The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Who was the early German composer Ludwig Senfl and what was his relation to Martin Luther? Hear for yourself this Sunday night at the concert by Eliza’s Toyes.

October 6, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based early music vocal ensemble Eliza’s Toyes (below) has received critical acclaim. Because it plays in small venues to small, if appreciative, audiences, its public profile gets lost among larger, more well known groups such as the Madison Bach Musicians and Madison Early Music Festival.

This Sunday night, at 7:30 p.m. in the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue in James Madison Park, 302 East Gorham Street, the Eliza’s Toyes opens its new season, which is devoted to German music.

The first concert is “Senfl Indulgence” and features instrumental and vocal music by the underappreciated Swiss-German composer Ludwig Senfl (1486-1543). The title itself is a word play — Senfl witnessed the dawn of the Reformation, which began with Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, opposing the Roman Catholic Church‘s “indulgence sales” among other points. Admission at the door is $10.

The group’s director, composer Jerry Hui (below) recently sent the following remarks about this rarely heard composer and the program to The Ear.


Like many composers from the Low Countries, Senfl began his music training as a choir boy in Emperor Maximilian I‘s Hofkapelle. Later on he studied with Heinrich Isaac, who was the court composer.  He worked for the Hofkapelle, which brought him to living in many cities including Konstanz, Florence and Vienna; by the time Senfl was 27, he succeeded his teacher to become the court composer.

Senfl (below) became famous among all German-speaking countries, thanks to his interest and involvement with the Viennese humanist circles, particularly about poetic meter and musical rhythm. His secular and sacred music thus made it into some of the earliest German music anthologies, and were known alongside compositions by Josquin and Isaac.

It was in 1518, while accompanying Emperor Maximilian I to his last Reichstag in Augsburg, that Senfl met Martin Luther (below, depicted with a lute), who was there to be examined by Cardinal Cajetan for his anti-Rome teaching. Senfl never openly supported the Reformation, but must have sympathized with it, since he frequently corresponded with Luther and his supporters. In 1530, upon hearing Senfl’s “Ecce quam bonum” that was composed as an exhortation for the church factions to reconcile, Luther asked Senfl for a composition. He received not just one, but two motets.

For Senfl, hailed as “the prince of all Germany at this time for music” in 1537, polyphony seemed to just flow naturally. His craftsmanship in counterpoint creates a rich tapestry of harmony and texture, yet the text is always clearly delivered in melodious lines in all voice parts. His music overall reflects both techniques from ages past, and the new style that began to develop and flourish in the early 16th century.


On our concert, we have selected many pieces that highlight another feature of Senfl’s composition: the use of existing tunes, and his uncanny ability to reimagine, sometimes even recombine them.

The first half consists of Senfl’s sacred music. Whereas his “Missa L’homme armé” uses the cantus firmus technique that has been well-established by previous composers such as Josquin, his polyphonic setting of the Lutheran hymn “Christ ist erstanden” for six voices is rich and complex. We will also perform “Ecce quam bonum,” which inspired Luther (below, depicted with a lute) to ask Senfl for more compositions.

The second half will open with “Lust hab ich ghab’ zuer Musica,” in which Senfl told his story as a musician. This song, like most of the secular pieces we will perform, is a tenor song — the melody is in the tenor line, often moving in slower pace, while voices above and below it decorate the melody in dazzling leaps, runs and turns. “Was wird es doch des Wunders noch” truly outdoes itself by surrounding the tenor tune with three parts above and below: at times half of them move at the same pace with the tenor while the other half decorates, while other times everyone but the tenor engages in canons and imitations, chasing one another, as if demonstrating what the text says:

What stranger thing can yet betide?
 So strange a life,
 the way the world is now full of cunning 
all surrounded by deceit.

Good word, evil trick,
 much greeting, evil looking
 is now the custom on earth.

None grants any longer
 honor to another; 
what will come out of it all?

The most fascinating set (for me as a composer) will showcase how Senfl reworked existing tunes in various ways. Sometimes the existing tune moves freely between voices, sometimes slow like a cantus firmus, and sometimes quickly as part of the polyphony (here’s Carmen à 3, a popular instrumental piece:

Then there are a few “quodlibets” that will meld all these tunes in different combinations. While you can still hear part of the original song (or songs), each time the context around it varies and refreshes.

I hope you’ll be able to come join us!


Posted in Classical music

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