Heinrich Isaac died in Florence on March 26, 1517.
We know what happened to the reputations of renaissance composers: they bombed from the moment the composer died, were occasionally mentioned in treatises over the following centuries, until finally groups like mine took their music up and established a following for them on the contemporary concert-giving scene. There have been just a few exceptions: those who wrote for the Anglican church have been sung almost without break in religious services; Palestrina was put on a pedestal; and Josquin’s good name survived for more decades than most after his death, until he too vanished from sight.
The one deviation to this parade of death and resurrection is Heinrich Isaac. Having established a standing in his lifetime, after he died he continued uniquely to flourish. This was made possible by the fact that his music came to be worshipped by German musicians as the source of their national musical culture. This devotion has had its ups and downs historically – Hitler was not slow to tap into it – but the essence was that Isaac’s music had so dominated the musical life of the Hapsburg court in Vienna from 1497 until his death exactly 500 years ago, that the tradition there always acknowledged his influence. It is perhaps no accident that the peak of his posthumous fame was achieved in the Vienna of the 1890’s which resulted, for example, in a critical edition of one of his publications by Anton von Webern, prefaced by a remarkable essay on Isaac’s counterpoint. An irony here is that while the Nazis lauded Isaac, they suppressed Webern.
But long before the Romantics got hold of him Isaac had been prized – by Protestants as well as Catholics and not least by JS Bach. One source of the fascination was his simple but supremely beautiful valedictory song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen which, with the text modified as O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, had been naturalised as a Lutheran chorale and set by Bach.