Heinrich Isaac




Heinrich Isaac  (Brabant, 1450 - Florence, 1517) received a good education and married, but likely remained childless. Between 1480 and 1492 he worked for Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. He was an organist for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Later he became court composer for Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna. After which he spent some time in Innsbruck.

In 1497 Emperor MaximilIan I appointed him court composer, the most prestigious position a musician could hold. In 1503 he was also a candidate for the position of kapellmeister in Ferrara. Although Isaac was known for his ability to compose quickly and was easier to work with, the position went to Josquin Desprez, who was more willful and had more substantial financial demands. However, Josquin Deprez was a more famous composer, so Isaac was passed over. Isaac stayed court composer in Vienna and Innsbruck, but frequently traveled to Florence and re-established himself there 3 years before his death.


Many know Heinrich Isaac for of his Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen. However, Isaac is the author of an enormous portfolio which earned him quick fame. Due to his activity in the German language region he was influenced by the innovations of the 3rd generation of Flemish polyphonists and Isaac is considered to be one of the key figures for the international spread of Flemish polyphony. 

He wrote no less than 36 masses, many of which are based on traditional Gregorian melodies. His masses are characterized by *een grote bezetting* and long melody lines. Isaac composed about 50 motets and profane pieces in French, Italian, German and even Latin.

Until 1680, although the sublime artistry of his music had been acknowledged and praised throughout Europe during his life and following his death, the work of Isaac gradually became relegated to libraries and musical archives. More than 400 years would pass before interest in his music resurfaced.

Choralis Constantinus

In 1508 Isaac received a commission from the cathedral of Konstanz to write a collection of 450 Gregorian polyphonic motets for the proprium (changing part) of the mass. It was the first collection of polyphonic arrangements of proprium pieces that encompassed the entire church year. Until that moment the only complete polyphonic arrangement could be found in the ordinarium. Part 1 and 3 were composed for the Habsburg Royal Chapel, part 2 for the cathedral of Konstanz. A large part of this is by Isaac’s hand. Following his death his student Ludwig Senfl completed his work. This was published posthumously in three books between 1550 and 1555. Isaac used techniques such as the cantus firmus, canon and imitation. The collection is a compendium of all counterpoint techniques of the time and therefore important for music history.

Vocal works (selection)

  • A la battaglia (before 1487), for four parts, mostly popular as an instrumental piece. However, sources do mention at least 1 vocal performance. You can listen to it here.
  • Quis dabit capiti (1492), for four voices. You can listen to it here.
  • Lamento per la morte di Lorenzo Il Magnifico (1492), you can listen to it here.
  • Innsbruck, Ich muss dich lassen (1510), for four parts.
  • Missa de apostolis, for four parts. You can listen to it here.
Capilla Flamenca during a recording of compositions by Heinrich Isaac, 2011.
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