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Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck Composer

Fantasia Chromatica in Dorian, SwWV 258

Performances: 8
Tracks: 8
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Musicology:
  • Fantasia Chromatica in Dorian, SwWV 258
    Genre: Other Keyboard
    Pr. Instrument: Keyboard
They called him the "Orpheus of Amsterdam." Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck spent almost all of his long and productive musical life, a 44-year career, playing the organ and harpsichord for Amsterdam's Oude Kerk. In Reformed Amsterdam the organs were the property of the town, so he was a civic employee, with duties to play twice every day, an hour's concert in the morning (before church if there was a service) and an hour in the evening. Sweelinck attracted a large number of talented young musicians to travel to Amsterdam that they might study with him or hear his music, including Peter Phillips, John Bull, Samuel Scheidt, and Heinrich Scheidemann. Sweelinck was particularly known for his improvisatory skill. This lifelong practice served him best in the free-form keyboard works, such as the Fantasia Chromatica, the aptly named "chromatic" fantasy.

As in all his fantasias, Sweelinck constructs a large-scale form on one single snippet of melody. Uniquely here, however, he takes a gratingly chromatic descent through a melodic fourth as his foundation. On an instrument tuned to the system of Sweelinck's time, this chromatic line would sound even more jarring, as the various half-steps were not all equidistant. In fact, the pitches E flat and D sharp were not the same under this tuning system; D sharp was a distinct and higher pitch. Sweelinck's Fantasia Chromatica is probably only the second keyboard work in history to use both pitches in the same piece (William Byrd had done so once already).

The overall form of the Fantasia Chromatica unfolds in three parts, following the composer's different techniques with his chromatic melody. For most of the first half, iterations of the chromatic line sound almost constantly in one voice or another. The relentless chromaticism is made even more piquant by the frequent overlaps of entries, such that two voices will superimpose their colorful notes upon each other. After a brief respite of refreshingly non-chromatic writing, Sweelinck leaps into the second section, in which each chromatic voice sounds in augmentation to longer note values; this leads quickly to flashes of brilliant passagework in the other hand. Finally, he diminishes the note values, speeding up the pace of chromatic frenzy first to half-values, and then to a fourth. A final virtuosic flourish completes this most interesting piece.

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