Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1563-1621): Toccata in C
Melchior Schildt (1592/3-1667): Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dich, o Herr
Heinrich Scheidemann (1596-1663): Praeambulum in F
Schildt: Herr Christ, der einig’ Gotts Sohn (5 verses)
Schildt: Praeambulum in g
Schildt: Gleichwie das Feuer (3 variations)
Schildt: Praeambulum auf dem G
Schildt: Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr
Schildt, after John Dowland (1562-1626): Paduana Lagrima
Scheidemann: Fuga in d
Schildt: Magnificat primi toni (5 verses)
Sadly, there is nothing complete about the “complete keyboard works” of Melchior Schildt recorded here. Instead, this is merely a remnant, a tantalizing glimpse of what must have been a great body of works by an extraordinary musician. Schildt’s music was virtually unknown from the time of his death in 1667 until 1955, when the musicologist Gustav Fock discovered two important manuscripts in the central German town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld. These volumes, written in German organ tablature, contained a stunning collection of unknown pieces, including the complete Magnificat cycle by Schildt’s contemporary, the Hamburg organist Heinrich Scheidemann. The manuscripts also included one of the monuments of 17th-century German organ music, Schildt’s Magnificat primi toni. This one piece alone exceeded the total length of all Schildt’s other known organ works, and is thought to be the first in a lost cycle of such pieces: it reveals Schildt as a great composer, a highly accomplished and intensely personal master of the organ and its genres.
Like so many of his famous German contemporaries, Schildt was a student of the “Orpheus of Amsterdam,” Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Schildt’s studies in Amsterdam were funded, in all probability, by the town council of his native Hanover, and the teenage Schildt remained in Amsterdam from 1609 until around 1612, part of a group of students that included Johannes Praetorius (younger brother of Jakob), Gottfried Scheidt (brother of Samuel) and Heinrich Scheidemann. From Sweelinck, Schildt would have gained a firm grasp of strict counterpoint and taken in the flamboyant virtuosity so characteristic of Sweelinck’s style. From 1623 to 1626, Schildt was organist at the Hauptkirche in Wolfenbüttel; and from 1626-1629 he was in Copenhagen at the court of King Christian IV, who had built up one of the finest musical establishments in northern Europe. In 1629 Schildt took up his father’s post at the Marktkirche, Hanover—a position he held until his death.
The surviving records from Schildt’s lifetime portray him as eccentric and strong-willed, if not slightly mad. In a letter from1624, the organbuilder Gottfried Fritzsche described a “severe dispute” with Schildt in the organ loft of the Wolfenbüttel Hauptkirche: “. . . at that he [Schildt] came at me and hit at me and also grabbed me in a vicious hold as the foreigners do, and threw me to the floor so that we rolled over and over, strangling each other, until I grabbed a pipe form [mandrel]. But I did not have to strike him since this served to fend him off.” Relations between Schildt and his second wife Ilse Margarethe Scheer appear to have been strained, and at his death Schildt provided for his son, Melcher Cordt, to be sent away from the bad influence of his mother and into the care of a guardian. Schildt further stipulated that Melcher should not enter the music profession: “I absolutely forbid that he learn any musical instrument, whether it be lute, violin, flute or clavichord, or anything else of the kind, because those who do are markedly held back in their studies at university, and also adopt a wild and dissolute life, and are markedly set behind in their studies or even abandon them completely.”
A high-strung man, Schildt was also a dramatic performer. As J. G. Walther reported in the Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732, Schildt could, when so inclined, play in such a way “. . . so as to make listeners laugh or weep.” His surviving compositions, so often tinged with expressive chromatic gestures or soaring euphorically in ecstatic upward-sweeping scales, bear witness to the vivid character of the musician.
Schildt’s lovely setting of the burial chorale Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dich, o Herr is a piece that contemplates death with sweet serenity until the last right-hand flourish just after the final cadence. Here Schildt disturbs the placid texture with a lengthy descending chromatic scale that snakes ominously down the keyboard in a bizarre gesture that casts into shadow the prevailing calm. Perhaps the finest demonstration of Schildt’s emotional intensity is his arrangement of the first piece of the Lachrymae, or Seven Tears (1604) by John Dowland (who served as court lutenist under Christian IV from 1598-1603). One of the finest of the many keyboard settings of this song in both the English and North German repertory, the long, arching passage work and the ascending double thirds of the Paduana Lagrima push beyond the normal technical and expressive means of representing the deepest melancholy, and are a brilliant expression of lament. The intensity of the Paduana contrasts with Schildt’s buoyant variations on the song Gleichwie das Feuer, the text of which is unknown. Like the Paduana, Gleichwie das Feuer is probably of English origin, as it survives in a version by Orlando Gibbons entitled Mask: the Fairest Nymph. Both of Schildt’s variation sets come to us in a Copenhagen manuscript and reflect his activities as court organist for King Christian IV.
The huge Magnificat primi toni is one of the most compelling pieces in the 17th-century repertory. The first verse, which treats the cantus firmus in the tenor, is for full organ with double pedal and rings out on the mightly plenum of the Roskilde Cathedral organ. It is full of extreme dissonance treatment far beyond anything Schildt would have learned from Sweelinck, and is both unconventional and exhilarating. The second verse is an extended chorale fantasy that includes virtuosic passage work, lengthy (and demanding) echo effects, and numerous sections of contrasting affects. Less overtly flamboyant and more rigorously intellectual, the third verse is a ricercar whose contrapuntal explorations are colored by bizarre dissonances and serpentine chromaticism, with a contrasting diatonic middle section in triple meter. The fourth verse, shorter and more matter-of-fact, has the cantus firmus in the tenor under a filigree of passagework in the upper voices; the fifth carries the melody in the soprano, again set in a welter of exuberant passagework. This magnificent piece is the kind of music Schildt might have improvised at the conclusion of the Saturday night vespers, the traditional venue for North German organists to demonstrate their art.
Schildt’s setting of the Christmas hymn Herr Christ, der einig’ Gotts Sohn follows the same layout as the Magnificat, but with the first and third verses exchanged. The piece is less flamboyant than the Magnificat, but it is beautifully crafted in the manner of Sweelinck, with a fiery third verse. Schildt treats the German gloria, Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Herr, in a simple fashion, with the chorale melody lightly decorated in the soprano. His two short Praeambula, found in the manuscript Lüneburg KN 207/15 (and not in the modern edition of Schildt’s works), were probably written to serve as intonations or introductions to hymns in the service, and they perform a similar function in this program, alongside two short pieces by Scheidemann and the Toccata in C by Sweelinck.
This program might be envisioned as a small exhibit of the few surviving works of an Old Master, with the understanding that, like an elaborate altarpiece hanging in a museum, the pieces have been taken from their setting. Schildt’s music can never really be heard as the original listeners might have heard it; these pieces were composed for certain well-defined functions in church and court, and they treated well-known melodies. For us they have become abstract “works of art.” Yet we can still admire them, and be moved by them, perhaps to laughter or even to tears.