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Home / Authors, Composers and Clinicians / ISAAC, Heinrich(1450-1517)
ISAAC, Heinrich(1450-1517)
Picture About ISAAC, Heinrich(1450-1517)

Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450 – 26 March 1517) was a Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer of south Netherlandish origin. He wrote masses, motets, songs (in French, German and Italian), and instrumental music. A significant contemporary of Josquin des Prez, Isaac influenced the development of music in Germany. Several variants exist of his name: Ysaac, Ysaak, Henricus, Arrigo d'Ugo, and Arrigo il Tedesco among them. (Tedesco means "Flemish" or "German" in Italian.)

Little is known about Isaac's early life (or indeed his real name), but it is probable that he was born in Flanders, probably in Brabant. During the late 15th century, standards of music education in the region were excellent, and he was probably educated in his homeland, although the location is not known. Sixteenth-century Swiss music theorist and writer Heinrich Glarean claimed Isaac for Germany by dubbing him "Henricus Isaac Germanus", but in his will Isaac called himself "Ugonis de Flandria". A writer in the Milanese Revista critica della literatura italiana, June 1886, speculated that this 'Hugo' might be connected to 'Huygens' and discovered the name "Isaacke" in the town archives of Bruges.

Isaac was one of the most prolific composers of the time, producing an extraordinarily diverse output, including almost all the forms and styles current at the time; only Lassus, at the end of the 16th century, had a wider overall range. Music composed by Isaac included masses, motets, songs in French, German, and Italian, as well as instrumental music. His best known work may be the lied Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, of which he made at least two versions. It is possible, however, that the melody itself is not by Isaac, and only the setting is original. The same melody was later used as the theme for the Lutheran chorale O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, which was the basis of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, including his St Matthew Passion and Johannes Brahms.

Of his settings of the ordinary of the mass, 36 survive; others are believed to have been lost. Numerous individual movements of masses survive as well. But it is composition of music for the Proper of the Mass – the portion of the liturgy which changed on different days, unlike the ordinary, which remained constant – which gave him his greatest fame. The huge cycle of motets which he wrote for the mass Proper, the Choralis Constantinus, and which he left incomplete at his death, would have supplied music for 100 separate days of the year.

Isaac is held in high regard for his Choralis Constantinus. It is a huge anthology of over 450 chant-based polyphonic motets for the Proper of the Mass. It had its origins in a commission that Isaac received from the Cathedral in Konstanz, Germany in April 1508 to set many of the Propers unique to the local liturgy. Isaac was in Konstanz because Maximilian had called a meeting of the Reichstag (German Parliament of nobles) there and Isaac was on hand to provide music for the Imperial court chapel choir. After the deaths of both Maximilian and Isaac, Ludwig Senfl, who had been Isaac's pupil as a member of the Imperial court choir, gathered all the Isaac settings of the Proper and placed them into liturgical order for the church year. But the anthology was not published until 1555, after Senfl's death, by which time the reforms of the Council of Trent had made many of the texts obsolete. The motets remain some of the finest examples of chant-based Renaissance polyphony in existence.

Isaac composed a 6-voice motet Angeli Archangeli for the Feast of All Saint’s Day, honoring angels, archangels, and all other saints. Another famous motet by Isaac is Optime pastor (Optime divino), written for the accession to the papacy of Medici pope Leo X. This motet compares the Pope to a shepherd capable of soothing all of his flock and binding them together.

While in the service of the Medici in Florence, Isaac wrote a lament on the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, Quis dabit capiti meo aquam (1492), which set words by Lorenzo's favorite poet, Angelo Poliziano.