Heinrich Isaac is noted as a central figure in late 15th and early 16th century musical development. He was one of three leading composers of the Franco Flemish or Netherlandish School with Jakob Obrecht and Josquin Des Prez. Although Josquin Des Prez was undoubtedly the major figure of the middle renaissance and is most often mentioned before Heinrich Isaac, Isaac is one of several that also deserve recognition. Heinrich was born around ten years after Josquin in 1450-1455. Historians are somewhat certain he was born in Flemish Brabant, a province of Flanders#.
Very little is recorded of Heinrich’s early life. It is believed that he was educated in the same area, the Low Countries, due to its excellent standards in musical education. Isaac is also noted to have been a pupil of the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi. It is supposed that Heinrich had begun composing music by 1470. All of this is very hard to establish; the first documented reference to Heinrich Isaac is dated September 15, 1484, thirty or so years after his estimated birth.
This document comes from Innsbruck, southwest Austria and refers to Heinrich as a hired member of a royal choir owned by Duke Sigismund of the House of Hapsburgs. The following year Heinirch traveled to Florence. Multiple documents show that Isaac acquired a position in 1485 as a designated singer at the church Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as the Duomo. Heinrich Isaac was known for his close association with the Medici family. It is suspected that Lorenzo de’ Medici was responsible for Isaac’s move from Innsbruck.
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Heinrich maintained close ties with the family throughout his entire life. He is said to have worked for the Medicis as an organist and a musical teacher however recent findings of documentation explain that “the Medici’s organist” was a title held by another Isaac. Isaac did work with the family as a teacher and choir director. While in Florence Isaac composed a great deal of music including masses and motets. Some of these linked Heinrich’s association with the Medici family. Lorenzo died in 1492 and Piero inherited everything including his father’s musical groups.
Isaac wrote two motets in remembrance of Lorenzo. Piero took these groups to Rome to perform for the coronation of Pope Alexander VI. This was the same time and the same pope by which Michael Angelo was commissioned to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basillica. The Medici family was banished from Florence in 1494. In 1496 Heinrich was employed by Maximilian I the newly Holy Roman emperor. In 1497 Isaac was appointed court composer of the Hapsburg empire. Payment documents impose that Isaac traveled with the court through Augsburg, Wels, and Innsbruck between 1497 and 1501.
Around 1502 Heinrich traveled to the Este court in Ferrera, Italy to compete with Josquin des Prez for a position. We do have a letter from the family that reads “Isaac is a disposition among his companions, and he will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants his to. ” Recent scholarship says that Isaac never asked for the job. Heinrich was commissioned by the Constance cathedral in 1508 after traveling though Constance, Augsburg, and Florence for several years to write his outstandingly large Choralis Constatinus.
Isaac returned to Florence in 1514 and died in 1517. Though most sources confirm that Isaac fled from Italy, newer historical findings suggest that Isaac actually never left Florence. Not only did Isaac not leave Florence after Lorenzo’s death but Heinrich Isaac later married a native Florentine, settled down, and became an established citizen of Florence. Isaacs’s marriage was supposedly arranged through Lorenzo Medici. Isaac was able to include both German and Italian aspects in his work, something that made him very distinct from his contemporaries.
Most contemporary composers, who called themselves Florentines like he did, limited their traveling to France and Italy. Heinrich is described as one of the most prolific composers of his time. He made significant contributions to both secular and church music; of Germanic and Italian influence; of the splendor of the church and the secularism of the renaissance of which he was such a part of. “His work pned from Flemish styled polyphony to bright Italian and French love songs, from ceremonial music expressing the pageantry and power of the church and state to rollicking songs in French,
Italian and German embodying the popular, secular spirit of the Renaissance, and from rich choral textures for the church to exquisite chamber music for courtly entertainment. ”# Isaacs output includes about forty Mass Ordinaries, 100 proper mass cycles (though most were published posthumously in the three- volume Choralis Constantinus), over fifty motets; and close to fifty secular songs made of French chansons, Italian Frottole, and a large amount of German Tenorlieder. Isaacs best known work is probably Innsbruch, ich muss dich lassen, a Tenorlieder written on the theme of a Germanic folk song.
The same melody was used for the Lutheran chorale O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen. Later both J. S. Bach and J. Brahms used the famed theme. Heinrich Isaac’s significance stands not only in his scope and quality but also in his influence particularly seen in Germany. Heinrich acted as an ambassador of the Netherlandish style to Germany. Heinrich had a great effect on the musical development of Germany, leading it into the mainstream European musical tradition and the further development of contrapuntal music.
Heinrich’s music directly influenced German composers like Bach and Brahms who in turn influenced aspects in all of western music. As a professionally successful musician and patroned person of the three most powerful men in Europe, Heinrich Isaac’s music was most definitely seen and heard. Sources- The New Oxford History of Music: volume III Wikipedia Encyclopedia Britannica online www. bach-cantatas. com Absorbing Heinrich Isaac by David J Burn, Blake Wilson, And Giovanni Zanovello
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