Ludwig Senfl

Biography

Born: 1486; Basle, Switzerland   Died: 542; Munich, Germany  
Historically, Ludwig Senfl's life straddled the divides of Renaissance and Reformation. Appropriately, his musical output does the same; his sacred compositions look back at the fifteenth century, while his secular songs look forward to the rapid development of the middle and late sixteenth century.

Senfl was born in Switzerland but soon after, his family moved to Germany. At the age of ten, as a boy alto he was selected for Emperor
Read more Maximilian's court chapel. The mobile court enabled Senfl to experience a variety of European musical centers, including Augsburg, Innsbruck, Vienna, and Constance. More importantly, Senfl received the opportunity to work with the Kapelle's composer, Heinrich Isaac, the foremost German musician of the age. When Senfl's voice changed, he studied for the priesthood, a standard offer for former choirboys, and likely became a priest, but in the lower orders, enabling him to pursue music. Around 1508, he probably studied composition and theory with Isaac and then became Isaac's copyist. He later completed and edited the Choralis Constantinus after Isaac's death in 1517, although the work was not published until after Senfl's died.

Senfl became composer (musicus intonator) for the Kapelle, probably around 1513, and began to build a reputation for himself and his music. Despite suffering from losing a toe in a hunting accident in 1518, he was able to compose the music for the Emperor's parliament meeting in the same year. Martin Luther was present in Augsburg at the time and likely heard Senfl's music there; the two may not have met, but 12 years later they began a private correspondence that would last around a decade. Senfl, although Catholic and not an active supporter of the Reformation, likely sympathized with Luther (he did not base any compositions on pre-Reformation melodies), and upon the latter's request composed two motets for him. Luther, an avid musical amateur, held Senfl in high esteem, as did most of his contemporaries.

After the Emperor's death in 1519, Senfl was replaced in his position by the new emperor and more egregiously, denied a promised stipend. At the peak of compositional power, he was without a job and only in 1523 did he find an acceptable position, due rather to his own selectivity than any lack of employability, becoming the composer for the Hofkapelle of the Duke of Wilhelm of Bavaria. While in the Duke's service, Senfl gave up his clerical status and married in 1529. His later years were spent not only in composition, but in preparation of editions of his music, most of which would receive posthumous publication. For a composer of Senfl's status, the lack of knowledge about his late life is surprising (he probably died between December 1542 and August 1543); it is speculated that his friendship with Luther resulted in the suppression of his career.

Senfl's masses and motets use isorhythm, archaic by his time, and his voice leading practices also give his religious compositions a retrospective tint, although his compact, text-driven style was more modern. In his sacred works, he was highly influenced by his teacher Isaac and by Josquin des Prez. Senfl likely preferred the secular song form, judging by relative output. Influenced by the earlier Tenorlied form, he composed many lieder, most in German. He probably wrote several texts himself, as evidenced particularly by the song Lust Hab Ich Ghabt zur Musica (A Love Have I for Music), which sums up his musical experiences and spells his own name in acrostic (taking the first letters of each verse). Senfl's humanist studies in Latin odes made his musical meter subject to text declamation patterns; his lively style anticipated future developments. Read less

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