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Hermann Schroeder: Style in Perspective

February 28, 2016


What follows in my third post are excerpted score examples of Schroeder’s style as demonstrated on the organ. This discussion is necessarily musical and somewhat technical. The enjoyment of the previously posted music is not contingent on reading these notes, but for the curious musician they might be of interest.


While his early compositional development is strongly influenced by composers of the late Romantic period, such as Max Reger (1873 - 1916), Schroeder’s style is greatly indebted to early music (music written roughly between 800CE and 1750). His work as a choral director, organist, and Bach interpreter, along with his role in the reformation of Catholic liturgical music during the 20th century clearly elucidate why chant, mode, Medieval organum, Renaissance polyphony, and Baroque counterpoint are all significant elements in his modern neo-classicism.


Baroque-isms are evident in his frequent use of motorized rhythms, multilayered counterpoint, fugal textures, short forms, and extended yet relatively conventional tonality. The significant role of the organ and chorale tunes in his oeuvre parallels the sentiment of a German Baroque composer’s mindset. Furthermore, Medievalism is unmistakable through his use of chant melodies, modal scales, fauxbourdon technique, rhythmic groupings of twos and threes (found in chant), and quartal and quintal harmonies (not called as such during the Middle Ages, but nevertheless an integral part of the organal harmonic pallet of the time).


However classically oriented, Schroeder’s style is always in the context of early 20th-century polyphony (quartal/quintal harmonies, chromaticism, bi-tonality, octatonicism, pitch centricity, etc.). The contrapuntal, extended harmonic writing of his music has much in common with Hindemith’s own neo-classical style. Some of Schroeder stylistic contemporaries who share in his aesthetic include Paul Hindemith 1895 – 1963), Herald Genzme (1909 - 2007), Ernst Pepping (1901 – 1981), Flor Peeters (1903 - 1986), Hugo Distler (1908 - 1942), and Max Drischner (1891 - 1971) among others.

Schroeder’s Style Demonstrated


Example 1 – Late Romantic influences

In his university qualifying organ performance examination, Schroeder played his first composition: Prelude and Fugue on "Christ lay in the bonds of death" (1930). This piece is a profound and virtuosic work, in which he displays his commitment to old forms and polyphonic techniques, especially to the late Romantic baroque-influenced style of Max Reger.


In the beginning of this piece (excerpted below), Schroeder uses stereotypical North German organ pedal figurations outlining the original choral tune. This figuration however is highly chromatic, reflecting a 20th century reinterpretation through the dramatic lens of late Romanticism. Notice leaps of perfect fourths and tri-tones are frequent in this passage. These are not typical of Baroque composers like Buxtehude or Bach, but reflect a refashioning of these styles through contemporary means. One can see the similarity of pedal technique between the Schroeder and Buxtehude examples excerpted below.


After the pedal introduction, the chorale tune is presented in a bombastic chorale fragment. This passage is highly contrapuntal, emphasizing consonant harmonies, dissonant-consonant resolution, and downward resolutions of the 7th. This music is clearly more influenced by composers like Reger rather than early polyphony, as Schroeder’s stereotypical use of parallel fifths and fourth is not so evident here, and his use of chromaticism is in service to tonality rather than modality or tonal ambiguity. Quite Romantically, Schroeder leans on dense chromatic voice leading with mostly tertian sonorities to create harmonic progress and music drama.


Hermann Schroeder (1904 – 1984) – Chorale Prelude on “Christ lay in the bond of death”


Dieterich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707): Prelude in G major, BuxWV 147



Example 2 – Medieval and Renaissance Influence:

This is an excerpt from Hermann Schroeder's Pezzi piccoli fur Orgel (1959). Shown below is the beginning of the 4th movement, “Intermezzo armonico”. Schroeder’s clear use of parallel 4ths in this piece wasn’t clearly evident in the previous work. Schroeder often sets 4ths and 5ths contrapuntally against themselves (as in the first movement of his famous Kleine Präludien und Intemezzi) or against more motoric counter lines as seen here.


Regarding the contrapuntal use of the perfect 4th, Hermann Schroeder wrote in a correspondence interview with John Campbell that “the fourth is the single consonance which has been rarely coped with by composers in the manner of thirds and sixths in the major/minor tonal system. Even if one does not write in twelve-tone procedures he must still broaden tonality (observe Hindemith and Bartok). A solution for this is for example the expansion of the church modes to the relatively free use of the twelve tones (not twelve-tone techniques, however!)” (Campbell 11). If one but simply flip through any Schroeder score, one will see the rampant use of 4ths both harmonically and melodically. While his use of them is quite modern, these kinds of simple parallels were the harmonic building blocks of medieval polyphony up through the 14th century. Schroeder wasn’t the only composer during this time rediscovering and reinventing the musical world of the ancients.


The texture of this piece is also interesting as it is reminiscent of textures found in many of the organ and keyboard works of a late Renaissance/early Baroque composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). While many composers – from those in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to Bach and after – employ this rhythmic texture, I would say it is definitely a hallmark of 16th century keyboard writing, particularly Sweelinck and his contemporaries. One can see the similarity between the Schroeder and Sweelinck excerpts below. While Schroeder uses 4ths in his upper voices and Sweelinck uses 3rds, the stylistic similarity is clear.


Furthermore, notice that the melodic contours are similar to medieval chant or Renaissance Polyphony, with steady rises and falls with clear high and low points. One might recall such a descriptor from a class on 16th century counterpoint. Indeed, Schroeder remarks in the same correspondence mentioned above that “[his] greatest [compositional] influences were from the following composers: Palestrina and his contemporaries…” (10) Of course Schroeder mentions others in this list like Bach and Reger, but they are irrelevant in this point.


Last, Schroeder is clearly using modes. However, his use of modes is usually chromatic and modulatory, which one can see later in this movement and in Schroeder’s oeuvre in general. His extended and free use of mode demonstrates again Schroeder’s propensity to reinvent music of the past in a 20th century musical language.


Hermann Schroeder (1904 – 1984): Pezzi piccoli fur Orgel, movement IV “Intermezzo armonico”


Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621): Variations on "Unter der Linden gruene" (Variation 3, measures 10-16)



Example 3 – Baroque Influence:

Below is an excerpt from Hermann Schroeder's Organ Sonata No. 1 (1957). The excerpt is from the beginning of the 2nd movement, “Larghetto cantabile”. While the influence of the Baroque on any organist and/or composer of organ music is unquestionable, it is necessarily important to make such an influence clear. This is easily made evident in the style of this sonata movement. The most significant Baroque organ sonatas (all of JS Bach’s trio sonatas for one major example) are written in trio fashion. This means that each musical line on the score for organ is given a clearly independent voice, essentially creating a three voice texture. Since an organist can play with two hands independently along with their two feet (usually in tandem), such a trio style is considered idiomatic of organ music in general, particularly of the concert genre.


While the harmonic language is not Baroque, the contrapuntal texture and the motoric rhythm are. Furthermore, the form and style of this movement match the form and style of middle movements in Baroque trio sonatas: 6/8 meter, slow, lyrical, and typically rondo. Notice the similarities in texture between the Schroeder and Bach trio sonata excerpts below.


Hermann Schroeder (1904 – 1984): Organ Sonata No. 1, movement II “Larghetto cantabile” (mm. 1-6)


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Trio Sonata No. 1 in E-flat major, movement 2 (mm. 15-16)



Example 4 – Contemporary Influences:

Here is an excerpt of Hermann Schroeder’s Organ Sonata No. 1 (1957). This is the beginning of the first movement, “Allegro risoluto.” We have seen the influences of Romantic, Baroque, and Early music on Schroeder’s style. Schroeder, however, is not without the modern touch. Throughout his life, he continually reinterprets these past forms, sounds, timbres, rhythms, styles, gestures, scales, harmonies, et cetera into a music that is original and new. As a simple example of his more starkly modern style, below one can see Schroeder’s use of quartal and quintal harmonies, mixed meters, melodic chromaticism, and free harmonic dissonance, very much in line with two of his greatest contemporary influences, Hindemith and Bartok.


Rather than attempting to break from the past as many of his 20th century contemporaries endeavored to do, Schroeder saw himself in a continuing German lineage. He was able to look both forward and backward while interacting with and reacting to his contemporaries to create a unique and internally cohesive musical language. In John Campbell’s correspondence, Schroeder remarks that “since we have no new harmony today, contrapuntal concepts and awareness continue to be indispensable for the contemporary composer.” (Campbell 11) While their styles did not necessarily align, I think that many of Schroeder’s more prominent contemporaries like Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez, and Hindemith (who’s style is probably most akin to Schroeder’s) would all agree with this sentiment, no matter how it is musically manifested. Through the means of counterpoint, Schroeder has created a system of musical language that is new yet communicable, syntactically classical yet grammatically modern.





Campbell, John Coleman. Musical Style in the Three Organ Sonatas of

          Hermann Schroeder. Rochester: Eastman School of Music, 1975.