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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 3 (1997) No. 1

Cross, Sword, and Lyre: Sacred Music at the Imperial
Court of Ferdinand II of Habsburg (1619-1637)
. By Steven Saunders.
Clarendon Press, 1995. [xx, 358 pp. ISBN 0-19-816312-6. $65.]

Reviewed by Stewart Carter*

1. Introduction

2. Ferdinand II and Valentini

3. Evaluation of the Book

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1 Music at the court of the Austrian Habsburgs between the death of Maxilimian I and the reign of Maria Theresia has not always received the attention it deserves. It is typically regarded as derivative: new trends were begun elsewhere, then imported to Vienna—from the Netherlandish north in the sixteenth century, and later, reflecting a shift in the musical winds, from Italy. Steven Saunders’ new book offers a balanced view of music during the reign of Ferdinand II, which stands squarely in the middle of this epoch.

1.2 Some deeply rooted misconceptions regarding Ferdinand II’s court can be traced to the work of the nineteenth-century scholar Ludwig von Köchel. According to Saunders, “For nearly a century, knowledge of the imperial music chapel under Ferdinand II amounted to tacit acceptance of Köchel’s pronouncement that ‘the disturbances of the Thirty Years War made it necessary for Ferdinand II, soon after the beginning of his reign, to dissolve most of, perhaps for a time his entire, chapel'” (p. 4). Köchel erred, Saunders says, because he relied on records from the imperial treasury, unaware that Ferdinand continued to pay his musicians from the court treasury of Inner Austria, his hereditary domain, even after he became emperor and transferred his court from Graz to Vienna. Far from reducing expenditures for music during his reign, Ferdinand II increased funding significantly.

2. Ferdinand II and Valentini

2.1 Saunders’ interweaving of music and ceremony with Ferdinand II’s political agenda is perhaps the strongest aspect of this book. Ferdinand was “convinced that he, and not his predecessor on the throne, the irresolute and increasingly infirm Emperor Matthias, was the ruler who could furnish the Empire with a ‘firm tread and sure eye’ and lead it from the ‘disorders into which, labyrinthine, time proceeds'” (p. 93). Thus he embarked on a political program that would lead on the one hand to his coronation as king of Bohemia (Prague, 1617), king of Hungary (Pressburg, 1618), and finally, Holy Roman Emperor (Frankfurt, 1619); and on the other, to the empire’s involvement in the Thirty Years War, Ferdinand’s Holy War against Protestantism. State visits to Dresden and Breslau, crucial to Ferdinand’s political agenda, also occurred during this relatively brief period of time. As a consequence his musical chapel, led by Giovanni Priuli and Giovanni Valentini, was kept busy, preparing and performing music to embellish these grand state occasions.

2.2 A politically astute monarch required music commensurate with his rank. For Ferdinand’s coronation as king of Hungary, Valentini composed a Magnificat for seven choirs (published in Messa, Magnificat, et Jubilate Deo, Vienna, 1621), with trumpets and other instruments. In this singular example of the “colossal Baroque,” Valentini, in his own words, “struggled to invent this new way of combining trumpets with voices and instruments” (p. 99). He wrote a mass for the same combination of forces later in the same year, and shortly thereafter, the Jubilate Deo. Saunders argues persuasively that the Mass was intended for Ferdinand’s imperial coronation in Frankfurt, while the Jubilate Deo probably was written to celebrate the Empire’s first major victory of the Thirty Years War, the Battle of White Mountain.

2.3 Valentini’s accomplishment was perhaps less novel than he claimed; other composers—including Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, and Raimundo Ballestra, a member Ferdinand II’s own court at Graz—had used trumpets in sacred concerted works. What is new, Saunders says, is reflected in Girolamo Fantini’s Modo per imparare a sonare di tromba (1638): the old warlike style, exemplified in the traditional trumpet ensemble, with each player specializing in a particular range, is contrasted with the new “concerted” way, in which the trumpet takes a “musical” part, like that of the violin or cornett. Here Saunders has done some clever detective work, drawing conclusions about Valentini’s employment of trumpets on the basis of two surviving parts, only one of them for trumpet. This style of writing for trumpets with voices became popular in Austria, and it reflects one of the few innovations of Ferdinand’s chapel

2.4 The sheer size of musical performances at court is one measure of the attention lavished on music, and also of Köchel’s error. Compositions such as Valentini’s seven-choir Magnificat may have been extraordinary, but polychoral music of more customary dimension was not. Saunders elaborates on this theme in a chapter entitled “The Legacy of Giovanni Gabrieli.” Priuli had demonstrable ties to the Venetian master; Valentini’s relationship is less clear, though easily discernible stylistically. Both composers wrote masses that pay homage to Gabrieli. In exquisite detail, Saunders demonstrates the relationships between Priuli’s Missa sine nomine (note 1) and Gabrieli’s incomplete Mass from the 1615 Symphoniae sacrae, as well as Valentini’s use of parody technique in his Missa Diligam te Domine (1621), based on a Gabrieli motet from the 1597 collection.

3. Evaluation of the Book

3.1 Saunders’ main text is not particularly long, but there are some very useful appendices. One of these is an “Anthology of Musical Works,” containing twelve complete compositions by Priuli and Valentini. Since few of Priuli’s and Valentini’s works are available in modern edition, it is unfortunate that so many of the complete scores included here are duplicated in Saunders’ edition, Fourteen Motets from the Court of Ferdinand II. (note 2)

3.2 Saunders’ command of the source material, musical and otherwise, is impressive, and his book is rich in detail. My only substantial reservation is that I would have preferred a broader focus. Neither Priuli’s nor Valentini’s sacred works are well known today, and in fact, Valentini’s compositions with trumpets aside, they appear to be quite competent but generally unremarkable. One might argue that other genres practiced at Ferdinand’s court were more progressive. There were some outstanding instrumentalists, among them the violinists G.B. Buonamente and Antonio Bertali, the cornettist Giovanni Sansoni, the lutenist Pietro Paolo Meli, and the dulcianist G.A. Bertoli. Except for Sansoni, all of these virtuosos composed instrumental music, but their compositions, like the instrumental works of Priuli and Valentini themselves, receive only passing notice. Instrumental obbligato parts in sacred music understandably receive more attention. Excellent examples include Priuli’s Missa concertata in festivitatibus B.M.V. (1624), with its extremely florid obbligato parts for violin and cornetto (the latter surely intended for Sansoni), and Valentini’s motet In te Domine speravi (note 3) for bass voice and obbligato viola bastarda, perhaps the last composition ever written for that instrument. Instrumental participation in sacred music could provide an interface, leading into a discussion of instrumental music per se. Moreover, while it is true that the presence of Priuli and Valentini in the highest posts in Ferdinand’s musical chapel heralds the “era of the Italians,” it also marks the beginning of the “era of the instrumentalists.” Unlike most of their predecessors, Priuli and Valentini were instrumentalists, as were those who followed them.

3.3 As for secular music, Priuli published several collections of madrigals, and Valentini’s collection of 1622, Musiche, contains some interesting metrical experiments—passages in 5/4 time in one piece, 9/8 and 7/8 in another. Again, Saunders mentions this in passing, but our view of Ferdinand II’s court might have been enriched by viewing it through a larger window.

3.4 Finally, there is the matter of musical context in and around Vienna. Saunders is quite thorough in his discussion of Ferdinand’s archducal court at Graz, prior to his election as Holy Roman Emperor, but he says little about the imperial court music of Ferdinand II’s imperial predecessors, and even less about concurrent musical activities in Vienna and its environs. To be sure, this is not his focus, yet I think some potentially important relationships have been overlooked. Even though Ferdinand summarily dismissed nearly all of his predecessor Matthias’ musicians when he ascended the throne, the deposed Kapellmeister, Christoph Strauss, remained in Vienna as director of music at the cathedral, St. Stephan’s. Strauss’ collection of Masses, though not published until 1631, includes works with trumpets, and some of these may have been written considerably earlier, therefore inviting comparison with Valentini’s works for seven choirs.

4. Conclusion

4.1 But I find myself criticizing Saunders for falling short of objectives that are mine, not his. If his book is narrower in scope than I would like, it conversely treats sacred music in greater depth and detail than otherwise would have been possible. Saunders has given us an outstanding book that illuminates an obscure but crucial phase in the history of Austrian music. Return to beginning


*Stewart Carter (carter@wfu.edu) is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. He has just finished editing A Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music (Schirmer Books, 1997). Return to beginning

1. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,

ms. 16702.

Return to text

2. “Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era,” vol. 75 (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1995). Return to text

3. Kassel, Landesbibliothek, 2o, Ms. mus. 51o. Return to text

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