Composer Feature: Johann Christoph Demantius

450 years ago in a little town in what is now the Czech Republic was born the characterful composer and poet, Johann Christoph Demantius. But who was this fascinating composer? We find out more…

Johann Christoph Demantius was born in Reichenberg, now Liberec in the Czech Republic. He married four times, yet living through the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War he lost many of his children to its hardships. Demantius was actually a direct contemporary of the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi – both living from 1567 to 1643. So this year we mark the 450th birthday anniversary of both composers. Yet Lutheran Germany at this time went through a fascinating transition in musical history from Renaissance polyphony to the early Baroque style of composers such as Franz Tunder. 

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From 1607, Demantius was Kantor (Director of Music) at Freiburg Cathedral – a post he held for most of his adult life. In addition to a school music textbook entitled Forma musices which was published when he was just 25, he also wrote the first dictionary of musical terms in the German language. He was an influential figure, and it is very likely that Franz Tunder and his contemporaries would have known of Demantius’ work.

In the forthcoming Crown of Thorns on 30 March Musica Poetica will be performing his St John Passion. Dating from 1631, this beautiful work for six voices a cappella is similar to the ensemble of two sopranos, alto, two tenors and bass much used by Monteverdi. 

Although Demantius is known to have been a prolific composer, only a few pieces survive – and it is easy to see why the Passion was one of them. This is probably the last of the so-called ‘Motet Passions’ of the Lutheran church, with later composers responding to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in a larger-scale, more dramatic style and culminating in the famous settings of JS Bach. This concert will also feature one of Demantius’ motets from his collection Corona Harmonica from 1610: Und wie Moses in der Wüsten.

As for the style of Demantius’ music, it could be described as a successor to that of the great Flemish composer Orlando de Lassus. Und wie Moses certainly bears the hallmarks of a Lassus motet. Yet Demantius created a highly original musical language very different from that of Tunder who was more interested in the latest Italian Baroque innovations, or from the all-pervasive ‘Palestrinian’ polyphony of the period.

Hear the music of Johann Christoph Demantius alongside his contemporary Claudio Monteverdi in Crown of Thorns on 30 March.

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