Delphin Strungk was born, worked, and died in the German city of Braunschweig. His eldest son, Nicolaus Adam was a traveler, journeying to Vienna and Italy at least twice and holding musical posts across Germany. The father was born in the first year of the 17th century: the son died at the turn of the next. The father devoted his creative life almost exclusively to the music of the church; the son achieved fame as a composer of opera. This recording offers a musical portrait of a family’s two very different generations.
Delphin Strungk’s father had been an organist in Braunschweig, and after service in nearby Wolfenbüttel and more distant Celle, Delphin was by 1637 ensconced as the leading organist in the town of his birth, where he held forth on a large three manual organ, equipped with the panoply of sounds typical of 17th century North German instruments. Delphin counted among his friends Heinrich Schütz, who stood as godfather to one of his sons and for whom Delphin served as agent, selling Schütz’s musical publications in Braunschweig. By mid-century Delphin was responsible for providing organ music at five churches in the city and was helped in discharging these duties by one of his sons, a daughter (!), and two of his students. More than simply a musical functionary, Delphin was an important cultural attraction: a 1652 tribute to the Braunschweig town council commended its members for retaining so many outstanding employees, “not least of whom is the very famous organist Herr Delphin Strungk.” Crown Prince Rudolf August often journeyed from his residence in Wolfenbüttel to hear Strungk play for Saturday evening vespers, the traditional venue for the display of the organist’s art. The centerpiece of the Vespers service was the Magnificat, and the separate movements of the Magnificat noni toni represent the kind of music Delphin would have improvised for interpolation between the verses sung by the choir. Delphin’s setting of the Magnificat draws on the wide tonal range of the instrument he had at his disposal: the grave, ceremonious opening; the distinctive solo colors; the intricate and varied figuration spanning the full compass of the instrument; and the extended echo effects- a favorite conceit that exploits the spatial dislocation of the separate divisions of large northern organs, not simply a collection of discreet chorale preludes on the Magnificat melody, the individual verses of Delphin’s Magnificat noni toni form a full-blown chorale fantasy in which all the techniques known to German organists of the first half of the 17th century are used.
Strungk’s setting of the chorale of death and resurrection, Ich hab mein Gott sach heimgestellt, is another of the multi-verse cantus firmus-based organ pieces that formed the foundation of the North German organ tradition. The tree-tiered echo effects head near the end of the piece are characteristic of Delphin’s unique voice, as is the angular and often unpredictable course of the melodic writing; likewise, the staid contrapuntal opening, with its occasional chromatic wanderings and curious syncopation, bears his unmistakable signature. Strungk’s Lass mich dein sein und bleiben may be the only surviving verse from a larger cycle, and its placid counterpoint, heard below the unadorned chorale melody, is all the more moving for its restraint.
Freed from the organizing principles inherent in chorale-based composition, Delphin’s fantastical imagination is unleashed in the toccata ad manuale duplex, a piece in which the composer’s musical investigations reach unprecedented proportions- this is perhaps the longest piece in the North German repertoire. The bravura echoes, the extensive experimentation with severe chromaticism, and the buoyant imitative writing offer a panoramic view of Delphin the performer indulging his boundless gifts of invention. The pieces by Delphin on this recording represent his four sur-organ; the intabulations of motets by other composers are not included here.
Nicolaus Adam Strungk grew up learning from his father and hearing him expand the boundaries of the traditional north German genres. After studying the violin in the north German city of Lübeck, Nicolaus Adam was by 1660 employed as a violinist in Celle. Nicolaus Adam journeyed to Vienna and played for Emperor Leopold III, a musical enthusiast from whom he received a coveted golden chain. During the trip Nicolaus Adam established a lasting friendship with the renowned violinist and later Imperial Kapellmeister, Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer. As the Emperor-- and probably Schmiltzer as well-- recognized, Strungk was also one of his generation's greatest performers on the violin. An anecdote from the 18th century finds Nicolaus Adam in Rome accompanying the great Italian violinist Archangelo Corelli on the harpsichord. After prodding Strungk to play the violin, Corelli was astounded by the German’s demonic technique, and declared, “if I am the Archangel you are certainly the Archdevil.”
The journey south was crucial in sending the younger Strungk down a different path from that of his father, for it was on this first trip to Vienna that Nicolaus Adam encountered the Italian contrapuntal genres-- the capriccio and the ricercar-- which he would explore in his own keyboard compositions. Where Delphin had composed in a letter notation (German tablature) favored in the north, Nicolaus Adam’s extant keyboard music derives from the south and is written in open score, a format favored by Frescobaldi and his student Froberger when writing in learned genres, and one that Nicolaus Adam employed to lay bare the rigor of his own counterpoint.
The intricacy and dramatic flair so evident in Nicolaus Adam’s compositions ensured their popularity among subsequent generations of keyboard players. His works circulated widely in manuscript in central Germany; both Bach and Handel copied his music into the volumes they compiled as youths. C.P.E. Bach cited Nicolaus Adam as one of the important influences on his father, and Handel appropriated music from two of Strungk’s keyboard pieces for use in his own vocal music composed much later in London. The young Bach would have learned much form Strungk’s commitment to his contrapuntal material, his genius for combining multiple themes and overlapping them in close strettos, his adventurous harmonic language, and his ability to use counterpoint for emotional effect.
As is rarely the case for surviving 17th century music manuscripts, Nicolaus Adam dated his keyboard works (seven out of the nine extant compositions appear on the recording). Composed over a seven-year period, these pieces track Nicolaus Adam’s peregrinations across Europe. He wrote the Capriccio in g in 1678 while he was in the service of the Duke of Hannover who supported a lavish Italianate musical establishment. The Capriccio in a (1681) was composed during Nicolaus Adam’s tenure as a municipal musician in Hamburg *1679-16820 and on of the leading composers for the city’s opera, the first public opera house in Germany. In Hamburg he not only performed on the violin in the city’s churches but also played the large organs alongside such luminaries as Johann Adam Reinken, one of the most famous of north German organists. The Capricci in e-minor and F-major and the Ricercar in G-- all composed within ten days of each other in 1683-- mark Nicolaus Adam’s return to Hannover, where he served the Dukütze, Ernst August, while continuing to compose operas for Hamburg.
In early 1685 Nicolaus Adam accompanied the Duke to Venice for Carnival, a festival filled with regattas, serenades, and of course, performances at the famous Venetian opera. Given his fascination with Italianate keyboard music, it is fitting that during this Italian sojourn Nicolaus Adam composed what must be considered one of the entire 17th century. He wrote the Ricercar sopra la Morte della mia carissima Madre in December of 1685 on hearing that his mother had died at home in Braunschweig in August of that year. The lengthly inscription, which notes his mother’s full name, the date and place of her death, and the date and place of composition, reflects the importance of the piece and the event it so eloquently commemorates. That the Ricercar sopra la Morte will be a contrapuntal tour-de-force is apparent from the striking theme, which I answered by its exact melodic inversion. But Nicolaus Adam deploys this standard, if highly intellectual, contrapuntal procedure in an unprecedented way to contradict the major mode established by the opening subject; this conflict between major and minor is never resolved over the course of the Ricercar and contributes an important layer of emotional tension to a piece rich in meaning. Already a very old man in 1685, Delphin lived on for nearly a decade after the death of his wife; he certainly would have been moved by his son’s tribute while being at the same time proud of his finest pupil’s accomplishments as a composer.
The last piece of the collection, the Capriccio primi toni (1686) stems from a final trip to Vienna; its craftsmanship is a fitting acknowledgment of the central role that city had played in Nicolaus Adam’s development as a keyboard composer. The place of composition anticipates the trajectory of his subsequent career: to Dreseden, where he would eventually become Kapellmeister (a post once held by his father’s friend Schütz), and to Leipzig where he founded the second public opera house in Germany.
Nicolaus Adam Strungk’s singular contribution to German keyboard music would not have been achieved without the patience to draw all he could form his native instruments and musical idioms- that is, without the peculiar inspirations of home.