Renaissance Art and Music

: the space between

Guest Blog Post: Elisabeth Giselbrecht and Elizabeth Upper

Image 1: Coat-of arms Cardinal Lang in Colour; frontispiece Liber selectarum cantionum. Copy from British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Printing music and art together

In 1520 the Augsburg humanist Conrad Peutinger described the Liber selectarum cantionum in the epilogue as “most pleasant and full of skill” but also as “great labour and at no little expense.” The pleasantries were accurate: the Liber selectarum, which was edited by Ludwig Senfl and about to be published by the prolific printers Sigmund Grimm and Marx Wirsung, is one of the most elaborate and technically complex examples of early music printing. Its importance as the first book of motets to be printed north of the Alps is widely recognised in musicological scholarship.[1] But many more unique aspects contribute to the significance of this choirbook, especially regarding the printing technique, the format, the amount of labour that went into its production, and the fact that the frontispiece, a woodcut of the coat of arms of Cardinal Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, was printed with seven colour inks and gold in some of the copies (see image 1). Strangely, this extremely luxurious and expensive book had no apparent audience, and it was designed to conceal, rather than celebrate, the great technical innovations behind its production.

Some of the must puzzling questions can be answered only with an interdisciplinary (musicological, art historical and bibliographical) consideration of the printing techniques of the frontispiece and musical notation. How could these printers’ first and only attempt to print an image in multiple colours have been a technical masterpiece (in terms of the number of blocks, it was the most technically complex produced north of the Alps for centuries), and why would they have acquired this new skill and invested in printing with gold only to imitate poor hand-painting? Why would they have commissioned the creation of an extremely expensive new music type, which was the largest used north of the Alps for centuries and which was specifically cut for this book, only to imitate local manuscripts?

The colour printing of the frontispiece has been inconsistently acknowledged in the musicological and art historical literature, if at all. This is a ramification of a Neoclassical bias against colour, which is more famously manifest in the ‘whitewashing’ of marble sculptures of classical antiquity. But printed colour might have been an expected and welcomed feature, especially in certain categories of material. Recent research by Dr. Elizabeth Upper has shown that hundreds more woodcuts that were printed (not painted) in colour survive from the early modern German-speaking lands than had been previously thought,[2] and this newly redefined context of production makes the frontispiece seem even more extraordinary. Not only was it printed with seven colours and with gold, but its aesthetic and placement inside a book (not on the front cover) are anachronistic, in keeping with late medieval production from the 1490s rather than contemporary production from the 1520s. Concerning the printing of the music book we encounter a similar paradox: on the one hand enormous labour went into cutting this type and meticulously printing the pages in multiple impressions. On the other, the effect achieved is that of a luxuriously written choirbook. No other book of that format had been printed from moveable type before (and none would for a decades). This begs the question: Why?

Researchers have long wondered who this elaborate music book was made for, who might have paid for it and who would have used it. It has been suggested that it might have been printed as an elaborate CV for Ludwig Senfl (the editor), who had lost his job after the dissolution of the imperial chapel following the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1519, or that it was sponsored by the citizens of Augsburg as a ‘sweetener’ for the newly promoted Archbishop Lang (the dedicatee of the book). However, new information about its printing technique points to Emperor Maximilian I.

Image 2: Maximilian, triumphal arch, woodcut between 1515 and 1517.

This possibility had been dismissed because he is not mentioned in the text and he died before the book was published, but the planning and production of this work would have started long before his (sudden) death. The repertoire is specific to his  musical tastes (his successor, Charles V, favoured new Italian musical trends), court choir (few other choirs would have had the ability to sing the complex motets and/or the occasion to sing) and court (many contributors were closely connected to Maximilian I). However, the specific emphasis on the printing technique brings further support: Maximilian I was a great patron of innovations in the emerging technology of printmaking [see image 2, for the triumphal arch printed for him], and, as the ‘Last Knight’, of artwork in a medieval, manuscript-like aesthetic. Who else could would have supported these enormously costly technical innovations, especially to achieve the appearance of something hand-made? Also, all other sixteenth-century woodcuts printed with gold were made in his court, with the exception of one produced by his printing technician when his successor was first elected. Finally, there is documentation that he had planned to commission a music book. Might the Liber selectarum cantionum, with its elaborate music and art printing, have been “the one”?

For further details, see the below article, from which this text is partially derived: Giselbrecht, Elisabeth/ Upper, Elizabeth: “Glittering woodcuts and moveable music: decoding the elaborate printing techniques, purpose, and patronage of the Liber selectarum cantionum”, in Senfl Studien 1, ed. by Stefan Gasch, Birgit Lodes and Sonja Tröster, Tutzing: Schneider, 2012, pp. 17-67.


[1] See for example: Martin Picker “Liber selectarum cantionum (Augsburg: Grimm & Wirsung, 1520). A neglected monument of Renaissance Music and Music Printing”, in Gestalt und Entstehung musikalischer Quellen im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert, ed. Martin Staehelin, Wiesbaden, 1998, pp. 149-168; Stephanie P. Schlagel, “The Liber selectarum cantionum and the ‘German Josquin Renaissance’, in The Journal of Musicology, 19/ 4 (2002), pp. 564-615; Angelika Bator, “Der Chorbuchdruck ‘Liber selectarum cantionum’ (Augsburg 1520). Ein drucktechnischer Vergleich der Exemplare aus Augsburg, München und Stuttgart”, in Musik in Bayern, 67 (2004), pp. 5-38.

[2] L. Elizabeth Upper, Printing Colour in the Age of Dürer: “Chiaroscuro” Woodcuts from the German-Speaking Lands, 1487-ca 1600, PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2013; L. Elizabeth Upper, “Blood in Books and Woodgrain on Walls: The Surprising Functions of Printed Colour in Early Modern Germany, 1487-ca. 1600”, in Ad Stijnman and L. Elizabeth Upper, eds., Printing Colour, 1400-1800: Histories, Techniques, Functions and Receptions (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishing, forthcoming 2014).

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2013 by in Blog Post and tagged , , .

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