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Early Music History, Volume 29 (2010)


The German singer, composer and writer Johannes von Soest (1448–1506), also referred to as Steinwart or Steinwert, is the author of a vernacular autobiography in verse. One of the very few such documents written by a musician, it gives a highly personal insight into his career, which extended from his training as a chorister in Soest to the ducal chapel in Cleves and afterwards to Bruges (in the company of two unnamed English musicians), Aardenburg (Overijssel), Maastricht, possibly Cologne, Kassel and finally Heidelberg, where he was appointed as Kapellmeister. He subsequently decided to become a physician. The article includes a complete transcription of the text, whose original was destroyed during the Second World War, but has been preserved in Johann Carl von Fichard’s rare edition of 1811, and a translation of the sections of musical interest. In an introduction his training and career choices are discussed, and his observations concerning musical practice are analysed.


Johannes von Soest (also referred to as Steinwart or Steinwert) was a German singer, composer and poet. He is the author of a vernacular autobiography in couplets which is not only one of the few examples of late medieval German autobiography but also one of the very few surviving autobiographical documents written by a musician in this period. The only extant source of the text was a manuscript in the Frankfurt municipal archive destroyed during the Second World War; a transcription by Johann Carl von Fichard based on this manuscript had been published, however, in 1811 in the Frankfurtisches Archiv für ältere deutsche Literatur und Geschichte, and is reprinted below in the Appendix.

Born in Unna, Westphalia (near Dortmund), in 1448, Johannes von Soest was first trained as a chorister in Soest and briefly kidnapped by a wandering minstrel on account of his beautiful voice. Later he joined the ducal chapel in Cleves, where he became acquainted with two English musicians; he admired their music so deeply that he followed them to Bruges. Subsequently he held posts at Aardenberg (Zeeland), Maastricht, possibly Cologne, and Kassel. In 1472 Soest went to the court in Heidelberg, where he was appointed Sängermeister for life. In 1476 he matriculated at the University of Heidelberg; he studied there and in Pavia, becoming a physician by 1490. In 1495 he became a municipal doctor in Worms and later held similar positions in Oppenheim and Frankfurt a.M., where he died in 1506.
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