Pieter Dirksen Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s organ and harpsichord music
Het ORGEL 98 (2002), nr. 2, 5-11 [summary]

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) lived and worked in Amsterdam. As far as we know, he travelled only once in his life: to Antwerp, to buy a Ruckers harpsichord. Nonetheless, Sweelinck was well informed about the European music culture: his work shows influences from England, Italy, Spain and Germany.

Sweelinck wrote his keyboard music most probably in the last 15 years of his life. Most of what survived is known from copies originating with his foreign pupils.

Characteristic is Sweelinck’s variation technique. In many cases, he opens with one voice, then adds a second, then a third, until the last variation is a four-part one.Sweelinck often combines variations in pairs. Many of his variations are based on ecclesiastical melodies. These variation cycles are clearly organ music; the cycles based on secular songs and dances fit the harpsichord better .

Sweelinck excelled particularly in his fantasias. In his time, composing a fantasia meant realising an individual type of music, based on imitative counterpoint. This is valid not only for the large monothematic fantasias (most of which are based on an existing theme), but also for the more playful echo fantasias.

The fantasia and variation cycle were typical Dutch genres. The toccata was not: Sweelinck introduced the Venetian toccata to Northern-Europe. He added English passage work and polyphony to the Italian concept.