Sonata I and II from „Tyd en Konst-Oeffeningen“ for Viola da gamba and Basso continuo
Johannes Schenck (1660 – after 1710) is „[...] by far the most important Dutch composer for the viola da gamba of that time [...].“ Around 1700 he found himself in the good company of composers from cities such as Bruges, Brussels or Utrecht, who wrote solo pieces for the viola da gamba, they, however, did not achieve his fame and finesse.
Johannes Schenck was baptised on the 3rd of June 1660 in the Catholic Mozes en Aaron Kerk in Amsterdam. His parents originally came from Germany and before his birth they had moved into the trading centre. Therefore he grew up with the Dutch language and culture. Unfortunately until now the sources have shed no light on the musical education that Schenck received. In 1680 Schenck was still living in Amsterdam, when he married Geertuyd Hamel van Vianen. He was active there as a musician, composed and played in concerts, and enjoyed a universally big standing with the burghers and merchants. Many of his works were issued by the local printer Estienne Roger and dedications to– for example – the Mayor Nicolaas Witsen, showed the affection and patronage given to Johannes Schenck. Presumably it was also his good reputation and fame as a composer and musician that in 1696 brought him the position at the court of the Elector Johann Wilhelm II of the Pfalz in Düsseldorf. The Elector, married to Anna Maria Luisa von Medici, himself played the Viola da Gamba and thus it seems reasonable to suppose that he had already become acquainted with Schenck’s works in Amsterdam. During his time as gambist in the court in Düsseldorf Schenck’s body of works for the viola da gamba grew considerably. Here Schenck worked surrounded by musicians of an international reputation ie the lutenist Johann Sigismund Weiss or the librettist Steffani. In 1711 Händel himself came to Düsseldorf to win over the castrato Baldassari for his operas in London.. Besides Schenck’s activity as a musician he also held posts at the court.. „In the diary of the coronation of Karl the VIth in Frankfurt am Main on the 22nd December 1711 ‚Herr Cammer-Rath Schenk’ in the retinue of the Elector of the Pfalz was mentioned.“ After that several sources about his life have been lost.
Besides compositions for gamba Johannes Schenck also composed vocal music. In particular we can place an emphasis on the songs for the opera Bacchus, Ceres en Venus, which was published in 1687, since they comprise his first preserved compositions. Tyd en konst-oeffeningen, opus 2, is Schenck’s first instrumental work. It appeared from Roger in 1688 and is a collection of 15 Suites for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Besides Nicolaas Witsen, Schenck dedicated this work also to Jakob Boreel, a court official in Amsterdam, who was presumably also a patron of his. Three years later Roger published in Amsterdam, as he did with all of Schenck’s following works, l Gardino armonico, op. 3, a collection of 12 Sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba and continuo, which for a long time was considered to have been lost. However, a few years ago a Dutch musicologist succeeded in locating these sonatas once again in the Zelter-Archiv of the Berliner Sing-Akademie, after the archives had returned from Kiev. In Johannes Schenck’s compositional output there followed the Scherzi Musicali, opus 6, printed in 1698. These 101 single pieces are grouped by key into 14 Suites, which Schenck describes as being for viola da gamba und basso continuo ad libitum. It is the first work which he brought out after beginning his activity at the court in Düsseldorf. The Scherzi Musicali form one of the central works of the literature for solo gamba in the Netherlands. In 1702 Le Nymphe di Rheno appeared as opus 8. The picturesque title gave no clues that here Schenck was writing compositions in suite and sonata form for two gambas. The two voices are composed as fully equal solos. Schenck’s blended style, which had become consolidated through his previous compositions, came now to fruition. The dedicatee of this collection is his employer Johann Wilhlem II, also known as “Jan Wellem“ .
Whatever the motivation, Schenk’s suggested performance by two melodic bass instruments was an innovation in the Netherlands in as much as all earlier Dutch combinations had included at least one soprano instrument.
Johannes Schenck also gave a similar picturesque title, this time in French, to the collection L’echo du Danube, opus 9, which appeared in print in around 1704. In contrast to opus 8, these pieces were written mainly for solo gamba solo, many of them with basso continuo or also basso continuo ad libitum. The dedicatee is the Baron of Diamantenstein, the superintendent of court music and Kommissar of the estates around Neuburg on the Donau – in close connection with Jan Wellem. Schenck’s final work, Les fantaisies bisarres de la goutte, op. 10, must unfortunately be considered as lost..
The collection Tyd en konst-oeffeningen consists of 15 Sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo in two part-books. Schenck calls them sonatas, but up to four of them are dance suites with the usual sequence Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Gigue. Several of them are introduced by a Prelude (or short pieces in various tempi) and some movements are completed by a variatio.