The boundless Flemish heritage of Heinrich Isaac
The Corn Harvest by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Heinrich Isaac (1450—1517) was a versatile and prolific Flemish composer of both secular and church music.
He was a prominent member of a group of Franco-Flemish musicians, including Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de La Rue, and Alexander Agricola who achieved international fame around early 1500, influencing the Italian and European Renaissance.
Little is known about Isaac's early life, but it is probable that he was born in Flanders. After 1480, he is known to have been in Florence in the service of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a member of the powerful ruling Medici family.
Typical of his time, Isaac traveled extensively around Italy, to which his large body of compositions attests in its unusual degree of cosmopolitan nature of the international Franco-Flemish school of the age.
With the fall of the Medici and their expulsion from Florence, Isaac lost his posts and was obliged to seek employment with the Hapsburgs at Vienna.
In 1497, he was appointed court composer to Emperor Maximilian I, however, he did maintain a house in Florence until his death. His work for the Emperor did not require continuous residence at the court but allowed stays of considerable length in various German cities, in northern Italy, and in Florence.
The influence of Heinrich Isaac was especially profound in Germany since he was the first significant master of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style who lived and composed there. It was through him that the polyphonic style of the Netherlanders became widely accepted in Germany, making possible the further development of contrapuntal music there.
Listen to Lamento per la morte di Lorenzo Il Magnifico performed by Jordi Savall and his associated Capella Reila de Catalunya and instrumental group Hesperion XXI:
In 1512 the Medici returned to Florence, and a year later Giovanni de' Medici, Isaac's former student, ascended the papal throne as Leo X. Isaac thereupon requested papal assistance for reinstatement to his former positions at Florence. When these negotiations were successfully completed, Isaac journeyed north for release from further obligations to his imperial master.
With characteristic magnanimity, Emperor Maximilian permitted the composer to return to Florence without loss of salary and, in effect, gave him a pension to enjoy his last years in Italy.