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Heinrich Isaac (Composer)

Born: c1445 - Flanders or Brabant
Died: March 26, 1517 - Florence, Italy

Heinrich [Henricus] Isaac [Ysaac, Isaak, Ysaak, Ysac, Yzac], [Arrigo d'Ugo, Arrigo Tedesco, Arrigo il Tedesco] was a Franco-Flemish (or a South Netherlandish) composer of the Renaissance. The Latin name-form ‘Henricus’, adopted here, is found in many documents and musical sources. Isaac was a prominent member of a group of Franco-Flemish musicians, including Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de La Rue, Alexander Agricola and others, who achieved international fame in the decades around 1500, influencing the Italian and European Renaissance. He is regarded as one of the most significant contemporaries of Josquin Desprez, and had an especially large influence on the subsequent development of music in Germany.


Little is known about Heinrich Isaac's early life, but it is probable that he was born in Flanders. It is known that he was writing music by the mid 1470s, and the first documentary reference to him is from 1484, when he was court composer at Innsbruck. The following year, he entered the service of Lorenzo de' Medici at Florence, where he was organist, choir master, and teacher to Lorenzo's children; he assumed this post on the death of Antonio Squarcialupi. In 1494, the Medici were banished from Florence; the era of Savonarola was beginning.

I was assumed that Isaac left the city along with many of the musicians of the Medici court. By 1497, Isaac was in the employ of Emperor Maximilian I. He travelled widely in Germany, and is credited with having a big influence on German composers of the time. However, according to recent scholarship, Isaac never left Florence in the sense that he kept property there and his contract with Maximilian actually stated that he was not required to be with the Imperial court at all times. He only left Florence to join them on special occasions.1

In 1502, he returned to Italy, going to Florence (actually, he never left Florence1) and then Ferrara, where he competed with Josquin for employment: a famous letter from the agent of the d'Este family compared the two composers, saying that "Isaac is of a better nature than Josquin, and while it is true that Josquin is a better composer, he only composes when he wants to, and not when asked; Isaac will compose when you want him to." However, according to recent scholarship, Isaac did not compete with Josquin for that job in Ferrara. The Duke asked this courtier (who was not a musician but rather just someone who knew of both composers) who he should pursue. Isaac did not seek the job.2

Isaac returned to Florence in 1514 (actually, he never left Florence1), and died there in 1517.


Heinrich Isaac was one of the most prolific composers of his time, but his work has been largely neglected in favour of Josquin (although the composer Anton Webern wrote his thesis on Isaac). He Isaac composed a wide variety of music, including masses, motets, German and Italian songs and instrumental music. Among his works are about 40 Mass Ordinaries, half cyclic (in the Netherlandish tradition), half based on liturgically appropriate plainsong melodies (in the German tradition); almost 100 cycles of the Proper of the Mass (following Germanic liturgical custom; most published posthumously in the 3-volume Choralis constantinus); over fifty independent motets; and nearly 100 secular songs, including French chansons, a few Italian frottole, and a large number of German Tenorlieder.

The genre of the motet in Isaac’s time was rather loosely defined. The vast majority of motets were composed to Latin texts, but they might be secular or religious, public or intimate, and might be performed with or without instruments. Aspects of function, style and form distinguish the motet, on the one hand, from works for performance in the liturgy such as settings of the Proper of the Mass, hymns or the Magnificat, and on the other from songs, so that we can distinguish, for example, sequence motets not for liturgical performance (e.g. Inviolata), secular motets (e.g. Quid retribuam tibi) and sacred songs (e.g. Christ ist erstanden). Most of Isaac’ s motets are settings of plainchant where the texts of the free voices and the cantus firmus are the same (Choralbearbeitungen ); others are based on borrowed tenors with different words, and some have no cantus firmus at all. Some textless works resemble motets more than songs and will be included here.

Heinrich Isaac’s German songs are conventionally categorized as ‘Tenorlieder’, although the use of a pre-existent melody in the tenor was widespread throughout Europe. They fall roughly into two groups. The popular song arrangements are comparable to their French counterparts, using more artifice than any of the Italian-texted songs. The kaleidoscopic ostinato textures, pervasive imitations and complex forms of Es wolt ein Meydlein, Greiner, Zancker or Mein Müterlein revive the spirit of Busnoys’ chansons rustiques. The cantus-firmus settings In meinem Sinn and Ain frewlich Wesen (really Flemish songs with Germanized titles) also belong in this group, as do the Leise settings Christ ist erstanden and In Gottes Namen; an autograph copy of the latter survives (in D-Bsb 40021). Simpler approaches characterize the devotional hymns Süsser Vater and Maria Junckfrow (stylistically related to the famous Mzart).

His best known work is probably the lied Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, of which he made at least two versions. It is possible, however, that the melody itself is not by Isaac, and only the setting is original. The same melody was later used as the theme for the Lutheran chorale O Welt, ich muß dich lassen, which was the basis of works by J.S. Bach and J. Brahms.

On his death, Heinrich Isaac left his Choralis Constantinus incomplete. It is the first known complete setting of the Proper of the Mass for the entire year, containing around one hundred settings. It was assumed that Isaac's student Ludwig Senfl completed the set. However, according to recent scholrship, there is no evidence that L. Senfl completed the Choralis Constantinus. He was asked to compile the two separate collections into a Proper cycle. It is not even clear how much of that he accomplished3. The Choralis Constantinus was not published until 1555, after his death. Isaac also wrote nearly 40 Mass Ordinaries.


The influence of Heinrich Isaac was especially profound in Germany, since he was the first significant master of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style who both lived there, and whose music was widely distributed there. It was through him that the polyphonic style of the Netherlanders became widely accepted in Germany, making possible the further development of contrapuntal music there.

As if in gratitude, German-speaking musicians of several centuries (particularly the 19th) have cherished him as the composer of Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen; at the same time, they searched feverishly for the presumed German folksong behind the famous setting.

Recent Scholarship

1. There has been a flurry of Isaac scholarship in the past several years which negates some of what has been believed in the past. It is established that not only did Isaac NOT leave Florence after the death of Lorenzo and the rise of Savonarola; but that he had married a native Florentine, acquired property, and to all extents become a Florentine citizen. In fact, when Maximilian asked him to become the Habsburg Hofkomponist, Isaac insisted on a contract that allowed him to remain in Florence most of the time and only traveled to meet the court Hofkapelle on special occasions. This is the first recorded instance in which a composer is treated as an artist raththan a household servant. Rather, Isaac sent music to the court and thus L. Senfl became Isaac’s scribe.

2. Isaac did not compete with Josquin for that job in Ferrara. The Duke asked this courtier (who was not a musician but rather just someone who knew of both composers) who he should pursue. Isaac did not seek the job and the opinion given was (in the words of Rob Wegman at Princeton) rather like a Washington bureaucrat judging between two contemporary composers.

3. The Choralis Constantinus has its origins in two separate repertories – one set of motets specifically written for the Konstanz Kantorei and the rest composed for the Habsburg choir. L. Senfl may have had something to do with the one part, but certainly not the other. Furthermore, both L. Senfl and Isaac were dead before the Choralis ever saw the light of day in 1550. There is no definitive proof that L. Senfl composed anything in it. He may have edited and transcribed some of it for the publisher Johannes Ott, who had acquired the Konstanz manuscripts from someone after the reformation came to Konstanz and the prince bishop had to flee in a hurry.

“Heinrich Isaac and his world” symposium at Jacobs School of Music in Indiana University, Bloomington (May 21-23, 2010)
Heinrich Isaac and his world by Ruth I. DeFord (Oxford Journals, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp. 481-482)


Source: HOASM Website; Wikipedia Website; Grove Music Online © Oxford University Press 2006; James D. Feiszli (November 2011)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (September 2005), Thomas Braatz (February 2006); James D. Feiszli, DMA (Director of Music, SDSMT; Director, ACDA ChoralNet; Director, ACDA International Conductors Exchange; Recent Scholarship addition - November 2011)

Chorale Melodies used in Bach’s Vocal Works





Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen > O Welt, ich muß dich lassen




Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen > Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works


Chorale Melody


Setting of the sacred song Christ ist erstanden

Christ ist erstanden

Links to other Sites

HOASM: Heinrich Isaac
Heinrich Isaac (Cyber-Hymnal)
Heinrich Isaac (
Heinrich Isaac - A Discography (
Heinrich Isaac - Biography, Discography (Goldberg)
Heinrich Isaac (Classical Composers)
Heinrich Isaac (Karadar)
Heinrich Isaac (Wikipedia)

Heinrich Isaac (Naxos)
Isaac, Heinrich (Estrella)
Isaac, Heinrich (Classical Music Archives)
Isaac, Heinrich (WQXR - Grove Music)
Heinrich Isaac (Hymnuts)
Isaac, Heinrich (BBKL) [German]
Mass Settings of Heinrich Isaac (BSU)



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Last update: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 15:09