Tielman Susato: trombonist and music publisher

You can’t find very many trombonists in basic music history textbooks, but some like Gustav Holst and Tielman Susato (ca.1510-after 1570) belong there for their other achievements. As a member of the town band in the Flemish city of Antwerp, Susato played a variety of instruments. He was also a composer of some merit, but his reputation rests on the publishing company he founded and ran for 18 years. It used to be thought that he died about the time his publishing company ceased operations, but as it turns out, he moved to Sweden and, among other things, dabbled in international diplomacy!

Born outside Cologne, Susato moved to Antwerp in 1529 and worked as a calligrapher for the church of Our Lady. Two years later, he was part of the town band. As such, he played a variety of instruments, including trumpet, trombone, crumhorn, transverse flute, and recorder. He remained on Our Lady’s payroll, but as a musician.

Our Lady is such a large church that masses could be sung simultaneously in different chapels without disturbing each other. Six confraternities, or private devotional groups, had chapels there. Each one sponsored votive masses once a week, but on different days. In addition, then, to whatever masses were celebrated on Sundays, one sponsored by a confraternity occurred every day of the week. Evenings after Vespers, the church held a Marian service called the lof.

Music for both the masses and  lof services was usually provided by unaccompanied singers, but instrumentalists joined them with some frequency, often a single cornettist or trombonist. Susato played trombone for 19  lof services in 1531 alone.

He opened his publishing business in 1543 and operated it until 1561. During that time he published 25 books of chansons, 2 of Flemish songs, 19 of motets, 8 of psalter songs, 3 of masses, and 1 of his own arrangements of dance music. The typical town band repertoire consisted mostly of chansons and other songs, motets, and dance music. Therefore everything he published except the masses was suitable for performance by wind bands, whether in a town, a church, or a court.

Although he published only two books of Flemish songs, he championed Flemish music and wanted to prove to the world that songs in Flemish were as artistic and enjoyable as anything composed to words in French, Italian, or Latin. The composers who appeared in his publications include a veritable who’s who of composers born and trained in Flanders, such as Josquin, Gombert, Clemens non Papa, and Lassus.

Many people in Antwerp, including Susato, held Calvinist religious views, but Flanders was ruled by Catholic Spain. In 1549, the Emperor ordered the dismissal of the entire town band. All except Susato were eventually reinstated. He managed to find other playing jobs in Antwerp as late as 1555, but all the while he was looking for a safer place to live.

In 1561, he left the publishing business in the hands of his son and moved with his wife to the town of Petten. Apparently he gave up all musical activities, because became a landowner and got involved in local government as bailiff and dike-reeve. His daughter and son-in-law soon joined him and it appeared that they were all ready to settle down to a peaceful new existence. Tragically Susato’s wife and son both died in 1564.

It had long been assumed that Susato himself died some time between 1561 and 1564. As it turns out, his son-in-law had served the Swedish court for about ten years and was asked to go on a diplomatic mission. Recently bereft of both wife and son, Susato decided to go along. Afterward, his presence in Sweden is documented until 1570. Did he die then, or will historians find him somewhere else?

Source: Ardis Grosjean, “Tielman Susato in Trouble in Sweden: Some Surprising Later Stages in the Life of the Trombonist-Composer-Publisher,” in Brass Music at the Cross Roads of Europe, ed. Keith Polk (2005): pp. 11-16.

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