HANDL, JACOB (1550-—1591)

Jacob Handl (Jakob Gallus), was a very gifted Slovenian musician and composer born at Ribnica, 1550— and died at Prague, 1591. He was a resident in Austria, Moravia and Bohemia for all of his adult life. He most likely obtained his early formal education at the Cistercian monastery in Stic“na. From early on, he went to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, Austria and then on to Vienna where he was a singer in the imperial chapel of Maximilian II for a year. From 1575, he spent four years travelling in Austria, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia, living in monasteries and taking the opportuntiy, as he put it, ‘to understand the muse and meditate on the shepherd’s pipe.’ Among the places he visited were Breslau, Olomouc, Prague and the Premonstratensian monastery at Zabrdovice where he was employed as a teacher and possibly also as choirmaster.
In 1579 or early 1580, Handl was appointed choirmaster to the Bishop of Olomouc, Stanislaus Pavlovsky, whom he served for 5 years and who had a high regard for him. From 1586 until his untimely death in 1591, he lived as an active musician-composer in Prague as Kantor at St. Jan na Br“zechu. The literary society here included many prominent citizens and one of its functions was to perform choral music. The chaplain-composer from the Imperial court of Rudolf II dedicated one of his compositions to Handl so highly was he thought of.
The only criticism of Handl’'s music during his lifetime seems to have been for the compliexity of his music. In his 3rd book of Opus Musicum, he felt obliged to defend the number of voices he used in his polychoral works (one work used 24 voices. Handl’'s polychoral music represents a summation of an era, a fascinating blend of the styles and techniques of the day. His Opus Musicum (four books) contains 445 motets for the whole liturgical year. Latin was the consistent language used. He also wrote 20 Masses and some secular works as well.
His music displays a distinct Netherlands influence, particularly that of Lassus. He exploited the possibilities of a cappella polychoral idioms as fully as any Venetian and he clearly had an ear for unusual choral sonorities while always avoiding dense, word-obscuring textures. He manages the rhythmic relationships between words and notes with great sensitivity. His music shows a preponderance of full triadic harmony and numerous chromatic progressions, many of which arise from the juxtaposition of chords whose roots lie a third apart. The association between text and melody is particularly sympathetic, and there is a good deal of word-painting.
Handl organized much of his music in abstract formal patterns, demonstrating an unusually firm grasp of the principles of formal balance and contrast that were so conspicuously to inform 17th century music. Much of his music seems remarkably tonal. At the very least, it attests to his awareness of the implications of major-minor polarity.
"Pater Noster" by Jacob Handl is a masterpiece of polychoral music writing from the 16th century, a gem in the choral repertoire adapting very well to wind and string sonorities.