«A choice selection of good old and new German songs in typical German style to be used with all kinds of instruments» – Georg Forster (1514 – 1568), doctor, composer and collector of music, published the first part of a song collection under this title in Nuremberg in 1539. Such was its success that he expanded it with another four volumes of «Recent German Songs», which appeared in several reprints until 1565 and which remain today an unsurpassed source of German renaissance song, the predominant musical genre in the art of singing in courtly and bourgeois society during the 16th century. It was also the first independent contribution by German composers in their own language to appear on a European music scene previously dominated by Franco-Flemish and Italian masters.
This album aims to offer an entertaining cross-section of a repertoire in which much remains to be discovered by «all lovers of noble music», the public to whom Forster originally dedicated his collection. Given the amount of material that he put together (380 pieces by 50 composers), some of which only survive in one source, it is hardly surprising that the majority of songs chosen come from his collection. When starting the collection, Forster had access to a broad range of German songs for which a prevailing form had developed in native-speaking lands since the end of the 14th century and which by his time had reached its apogee, namely the tenor song. This appellation refers to two characteristics: firstly, the meaning of the word «tenere», to hold, describing a compositional feature of this genre in which one voice, most often in the tenor range, holds a cantus firmus around which the other voices are built. Secondly, the melodies deployed as cantus firmi were often referred to as tenores, many of which were anonymous and part of an oral tradition. As such they almost belonged to a folksong tradition and were so popular that they were used over several decades. Their texts usually deal with love in all its guises.
Some tenores date from the Middle Ages and their stylised lyrics of courtly love bear final witness to the art of Minnesang. The lover›s lament, «Ach lieb mit leyd» by Paul Hofhaimer (1459 – 1537), a member of the court of Maximilian I from 1490, is an example of such a courtly lyric. Typical features include the four-part writing in AAB form, homophonic and strongly centred around the cantus firmus in the tenor, in which the rhyme scheme dictates the melodic line, whose form in turn, with its rests, shapes the whole piece. Composers in and around the court of Maximilian I became largely responsible for the development of song from about 1500. Particularly noteworthy, apart from Hofhaimer, were Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450/55 – 1517) and his pupil Ludwig Senfl (c. 1487 – 1543). Senfl’s contribution of almost 300 pieces represents the artistic summit of tenor song composition, both in quantity and quality. He too often had recourse to popular melodies as cantus firmi, such as the tune «Ach Elslein», taken from the Glogau Songbook dating from around 1477-1488, or the Tagelied (a German medieval dawn song, a lament of lovers parting at dawn – Translator›s note) «Es taget vor dem Walde» which he set no less than nine times; the texts deal with the amatory cares of Elslein and her friend and of Kätterlin and her handsome lover, clearly themes of folksong character rather than courtly texts. Senfl invests these settings with a certain contrapuntal finesse however, when for example in «Elslein» the descant imitates the tenor part or when in «Es taget» he adds an extra voice in canon at the 5th to the usual four voices; in the second version, the two cantus firmi, in so-called quodlibet writing, even run in parallel in the descant and tenor.
To what extent different text versions of the cantus firmi were also sung in parallel in such a quodlibet is not clear. Since these works were basically for everyday performance, the fact that a part appears with a text is not necessarily a firm indication that it was actually sung rather than played; the deployment of voices and instruments depended on the circumstances of each performance, as Forster’s indication, «to be used with all kinds of instruments», suggests. The combination here of high voice, flute and lute is not only attractive in terms of sound but has also plenty of iconographical evidence.
An important byproduct of these compositions for everyday use was also their arrangement for other instruments, such as the lute setting by Hans Neusidler (1508/9 -1563) and the deployment of popular cantus firmi in lute songs by Arnolt Schlick (c. 1460 – after 1521) or in purely instrumental versions such as the anonymous «Tandernaken».
When Forster’s collection was published, these songs were more likely to be performed in a bourgeois setting than in a courtly one, their printed form making them easily available. Although older cantus firmus tunes were still used by bourgeois composers, as shown by the settings of «Es liegt ein Schloß» and «Entlaubt ist uns der Walde» by one of Forster’s friends, Caspar Othmayr (1515-1553), the realities of bourgeois existence were more readily mirrored in the selection of lively or ribald love songs, represented here by Senfl’s «Im Bad woll’ wir recht fröhlich sein», «Es wollt ein Frau zum Weine gahn», or the lament on conjugal infidelity, «Die Welt ist toll». Although their themes, taken from daily life, are no longer immediately understandable to us today, they are often considered as typical renaissance texts.
The selection for this CD deliberately offers a broad musical and textual cross-section; the inclusion of Orlando di Lasso›s «Bonjour mon coeur» und «Matona mia cara», based on two of the most well-known renaissance songs, takes the listener right up to the end of the 16th century in musical terms. Towards the middle of the 16th century the tenor song, with its strict cantus firmus technique which had continued to develop without being put into question, fell somewhat out of fashion; the final edition of Forster’s anthology appearing in 1565 is an outward sign of proof of this. In preserving old texts such as the rustically comic trooper›s song «Matona mia» but by abandoning the cantus firmus technique, Lassus was able to combine German song with the more modern French chanson genre («Bonjour mon coeur») or Italian villanelle («Matona mia»). This promoted freer melodic invention, with the tune now lying preferably in the upper voice, and also permitted madrigal-like word painting. Hans Leo Hassler’s (1564 – 1612) «Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret» is a typical example of a modern, homophonic piece with the melody in the upper voice whose sacred contrafact, «O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden», became one of the most well-known chorales. The culmination of this development is the early continuo song, represented here in two pieces by Johann Hermann Schein (1586 – 1630). This brings our survey of German renaissance song to an end, for which we hope this CD will serve as an appetizer. It only remains for us to take our leave with Georg Forster›s words: «Ik seg adiu».