German Polyphonic Clavier School

German Mastery of Polyphonic Music.—The Italians, with their quick perception of structural beauty, have been the pioneers in the invention and use of most art forms. So it happened, in the history of instrumental music, that they were the ones to invent and give to other nations the vehicle of expression, while it remained for their pupils, notably, in this case, the composers of Germany, to fill these forms out with the expression of real and deep feeling. The German tendency toward serious and philosophical thought found the intricacies of polyphonic music, of the simultaneous flow of independent melodies, admirably adapted to their need of expression; and when this style of voice writing was applied to instrumental compositions, German musicians found a branch of art in which they were admirably qualified to excel. So, from being mere pupils of the Italians, they advanced to the production of works of much more distinguished character and deeper, richer content than was possible to mere beauty of form and melody.

Hasler.—In the second half of the 16th century, the clavier was popular in Germany, disputing the place of the lute as a social instrument, although organ and clavier compositions were identical, as in Italy. There is a record of the publication of two books of pieces for organ and “instrument”—by which is meant the clavier—in 1575-77, in which there were dance tunes with accompanying chords. Hans Leo Hasler (1564-1612), a pupil of A. Gabrieli, and fellow-student with G. Gabrieli, was especially prominent as organ and clavier player and composer during this epoch, publishing a number of such dances written for the organ or the clavier.

Froberger.—The devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) put an end to artistic ambition during its progress. However, art quickly recovered at its close, and a number of worthy musicians appeared. An interesting figure among them, and a man who has been called the first German clavier virtuoso, was Johann Jacob Froberger (1605-1667). Showing great promise as a boy, he was brought to the notice of the Austrian Kaiser, Ferdinand III, who sent him to Rome, where he studied with Frescobaldi for three years. After this we hear of him as a successful performer at Paris, and, on his return to Vienna, as court organist, in which position he won wide-spread fame. A remarkable story is told of a perilous journey to England, where he arrived penniless, and of his subsequent recognition and his cordial reception by Charles II, who was delighted with his improvisation upon the harpsichord. Afterwards re-turning to Vienna, he resigned his post there, through some disagreement, and lived afterwards in retirement. In a number of Caprices, Toccatas and the like, written in the contrapuntal style, he definitely adopted the five-lined staff, and introduced many embellishments, after the French fashion. He possessed much charming melodic invention, and, in his Toccatas employed a treatment of his subject in definite sections, which afterwards appeared in the fugue form. Froberger anticipates the program style of music, as he is said to have improvised descriptions of events, like that of the Count von Thurn’s crossing of the Rhine, which he depicted in twenty-six pieces.

Johann Kaspar Kerl (1625-90), also sent by Ferdinand III to Rome, studied there with Carissimi, the oratorio writer, becoming accomplished as an extemporizer. He occupied a number of organ positions in Vienna and Munich, also teaching the clavier, and wrote compositions which show a tendency toward the modern scale systems. Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), celebrated as organ and clavier player, wrote pleasing works for the clavier, in which he tried to follow out the characteristics of the instrument. Many of these were in the form of variations. Georg Muffat (d. 1704) showed in his compositions a tendency toward French ornamentation, and his son Gottlieb (1683-1770), a pupil of the contrapuntist J. J. Fux, was organist to the Kaiser Charles VI, in Vienna, and clavier teacher to the Imperial family. His clavier compositions were in the form of Versettes and Toccatas.

Eighteenth Century Clavier Composers. — The Thirty Years’ War exercised a demoralizing influence upon music trades, and many excellent musicians were unable to have their compositions published in consequence. The result is, that comparatively few specimens of the works of the composers mentioned have come down to us in available form. Approaching the 18th century, we now come to a group of composers who represent the most brilliant epoch of early clavier work. Their productions, while retaining the dignity and complexity of the contrapuntal school, yet use its material with a freedom of modulation and of dissonant chords sufficient to express genuine emotional ideas through their medium.

Reinken and Buxtehude.—The Hamburg organist Johann Adam Reinken(1623-1722), a native of Holland, wrote a number of clavier compositions, publishing in 1704, pieces for two violins and harpsichord. Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), organist at St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, from 1668, excelled in free style of writing for clavier. The latter gave a series of Sunday evening concerts at his church which gained renown through all the surrounding country; and J. S. Bach himself is said to have walked to these concerts, a distance of fifty miles.

Instrumental Polyphonic Forms.—These men have been mentioned largely because their work made possible the results which Bach afterwards attained from an elaboration of what they had already accomplished. It was among such eminent German organists that the instrumental Fugue, the highest instrumental type of polyphonic music, took definite shape, consisting of an Exposition, in which the Subject, Answer and Countersubject were announced by the various voices; and a subsequent Development, in which, according to certain laws more or less strict, the material presented was carried through a variety of phases and brought finally to a triumphant close. Of other forms, like the Toccata and Canzona, the tendency came to be toward more freedom of treatment on the one hand, and an increasing definiteness and consistency on the other.

Handel’s Early Life. — A composer must now be mentioned whose work lay chiefly in other fields than the clavier, but who nevertheless drew much of his inspiration from the strings of the harpsichord. This was George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), who was born at Halle, and whose musical genius asserted itself so strenuously that, although his father was strongly opposed, he learned the harpsichord as a mere child, and became so proficient a performer that the reigning Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, hearing him play, insisted on his receiving a thorough musical education. So he was placed under Zachau, a competent organist and musician, at his native place, with whom he studied diligently. After his father’s death he went to Hamburg, entering the orchestra of the Opera house and rising to the post of harpsichordist. Launching out as an opera composer, he began to acquire a reputation, and in 1706 went to Italy, meeting many distinguished musicians there, among them Domenico Scarlatti, with whom he had a contest as to ability as clavichordist and organist, and winning fresh laurels.

Handel in England.—In 1707, he became music director to the Elector of Hanover, but quickly left the post for England, where, with the exception of short intervals, he passed the remainder of his life, becoming a naturalized English subject. It was no wonder that he was so warmly attached to his adopted country, since he became the popular idol, even winning over the king, George I, formerly Elector of Hanover, who, on his accession to the throne, was at first angry with Handel for his desertion of the post in his service at Hanover.

Handel’s Operas and Oratorios.—Handel was of an irascible disposition, and, living in the artificial atmosphere of London, among wits and satirists like Dr. Johnson, Addison and Pope, he was constantly embroiled with the cabals of his rivals, and the fickleness of the public.He produced a great number of operas, most of them successful; but as theatrical manager he met with severe losses, and finally gave up opera writing in despair, and turned to the composition of oratorios. The result was that in this form he has left his most enduring and elevated compositions ; for while his operas were sometimes written down to the popular taste for empty Italian melody, the lofty themes of his oratorios inspired him to his grandest and most sincere style, which, moreover, was rendered the more dramatic and intelligible by his knowledge of the requirements of his audiences.

Handel’s Clavier Works. — Handel was an ,expert per-former on the harpsichord, for which he wrote two sets of Suites, besides a number of single pieces. The Suites, of which the first set is by far the better, are written mostly in the dance forms, but with the interpolation of more serious forms, such as Airs, Variations and Fugues. The contrapuntal style is here most prominent, although with harmonic basis, and with a laxity in the strictness of the voice writing, caused by the occasional use of extra notes to complete chords. Some of the variations are worked up to effective climaxes, and have running passages and broken chords, in which the resources of the clavier are cleverly drawn upon.

Handel’s Last Years.—Handel became blind in 1752, but continued to take part in the performances of his works till the year of his death. Choleric as .was his temperament, the known generosity of his nature and his devotion to the ideals of his art made him the idol of the English people. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Mattheson.—A close associate of Handel, when he was in the Hamburg orchestra, was Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), famed for his literary writings on musical subjects no less than for his musical ability. He wrote suites, a sonata and fugues in two parts, for clavier, which were of excellent workmanship.

Bach’s Early Life.—But all other names in the domain of polyphonic instrumental music pale before that of Johann Sebastian Bach, the culmination of the school of voice writing, and the musician who put the stamp of greatness on all former styles, while at the same time acting as guide to future fields of composition. Born at Eisenach in 1685, as a scion of a family the members of which had been musical leaders for generations, he seems to have embodied in himself the sum of the genius of his forefathers. The story of his life is a prosaic one, as he filled it with unflagging industry, carrying out his unswerving ideals of his art, caring little for mere popularity, and rearing a large family of sons and daughters, some of whom proved worthy to continue his work. As a boy, he lost both parents at the age of ten, and was taught clavier playing by his elder brother, Johann Christian, who took him in charge. He seized with avidity every opportunity to study his beloved music, copying hundreds of pages of manuscript, listening to every musical performance possible, drinking in and assimilating the ideas thus gained, to re-produce them later on, stamped with his genius.

Later Life.—At his brother’s death he went to Luneburg as choir boy, where he became acquainted with Reinken’s work. At eighteen he was violinist in the court band at Weimar, shortly afterward becoming organist at a church at Arnstadt. His next position was as court organist at Weimar, in 1708, where many of his most important organ compositions were written. This post he left in 1717 for that of court chapel-master at Anhalt-Kdthen, where he remained six years, after which he went to Leipzig, as Cantor of the Thomasschule, staying there till his death, in 1750.

Incidents of Bach’s Career. — Bach’s life was not altogether a happy one, as he was much annoyed at the persecutions of his rivals ; and, like Handel, he was afflicted with blindness in his last years. Never considering the element of mere popularity in his work, his greatness was little appreciated in his lifetime; and it was fifty years after his death before it began to receive recognition. A pleasant incident of his declining years was his cordial reception by Frederick the Great at his court, in 1747, where Bach’s son was in favor as harpsichord player, and where Bach was shown a number of excellent new Silbermann pianofortes. It is a curious circumstance that he and Handel, although born in the same year, were destined never to meet.

The Well-Tempered Clavichord.—It has been stated that Bach adopted the principle of Equal Temperament for clavier tuning. In support of this he wrote twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key, requiring, therefore, equal temperament for their performance; and later added a second similar volume. The whole forty-eight make up the monumental work called the “Well-Tempered Clavichord” ; and this work, written originally for the clavichord, has remained the bulwark of piano playing to the present day. Its fugues, written with consummate mastery of the technic of instrumental poly-phony, are not only models of skill in voice writing, but also are made the vehicles of genuine moods and emotions ; while each preceding prelude gives the keynote of expression to its following fugue, although written in a much freer style, frequently closely allied with the works of the purely harmonic school.

Bach’s Other Clavier Works. — Bach wrote also sonatas and concertos, the latter for one, two or three claviers, sometimes with string accompaniment. These works, al-though comprising several movements, do not otherwise coincide with the harmonic sonata form, since their style is more polyphonic, and since they are occupied mainly with the development of a single subject. His suites, of which he wrote two sets, called respectively English and French, are no less important, since in them the dance forms are invested with a seriousness and an artistic finish hitherto unattained. Of other clavier works, his famous “Chromatic Fantasie” has a wealth of harmonic combinations, fiery runs and arpeggios, and dramatic recitative which give it a worthy place in the Romantic school developed much later, and of whose style it was the forerunner. His “Inventions,” studies written originally for his children, in two or three parts, are an excellent introduction to the study of his larger works.

Reforms in Fingering.—Another gift of Bach’s to coming generations was his thorough revision of clavier playing. Raising the hand above the keys from its former flat position, he brought the thumb into use, and by inventing the scale fingering, afterwards universally adopted, he opened the way to the style of brilliant and smoothly running pas-sages whim was afterwards so highly developed. Thus Bach, while putting the final touch to the old forms, gave an impetus to the harmonic style, which was then in its infancy, and of which we shall now trace the course.


Naumann.—History of Music, Vol. I. Vol. II, Bach and Handel.

Weitzmann.—History of Pianoforte Playing.

Henderson.—Preludes and Studies.

Spîtta.—Life of Bach.

Parry.—Evolution of the Art of Music, Chapter VIII.

Williams.—Bach (Master Musicians Series).