The School of the Netherlands

The Dominance of the Netherlands.

The most important asset of a nation is its commercial activity, for upon that depends its art life. The fine arts are to an extent luxuries, and until a nation has, by commercial activity, acquired wealth, they cannot be earnestly cultivated, for all arts require from the artist his entire time and life, and until there is money and inclination enough among the people to support an artist in his commercially non-productive state, there can be no art; hence we see a shifting of art centres in the Middle Ages, just as the commercial centres changed.

The Netherlands were preeminently fitted to carry on great commercial pursuits by virtue of their geographical situation and long combat and association with the sea. Possessing the natural outlet to a great part of Europe, it was reasonable that the Net should play an important part in the Hanseatic League, and that her fleets should trade on every sea and her coffers be enriched by barter in the produce of every clime. It was a golden age for the Lowlands, from 1350 to 1625, for their trade made them one of the wealthiest and most important nations in the world. Their situation between the trading countries of the South and the North made them, as it were, the commercial exchange of Europe. The consequent wealth could not lie dormant, therefore much of it was used in building notable architectural structures, encouraging Painting, and developing the then infant art of Music. It is unnecessary to mention the famous structures which were the result of this period, and it is but necessary to name Hubert Van Eyck, Rubens, Van Dyck, to understand the prominence given to the art of Painting by the acquisition of this enormous wealth. And it is largely due to this commercial activity that the school of the Netherlands attained such an undying fame.

One other influence, and that dependent on commercial activity, produced great results. Art is not sectional, it is universal; and great art works are produced not by local influences but by association, or contact, with the world. For this reason, the intercourse with the entire world generated by the great commercial activity of the times produced the first great world School of Music. Intercourse developed emotion and produced broader and less localized view-points of life: it brought into close association the art life of different nations and infused a unity of emotion wherever it occurred. In short, Music, by being brought into contact with the ideas of the world instead of a local association, took on a universal form and feeling never before felt and never to be relinquished. For this reason, Music unconsciously advanced from Paris to the Netherlands, toward the greater sphere of influence, stopping for only a short period with the Gallo-Belgic school, where it was prepared technically for its new growth as a world form.

The Gallo-Belgic and the Netherlands Schools Compared.

The Gallo-Belgic school, in the control of churchmen, was isolated from any influence tending to develop a broad emotional scheme. And it is doubtful whether it could have caused any change in musical evolution, for the technical forms were not ready. And so the Gallo-Belgic school, in its retirement from the great world activities, confined itself to attaining the power to manipulate notes, for the sake of mere technical effects, leaving emotional development entirely out of consideration. With such a school, while its work was important, no real art feeling could be gained; and so the school of the Netherlands marks the departure into a new romantic school governed, to a great extent, by the emotional. The Netherlands, because of their more comprehensive view of the musical activities of the past and their constant intercourse, commercially and artistically, with all nations, acquired a more human sense of the beauty of music, and ceased to manipulate musical material for technical ends; producing instead of cold, lifeless forms, music pulsing with vigor, life and emotion. With this primary change of view-point came a direct growth of form, the Canon being perfected and immediately giving birth to the Fugue; the Madrigal and Canzona and many other lesser forms sprang into being, all capable of emotional development, and almost immediately producing great results. For the first time music was free from consecutive fourths, fifths and octaves because composers created from the standpoint of emotional beauty and not that of technical utility. The result was a musical technic capable of development, and refined beyond need of further reformation.

The Organ and its Influence.

The organ was the third great reformative power in this epoch. All music was vocal and no other conception could be had, for effective instruments and instrumental music were not yet in existence. The organ, because its tones were suited to accompanying the human voice and because its tone color was closely identical with that of the voice, was readily adapted to the vocal forms then in use. This gave a greater resource, for what was often technically impossible with the human voice became easy with the organ. The mechanical improvement of this instrument immediately gave greater freedom and range of technic, and it proved so well suited to polyphonic development that it aided the evolution more than any other one agency. The use of the organ must not be accounted as the beginning of instrumental music, for the organ used only adapted voice-forms, such as the Canon, Fugue, Madrigal, etc. ; for this reason it is to be doubted if it aided in emotional development except by making technical resources much less restricted. In this sense, then, the technic of this school was freed from most of its former rules, and Music, previously cramped by narrow vocal restrictions, passed into the comparative freedom of the polyphonic style of the organ.

The Men of this School are hardly to be separated from the men of the Gallo-Belgic school. The work passes from one school to the next with little or no perceptible pause, and the first men of the later school are pupils or disciples of the last men of the Gallo-Belgic period. Another noteworthy fact is, that so great was the musical growth, of this school and the skill and learning of its followers that the composers, of the Netherlands expatriated themselves and settled in all parts of Europe, founding famous schools in Paris, Madrid, Naples, Venice, Munich and Rome; the celebrated Italian school is really an offshoot of that of the Netherlands. It is this overflow which marks this school as the greatest of the early polyphonic schools and shows why and how it acquired its emotional supremacy. Jean de Okeghem (I43o-1512), pupil of Binchois, was the first prominent worker. It is difficult to class him as a composer of the Belgian or Netherlands school, for he has the earmarks of both. He lived during the supremacy of the Netherlands, but worked with the material of the Belgians. He developed the Canon to its highest technical point and took the first step toward the originating of the Fugue. To him is due the credit of introducing the use of retrograde, inverted, diminished and augmented imitation in the Canon. Much of his work was done in France. The tendency of his teaching was toward artificiality, as he delighted in puzzle canons and other exhibitions of ingenuity.

Antonius Brumel (1460-1520), a pupil of Okeghem, is noteworthy because of a foreshadowing of the use of chords in real harmonic progressions.

Jakob Hobreeht (1430-I5o6) was the first real Dutch composer, and is noted, in his use of technical forms, for their emotional beauty rather than mechanical excellence.

Part of a composition by Hobrecht, cited by Naumann, “History of Music,” Vol. I, page 331. Excerpt shows how strictly even this fragment is written and yet how musical it is. At I is shown a figure in the bass repeated in imitation a step higher at 2. At A is shown a melody imitated at B in augmentation and with altered rhythm. The student should refer to Naumann.

This is truly a remarkable work for that period, and shows that even then composers were beginning to observe the emotional power of chord relationship.

Johann Tinetor (1446-1511), a disciple of Okeghem, worked in Rome and Naples, and will be considered with the Italian school. Josquin de Pres (1450-1521), also a disciple of Okeghem, worked in Rome and Paris, and must also be considered as one of the Italian school. It may be here mentioned that he was one of the first to use music as a vehicle for expressing human emotions rather than technical power. He summed up in himself all the harmonic science of the 15th century. He was renowned through all Europe as a composer, and if his music seems to us somewhat dry and pedantic there is abundant testimony to the deep impression it made upon his contemporaries, which is a test of its power to excite and to express emotion. Compared with the works of his predecessors and even the majority of his contemporaries, Josquin’s writings show freedom from the bonds of the old scholasticism, greater simplicity and esthetic beauty. Among those of his works that have come to us is a Miserere for five voices, and an Ave Maria that cannot be considered other than lovely music. Nicholas Gombert (1495-T570), a pupil of Josquin de Pres, had a natural, tuneful and flowing style similar to that afterwards shown by Palestrina. His work was done in Madrid, and to him Spain and Portugal owe all they have of the ancient polyphonic music. Jacob Arkadelt (1492-1570) and Claude Goudimel (1510-1572) worked in Rome, Adrian Willaert (1480-1562) and Cipriano de Rore (1516-1565) in Venice, and will be considered with the Italian school. Orlando di lasso (1520-1594) worked some in Italy, but mostly in Munich, where his influence was great. His style was broad, flowing and especially emotional, and as a writer of the Netherlands school his name stands as one of the very highest. J. P. Sweelinck (1562-1621) is the last, and while of the Netherlands, studied in Venice, but did his work at home. He was a great organist and the last great master of the school, and. had the honor of being the link between it and the German school, serving as an example for Sebastian Bach. His works have recently been published in Germany. Of all these men it may be said that they developed music steadily toward the goal of emotional freedom.


The great work of this school was to make technic subservient to thought. In all preceding schools, the material and the forms were so new and the methods of handling them so crude, that technic always dominated thought. And it was naturally so, for expression cannot come until the power to master the material has been attained; it was by this power that the Netherlands developed emotional music. But the student invariably objects and says he does not see any emotion in the polyphonic music of this period! The student must place himself in the position of these old masters, supported by the church and constantly imbibing the religious atmosphere of the institution they served, until they unconsciously expressed, in their music, the grandeur and power of their religion rather than the intimate personal feeling of modern musicians; and then the student will understand what is meant by polyphonic emotion. We must always remember that polyphonic emotion is not monophonic emotion, and that its tremendous technic and complexity of device were but the means of expressing its peculiar form of emotion, which to understand, one must study diligently, and then approach with a reverent feeling.