Citizens of the Dutch city and guests alike might flock to the Oude Kerk in the heart of town: the "Orpheus of Amsterdam," Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, was giving his daily public concert on the church organ. Since Amsterdam's adoption of the Reformed faith in 1578, the organ could not be tolerated playing during a worship service, but the church organist could ply his formidable talents just before or after a service. Students came from across Europe as well, to learn of Sweelinck the principals of keyboard playing, which at the time meant how to improvise fantasia-like preludes or how to improvise upon a given melody. Though the students came presumably to learn improvisation on sacred tunes, the public became accustomed to hearing the master ornament, as well their favorite secular melodies. Sweelinck's set of keyboard variations on the lied "Mein junges Leben hat ein End" is preserved for posterity in a single manuscript copy and may represent the kind of public improvisation that made him famous.
The German song upon which he wrote this set of six variations is a stylized lament in minor mode, and Sweelinck milks it for all its harmonic riches from the outset. His setting of the first variation, in a fairly straightforward four-voiced style, bristles with harmonic cross-relations, small syncopations, and descending musical lines. The second follows a similar harmonic pattern, but adds richer, more complex countermelodies. The third and fourth are more "instrumental" in character, the first a toccata-like version encrusted with running passages in several rhythms and the other an exploration of even more diverse rhythmic elaborations and figurations. The fifth continues Sweelinck's romp through the gamut of keyboard figurations, alternating passages of parallel notes and arpeggiations. Finally, the sixth variation distills a few of the previous techniques and places them in inner voices such that new contrapuntal relationships between the soprano melody and the bass -- a bass line first strongly rising through the entire octave, then giving inverted imitations of a second theme, and the superimpositions of different melodies -- may be more evident.