consultant, travelling to various cities to inspect organs and advise on building and restoring them, but always returned to Oude Kerk. He also became a famous organ teacher, and his students were considered the standard by which to be compared.

As a composer, Sweelinck often improved things freely at the keys, and luckily for us, wrote many of them down; about 70 of his keyboard works have survived. While his choral music isn’t as splashy as his keyboard music, there is still a strong rhythmic element to them, and a lot of contrapuntal writing (in which the same melody overlaps, forming complex layers of sound, while all sounding beautiful, which is what JS Bach did so masterfully with his fugues). JS Bach must have heard some of Sweelinck’s works and been influenced by them. Speaking of Bach, it’s hard to not think of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, but for once, he is not playing Bach; here, he is playing Sweelinck’s “Fantasia”.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was born April or May, 1562 in Deventer, Netherlands, and died October 16, 1621, in Amsterdam.

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