One of Europe’s most extraordinary ruling dynasties, the Hapsburgs ruled greater or lesser portions of Europe fromthe 11th century until 1918, their heyday coinciding with the supreme musical flourishing of the 16th century. Their rule saw a particular increase during the reign of Maximilian I (son of Fredrick III, Duke of Austria, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) – secured first by his marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 and then by the union of their son Philip ‘the Handsome’ with Joanna ‘the Mad’ of Castille. Thus his grandson Charles V essentially ruled Spain, Germany, Austria, Burgundy and the Low Countries, before he in turn divided his territories between his son Philip II and his brother Ferdinand of Austria in 1555-6. As these successive generations enlarged their power and territory, they gathered around themselves the leading composers of the day.
Maximilian’s most notable court composer was Heinrich Isaac, whom he appointed in 1497 and who remained in his employment until the composer’s death in 1517. Though he was often overshadowed in his lifetime by the renowned Josquin, a famous letter advising the Duke of Ferrara on the appointment of a court composer in 1503 is revealing: ‘[Isaac] is of a better disposition... and he will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to.’ Duke Ercole favoured prestige over reliability and hired Josquin; meanwhile, in Maximilian’s service, Isaac’s Virgo prudentissima is a good example of a piece written to order: it was composed for the Reichstag of 1507 which confirmed Maximilian’s position as Holy Roman Emperor, and was performed under the direction of a certain ‘Georgius’ – Jurij Slatkonja, who was Maximilian’s first Kapellmeister and can therefore be considered the founding director of what is now the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Rather unusually, he even receives a mention in the motet, the text of which is a somewhat unwieldy one written for the occasion – and one at which a less obliging composer might perhaps have protested! Isaac’s motet is a work of stunning grandeur, employing a musical language which is both strikingly individual, yet self-consciously influenced by the music of the previous generation: full sections with monumental block chords and slow-moving harmony alternate with florid, virtuosic passages for reduced forces.