Around 1440, a son named Johann was born to the Burgomaster of Amorbach, Peter Welcker. The pretty town, built around a once-powerful Benedictine abbey in the Odenwald, is not far from where I have lived since 1988. Johann was sent to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, where one of his teachers had introduced printing to the French capital. He continued to Venice, then the European center of humanistic book printing and publishing, and eventually set up shop in Basel, where he took the name of his birthplace. Johann Amerbach prospered; his son Bonifacius (1495-1562) became the most famous member of the family. He was a major humanist, a friend of Erasmus, an art collector, professor of jurisprudence and rector of the University of Basel. Before he went to Avignon for doctoral studies, he commissioned a portrait by his fellow townsman Hans Holbein the Younger, in case he didn’t survive the time away from home. Later he collected works by this greatest portraitist of all time (pace admirers of Rembrandt and Velazquez), and saved them from destruction by Calvinist iconoclasts.
One of his hobbies was music; he played the lute and keyboards, and in 1513 while still a student he commenced a book of music for the latter, notated in “Old German” tablature – a form of notation known in France at least a century previous (Robertsbridge Codex). Amerbach’s first copyist was nobody less than the most famous organist of his hometown, Hans Kotter from Strasbourg, former keyboardist to the Elector of Saxony at Torgau. Compilation continued steadily for about five years, eventually employing other scribes; ceased for long intervals; and was finished after another 15. It was handed down, along with three much smaller music manuscripts (one of them for lute), to Amerbach’s descendants, and eventually purchased by the city of Basel. Now kept at the Universitätsbibliothek under the signature F IX 22, the repertoire consists of the usual mixture of ornamented arrangements of sacred and secular vocal works, with a few dances and free compositions thrown in.
None of this is news to students of the early keyboard repertoire. But Kotter and the other slightly later “K”, Leonhard Kleber with his even bigger tablature book, are neglected by practitioners – not without some justification. Most of the pieces are what a prominent organist laughingly called “prehistoric” in my presence, while seated at the great Ebert instrument in the Innsbruck Hofkirche. They are some steps further along from the “babbling of a toddler”, which is how Eitner characterized the works found in the Buxheim Organ Book from the previous century. Rough-edged, exhibiting occasional Gothicisms, full of clichéd ornaments, steeped in the melancholy ethos of 15th-century German song...most of Kotter’s entries in the book are not really encore material. Nor are those of the later scribes any different. They are a little like the endless, standardized Gothic altars in the world’s museums, which one passes by with a brief glance, in order to shuffle along, feeling slightly guilty, to the Botticellis and Ghirlandaios.
While planning an upcoming visit to my favorite small organ in The Netherlands (Krewerd), I was looking for scores to take along, and thought of my old photocopies of the Amerbach/Kotter edition by Hans Joachim Marx (Schwiezerische Musikdenkmäler Band 6, Kassel, 1967, and please don’t report me to the copy police). I probably hadn’t looked at them since preparing a literature class around 1990. The free pieces – in Kotter’s case, preludes and a postlude, all attributed to him – are always the most interesting if one cares about the history of keyboard composition. There are nine such pieces in Amerbach’s book, and with one exception, they are...prehistoric.
That one piece immediately stands out: no.26, a Proœmium in re. There is not a moment of awkwardness anywhere in the brief work. All is elegance, balance and logical forward flow to an impressive chordal climax. There are also a few in this group which fall way below the average level, and which I doubt could be by Kotter. All this, to my mind, puts the uniform attribution to the scribe in doubt.
Marx has a handwriting analysis which I have to rely on while the MS awaits digitalization. Not that I claim any expertise in the field, but I would like to know who wrote the superscriptions to the pieces, as opposed to the music notation itself, which is undoubtedly starts out in Kotter’s hand. A couple of these titles contain such extravagant praise of Kotter in student Latin (e.g., “a musician of talents far above all others”) that I can’t imagine Kotter himself would have dared write them, unless in jest. One title is even in learnèd Greek: ANABOLE, a postlude.
If – as I suspect – Amerbach was responsible for naming Kotter as composer of all the free pieces, at least some of the attributions could be mistaken. Kotter studied with Paul Hofhaimer, the Emperor Maximilan’s internationally famous keyboard virtuoso and teacher. I wrote about the connection between Hofhaimer and Italy, through Dionisio Memo to Marc’Antonio Cavazzoni, in article 8. The only keyboard pieces by Hofhaimer which have survived are a few cantus firmus settings and versions of the tenor Tandernack. We have no idea what his legendary improvisations were like, and not a trace of Memmo’s music survives, unless hidden in Petrucci’s lute publications. The “Kotter” Proœmium in re has more of Italy about it than Strasbourg, Saxony or Switzerland. It employs some of the same gestures and Josquin-like duets in contrasting ranges which are found in preludes which I think are actually by Kotter, but in the manner of a master instructing a pupil. Could it be a relic of Kotter’s years with Hofhaimer (1498-ca. 1500)? Or a piece that drifted north over the Alps?
Or perhaps it is just Kotter’s best effort.
June 27, 2023
PS: The video appended here was made (27 July, 2023) on the anonymous 1531 organ in the East Groningen village of Krewerd, as adumbrated above. The case of this glorious little instrument has Renaissance lines that recall those of Hans Buchner's 1520 instrument in Konstanz. Special thanks go to my daughter Emma Ypeij, who used her iPhone to make the capture.
Anhang: “New Grove” says: “It is safe to assume that the three [Amerbach keyboard] tablatures were intended primarily for the clavichord.” But the same article (“Kotter”) refers to them as “organ tablatures”. The Fundamentum at the beginning of the large MS does illustrate the keyboard clavicordii, but that Latin genitive can refer to any stringed keyboard instrument. While Amerbach is known to have owned more than one clavichord (if the term has been accurately translated from inventories or letters), there are enough references to the organ in the MS, not to mention the presence of a considerable number of organ pieces, to render the above statement superfluous, to say the least.
Any attempt to limit keyboard music of this period to a particular instrument is absurd. It should be remembered that Kotter’s teacher, Paul Hofheimer, is shown traveling with organs and harpsichords in “The Triumph of Emperor Maximilian”. Clavichords were undoubtedly more common than the harpsichord family in early 16th-century Basel, as they were all over Europe until the fortepiano invasion. But I would bet my last shirt that Erasmus heard a harpsichord during one of his Basel visits to his publisher Johann Froben(ius) and his friend Bonifacius Amerbach.
click to listen (mp4 file)