Johann Speth

This obscure composer, and organist of the Cathedral of Augsburg, has been on my mind lately. Johann Speth lived from 1664 to about 1719; there is no record of his death, but all mention of him abruptly ceases in that year.

Augsburg is a city in Bavaria (technically Swabia), and was founded in 14 BC by Caesar Augustus…making the origin of its name quite obvious! Despite its prominence in Lutheran history, the city retained a Catholic presence, and also had a respected musical establishment. Speth’s childhood, spent in Speinshart, involved musical training in a monastery. He was immersed in Catholic tradition as well as a confluence of musical traditions.

Speth unveiled his Ars Magni, a collection of organ pieces, in 1692. The stylistic resemblance to Kerll, Muffat, Fischer, and Frescobaldi is clear. His toccatas (given the whimsical German subtitles of “fields of flowers,” perhaps an allusion to Frescobaldi’s Fiori Musicali) are in the South German style, approaching the form of a suite. Often they begin grave, then feature a contrapuntal allegro section, then end grave again; sometimes even recapitulating the opening material. And yes, dotted homophonic rhythms may be found here.

In other words, you might in a few cases infer a format strikingly similar to the ouverture of which I’ve written recently. Fischer composed works titled ouverture. The formal structure seems to be clearly related…unlike that of BWV 552!

Not all of the toccatas are in this format, and not all are even multi-sectional. Many feature diatonic passagework over a long pedal tone, and pedal is frequently optional or unnecessary. There is a strong influence from the Italian durezze e ligature style, and it seems to be a basic feature of Speth’s style to resolve a harmony by leaping up from the leading tone to the third scale degree, be it major or minor. This is an Italianate gesture, but Speth uses it heavily.

None of the “musikalisches Blumen Feld” pieces is in five parts, nor does any approach the grandeur and scope of Buxtehude or Lübeck. Despite that, the amount of textural variety and melodic invention rivals that of any North German. Despite a lighter and more unpretentious style, Speth is gifted with a wealth of invention that makes him well worth your study.

He’s not too similar to Dretzel, as far as remaining evidence can tell us. Dretzel may have made his mark by presenting a sustained pastiche of Bach; as yet nothing of his has come to light precisely in the South German toccata style. And I’ve not played anything by Speth, as of yet, that exceeds a conservative bound of ambition…quite a difference from Dretzel!

The organs of southern Germany represent a distinct tradition, as we know. My excellent Doblinger edition of the Speth, edited by Ingemarr Melchersson, includes the stoplist of the small Ammerbach organ (1577) on the cathedral’s rood-screen. I was tickled to see a new designation for the “klein Gedackt,” or four-foot stopped flute, typical nomenclature for these organs. It is here called a Klein Verdeckht. I don’t see any point in laying down rules for registration. One might go light, and omit reeds for the most part (except that the Ammerbach had a Busaunen, which might license a strong pedal reed). Honestly, register the pieces appropriately and tastefully for the music and the instrument.

Speth’s works impress me as highly inventive and useful organ music. This summer, I’ve been working through his “flower fields” for preludes and postludes. I may not need to return to them soon…but I am happy to be playing them in these dog days of summer, when I have a reduced appetite anyway, and flowers abound.

About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food. Cat lover, too.
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