Entertainment Music

Friday 20 September 2019

ClassicTalk: The man behind the 'Sunday Miscellany' theme

George Hamilton

If you're a regular listener to Sunday Miscellany, RTÉ Radio One's regular collection of music and musings, you'll know the number that serves as its signature tune.

Galliard Battaglia is the work of a composer, who was born on this date back in 1587.

Though there are unfortunate connotations when said aloud, the name Scheidt is by no means unusual.

Samuel Scheidt and his younger brother Gottfried were prominent musicians in the early years of the period that has come to be known as the Baroque.

Samuel, born in Halle in the east where the Protestant Reformation had taken root, was an organist who went to Amsterdam to study with the most sought-after teacher of the time, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.

You can trace a line from the influence Sweelinck would have had on Scheidt, through Buxtehude and Pachebel, and on to Johann Sebastian Bach who brought what they had all honed - the chorale variation for keyboard - to its very pinnacle.

Following his study break in the Low Countries, Scheidt went back to Halle to take up the position as organist at the local court.

The main man there was the Margrave of Brandenburg, one of whose descendants would commission the concertos from Bach that would eventually bear his name.

Those Brandenburg Concertos were composed exactly 100 years after the piece that's heard on the radio every Sunday morning.

Galliard Battaglia, which dates from 1621, was very much a piece of its time, based on a popular musical form familiar far and wide.

Just as that very 21st-century entertainment Dancing with the Stars will feature, among others, a foxtrot, a tango, a waltz, and a Charleston, so the ballroom half a millennium before would play host to the courante, the pavane - and the galliard, a Renaissance dance in triple time.

The "battaglia" element of the title refers to the counterpoint as the piece's themes are batted back and forth by the principal instruments.

The mood is perfectly caught by the duelling trumpets that introduce Sunday Miscellany, as they respond in kind to each melodic line.

Galliard Battaglia is part of a small collection entitled 'Battle Suite', but it's the only part that's regularly heard anywhere these days.

And you'd struggle to hear much of the copious catalogue of organ music that flowed from the pen of Samuel Scheidt, one of the most important composers of Protestant church music in the 17th century.

His tale, though, is not one of unbridled success.

As part of his duties, he was responsible for the city's boys' choir, which was drawn from top Gymnasium, or grammar school.

He was none too enamoured of the quality the youngsters produced. "They sing like cattle, they bleat like sheep with plums in their mouths," was how he put it.

He demanded so much of them in time and effort, their studies suffered.

This brought him into conflict with the school's authorities.

Something had to give, and what gave was Scheidt's hold on his position as Halle's director of music.

As setbacks go, it was minor. He was able to forge a career as a freelance composer, and supplement his income as an independent teacher.

And some years later, he got his old job back. The City of Halle sure knew the value of Samuel Scheidt.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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