Music Heinrich Isaac
Giovanni Zanovello, Ryan E. J. Young
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0137


Heinrich Isaac (b. c. 1450–d. 1517) is regarded as one of the most celebrated singers and composers of his generation. He was born and presumably trained in Flanders and took important positions in various institutions in Florence and later in the service of Emperor Maximilian I. He spent the last years of his life in the Tuscan capital carrying the honorary title of provost of the Baptistry chapel. As one of the most prolific composers of his time, he is credited with roughly forty mass ordinaries, more than 130 mass propers, more than fifty motets, and about one hundred secular works. A number of details beyond the size and quality of his artistic output make Isaac exceptional among his contemporaries. His choice not to be ordained distinguished him from most of the prominent composers of his day, including Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, and Guillaume Du Fay. This meant that Isaac could not receive ecclesiastical benefices. He married Bartolomea Bello, a Florentine citizen, further assimilating into the community. His marriage, however, limited his mobility and may be one of the reasons for his regular presence in the city even though there is no evidence of his employment for the years after 1496. Musically speaking, Isaac’s output demonstrates his unusual curiosity and versatility. He mastered an extremely wide range of compositional techniques, and none of his contemporaries was as apt or as willing to engage with local and vernacular repertories. This is evident from the variety of his sacred music, as diverse as the largely homophonic Missa Misericordias domini and the sumptuous motet Virgo prudentissima, and the array of secular genres in which he composed. These include French chansons, Italian carnival songs, Latin humanistic pieces, German Lieder, and untexted songs. Nineteenth- and early-20th-century research on Isaac has been mostly carried out by German scholars. Anglo-American musicologists took interest in him in the 1950s. Since the 1990s, Isaac studies have experienced a sustained and international surge, with dissertations, articles in highly respected journals, recordings, and editions by scholars and musicians in the United States and Europe.

Reference Works

No definitive monograph has been published on Isaac. As for most Renaissance composers, introductory materials consist of dictionary entries, conference proceedings, and monographic journal issues. Picker 1991 remains the most useful general introduction to the composer, with a competent discussion of Isaac’s life and remarkable detail on works and sources. A few aspects of this guide are now outdated in light of new discoveries. Strohm and Kempson 2009 is a complete and stimulating discussion of Isaac’s life and works (especially motets), but much of the material would benefit from complete revision rather than the simple and very selective bibliographical update carried out in 2009. Burn, et al. 2011 offers a comprehensive and updated discussion of the specific scholarship, with a special (though not exclusive) focus on the first decade of the 21st century.

  • Burn, David J., Blake Wilson, and Giovanni Zanovello. “Absorbing Heinrich Isaac.” Journal of Musicology 28 (2011): 1–8.

    DOI: 10.1525/jm.2011.28.1.1

    Introduction to an issue of the Journal entirely devoted to Isaac and based on materials originally presented at the international conference “Heinrich Isaac and His World” held in Bloomington, Indiana, in May 2010. The most recent discussion of Isaac scholarship and a useful and compact starting point for readers new to the field.

  • Picker, Martin. Henricus Isaac: A Guide to Research. Composer Resource Manuals 35. New York and London: Garland, 1991.

    This venerable Guide to Research remains one of the crucial tools for Isaac scholars. Contains a biography, a richly annotated work list, an annotated list of sources, a bibliography, and a discography. In light of the expansion of Isaac studies in since its publication, it now needs to be supplemented with Burn, et al. 2011.

  • Staehelin, Martin. “Isaac, Heinrich.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 672–691. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2003.

    A very rigorous dictionary entry compiled by one of the key specialists on Isaac, covering both the life and works of the composer. Although partly superseded by the updated Grove Music Online (Strohm and Kempson 2009), Staehelin’s bibliography is preferable to the one in the printed New Grove of 2001.

  • Strohm, Reinhard, and Emma Kempson. “Isaac, Henricus.” In Grove Music Online: Oxford Music Online. 2009.

    The most important dictionary entry presently available. The bibliography is complete and reliable until 2001, the date of the original entry. The subsequent additions to the bibliography fall short of reflecting the rapid progress of Isaac scholarship since then.

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