Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

A Dutch composer, he was born in the small town of Deventer (just east of Amsterdam) in 1562; he died in Amsterdam proper in 1622. Those dates basically mean he was a near-contemporary of Shakespeare. He was also alive at the same time as Claudio Monteverdi, and rather as Monteverdi did in Italy, Sweelinck straddles the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque musical eras. There are a variety of possible spellings of his surname (New Grove offers, for example, Zwelinck and Sweeling amongst others), but there’s no real doubt about how to catalogue him: all three names are required and the generally-accepted spelling is as you see it here: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink (pronounced ‘Sway-link’).

Rather as Bach is primarily associated with his tenure at St. Thomas’s Leipzig, Sweelinck is always thought of as ‘organist at the Ould Kirk, Amsterdam’: he is known to have been employed there from 1580 onwards, until the day of his death. He was then buried in the same church where he’d worked most of his life.

His main claim to musical fame is, perhaps, that he set all of the Psalms to music (in four volumes, the last of which was published posthumously). He is also known as having been a great contrapuntalist on the keyboard -indeed, it is said that he was the first composer to write fugues for the organ in which the pedal part was a primary voice. He can be thought of as making Bach possible in the future. For his renowned ability to improvise at the keyboard, he was known in his lifetime as ‘the Orpheus of Amsterdam’. In short, he’s an important ‘transitional’ composer (i.e., transitioning between Renaissance and Baroque) in keyboard and choral music, though his chansons are rather more traditional in style.


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