Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a Dutch
composer, organist, and pedagogue whose work straddled
the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque
eras. He was among the first major keyboard composers
of Europe, and his work as a teacher helped establish
the north German organ tradition.
Sweelinck represents the highest development of the
Dutch keyboard school, and indeed represented a
pinnacle in keyboard contrapuntal complexity and
refinement before J.S. Bach. However, he was a skilled
composer for voices as well, and composed more than 250
vocal works (chansons, madrigals, motets and
Some of Sweelinck's innovations were of profound
musical importance, including the fugue—he was the
first to write an organ fugue which began simply, with
one subject, successively adding texture and complexity
until a final climax and resolution, an idea which was
perfected at the end of the Baroque era by Bach. It is
also generally thought that many of Sweelinck's
keyboard works were intended as studies for his pupils.
He was also the first to use the pedal as a real fugal
part. Stylistically Sweelinck's music also brings
together the richness, complexity and spatial sense of
Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and the ornamentation and
intimate forms of the English keyboard composers. In
some of his works Sweelinck appears as a composer of
the baroque style, with the exception of his chansons
which mostly resemble the French Renaissance tradition.
In formal development, especially in the use of
countersubject, stretto, and organ point (pedal point),
his music looks ahead to Bach (who was quite possibly
familiar with Sweelinck’s music).
Sweelinck was a master improviser, and acquired the
informal title of the "Orpheus of Amsterdam". More than
70 of his keyboard works have survived, and many of
them may be similar to the improvisations that
residents of Amsterdam around 1600 were likely to have
heard. In the course of his life, Sweelinck was
involved with the musical liturgies of three distinctly
different traditions: Catholic, the Calvinist, and
Lutheran—all of which are reflected in his work. Even
his vocal music, which is more conservative than his
keyboard writing, shows a striking rhythmic complexity
and an unusual richness of contrapuntal devices
"Ballo del Granduca" (The Grand Duke's Ball), SwWV 319,
is a composition for solo keyboard instrument
attributed to Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. The
composition is based on the theme of a dance of 1589
entitled "O che nuova miracolo", an intermedio from the
comedy Intermedi della Pellegrina, composed by Emilio
de' Cavalieri on the occasion of the wedding of
Ferdinando I de' Medici to Christina of Lorraine. The
theme of the composition, later known as "Aria di
Fiorenza" or "Ballo del Granduca", quickly gained
renown in Europe and became the basis for at least 128
other songs, contemporary and later.
Inspired by this theme, several composers produced
variations, including Adriano Banchieri, Giovanni
Girolamo Kapsperger, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. It
is not clear, however, whether the variations on "Ballo
del Granduca" attributed to Sweelinck are completely
Because some of his students, such as Samuel Scheidt,
added variations to his different compositions (Scheidt
and Sweelinck, in Pavana Hispanica, combined a series
of alternating variations), some scholars hypothesize
that Sweelinck wrote parts of Ballo del Granduca, but
Scheidt also contributed.
The style of the composition is influenced by the two
major currents of the period: Italian polyphony and the
technique of English virginalists. From the Italian
style Sweelinck assimilated the beauty of counterpoint,
while from the virginalists he developed the virtuosity
of passages, arpeggios, and fioriture (ornamentation).
The dance includes a theme (although the score labels
it 1e Variatie) and four variations (or five, if we
count the theme as a first variation).
The theme of the composition, which forms the basis for
the variations, offers the improviser considerable of
freedom. It consists of a series of five short musical
phrases lasting four beats each, basically in chords,
each one concluded by a cadence. The cadences are in G
major (the tonic of the piece), C major, A minor, G
major, and G major.
The first variation shows several passages for the
right hand with eighth notes and sixteenth notes, while
the left hand performs an accompaniment in chords with
two and three voices. In the second variation the hands
are reversed: the right accompanies and the left plays
the melody. The third variation contains most of the
semicircular passages typical of the Sweelinck style.
The piece ends with the fourth variation, the most
challenging, where the right hand constantly performs
third and sixth chords.
Although originally composed for Keyboard, I created
this Interpretation of the "Ballo del Granduca" (The
Grand Duke's Ball -- SwWV 319) for String Quartet (2
Violins, Viola & Cello).