Heinrich Isaac

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Heinrich Isaac (also known as Ysaac, Ysaak, Henricus, Arrigo d'Ugo, and Arrigo il TedescoTedesco meaning "Flemish" or "German" in Italian) (around 1450-55 – 26 March 1517) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance, of south Netherlandish origin. He is regarded as one of the most significant contemporaries of Josquin des Prez, and had an especially large influence on the subsequent development of music in Germany.


Early life

Little is known about Isaac's early life (or indeed his real name), but it is probable that he was born in Flanders, likely in Brabant. During the late 15th century, standards of music education in the region were excellent, and he likely was educated in his homeland, although the location is not known.[1][2] 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.


Heinrich Isaac’s career spanned well over thirty years and allowed him to travel far from his homeland of Flanders into Germany, Italy, and Austria, as well as other parts of central Europe. While the absence of plentiful primary sources makes it hard for us to map out Isaac’s life, piecing together the sources we do have along with the works he wrote give us a good picture of just how popular this Franco-Flemish composer was in his time. Isaac was probably writing music by the 1470s, and the first document mentioning his name dates back to 15 September 1484, placing him in Innsbruck as a singer for Duke Sigismund of Austria, of the House of Habsburg. The following year Isaac migrated to Florence, since documents show that by July of 1485 Isaac had become employed as a singer at the church Santa Maria del Fiore. By the middle of 1491, he was designated as a singer at Santissima Annunziata, a position that he held until 1493.

Several documents illustrate Isaac’s long stay in Florence under the employment of Santa Maria del Fiore and Santissima Annunziata as a singer, and also suggest that he may have developed a close working-relationship with Lorenzo de’ Medici. It is speculated that it was Medici who may have summoned Isaac to Florence from Innsbruck in 1484.[3] Previously, Isaac had been identified as an organist to Lorenzo but the Isaac who served at this post is now known to have been Isaac Argyropoulos.[4] During his presence in Florence from 1484 until the end of 1496, Isaac probably composed several masses, motets and secular songs, including missa “J’ay pris amours” and the carnival song “Hora è di Maggio”. In 1487 Isaac composed the piece “A la battaglia” to commemorate the battle between Genoa and Florence for the castle Sarzanello although there is much debate over the exact date and purpose of the piece.[5] Isaac’s relationship with Lorenzo de’ Medici must have been fairly close, because allegedly between 1488 and 1489 he composed the music for a play called “San Giovanni e San Paolo”, written by Medici himself. Moreover, when Lorenzo died in April of 1492 Isaac composed two motets in his memory. Lorenzo’s son Piero inherited everything he owned, including his musical groups. In September 1492 Piero took his musical groups to Rome to perform for the coronation of Pope Alexander VI.[4] Records show that Isaac was one of the three singers for whom clothing was purchased for the trip, implying that he probably performed for the Pope.[6]

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