On the works

Generally acknowledged as the leading Central European figure of his generation of composers, Senfl left an enormous oeuvre to posterity, encompassing a wide range of the sixteenth-century polyphonic genres: six mass ordinary settings that can be attributed with certainty, some 120 surviving mass proper cycles (including more than 280 individual compositions), 110 surviving motets, eight canons, eight Magnificat settings, about 250 German songs that can be attributed with certainty, as well as Latin odes. Thus far, only some of these works can be placed within a loose chronology, whether because they are transmitted in manuscripts dating from an early phase of Senfl’s life (such as some of the compositions in the manuscript Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg Ms. 142a), through the testimony of letters (e.g. Sancte pater, divumque decus / Sancte Gregori, confessor) or on account of their connection with historical events (such as Missa L’homme arme and Ecce quam bonum).

The high esteem in which Senfl was already held by his contemporaries stems not least from the uniqueness and vast number of his largely four-voice German lieder. They address not only religious questions but also contemporary life (dance rhythms, drinking songs, satire), and especially the various forms and expressions of love. Explicit references to Senfl’s personal life only appear in exceptional cases, for example in the autobiographical song Lust hab’ ich g’habt zur Musica (with the acrostic “Ludwig Sennfl”).

Another central role in Senfl’s oeuvre is played by his settings of the Proprium Missae, which he continued to compose in Munich in accordance with Isaac’s work concept. The repertoire of mass propers by Isaac that Senfl brought with him to Munich was partly revised, newly copied, arranged and supplemented by Senfl with numerous additions. An important contribution here is the Opus Musicum consisting of four choirbooks (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, Mus.ms. 35-38). In these manuscripts, which were completed in 1531, Senfl combined his own proper settings as well as settings by his teacher from different creative periods into a polyphonic gradual for the entire church year. In this new order, they both define and reflect liturgical practice at the Munich court in the first half of the sixteenth century.

A third complex of works extensive in number is represented by the motets, only a small portion of which have been edited and researched to date. In the works that survive from after 1520, an intensive examination of the compositional style of Josquin Desprez can be detected (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, Mus.ms. 10 and 12), which is also reflected in the selection of works Senfl included in the Liber selectarum cantionum. By quoting melodic material by Josquin and adapting structural principles used in some of his works, Senfl paid homage to his predecessor, and he continued to develop the subgenre of the psalm motet Josquin is credited with having pioneered.

Senfl’s fascination in compositional challenges can be witnessed in all genres and especially in works of larger scoring, above all in contrapuntally demanding tasks (the combination of more than one cantus firmi) or the frequent use of canons (riddle canons include Salve sancta parens, Crux fidelis – Ecce lignum crucis – O crux ave spes unica). Senfl’s edition of motets by Josquin contributed significantly to the lasting reception of Josquin in the German-speaking world, but through his own music, Senfl himself had a significant impact on the musical life of his time that persisted into the seventeenth century, whether through continued performance or its use for teaching and study purposes.