Ludwig Senfl

Biographical data

Senfl (Sennf(f)l, Senffel, Sennffen, Senfftl, Senfli, Sempffel, Senf(f)(e)lius, Senphlius uva.)
Ludwig (Ludevicus)

Singer, scribe, composer and editor
* 1489, 1490 or 1491 in Basle or Zurich
† between January and March 1543 in Munich

No documents with accurate information concerning Senfl’s birthday and his origin have survived. He himself and contemporaries often name him as “Helvetius” and “Schweytzer”, which points towards Swiss humanist circles (Vadian, Heinrich Glarean, Ulrich Zwingli). A recently discovered document dated 23 July 1498 is likely to be the earliest reference to the composer. In a payment order of the later Emperor Maximilian I, a “poor” man from Zurich is assigned cloth from Amsterdam for handing over a choirboy for the royal chapel. Senfl’s own statement that he had served for 23 years in Maximilian’s court chapel confirms the year 1498 as the year of his employment, as the chapel was dismissed by Charles V in 1520 after the Emperor’s death. Another early document that might refer to the composer is the note “Ludwig Sennfli von Zürich” in the “Glückshafenrodel” in Zurich 1504.

During Senfl’s time at the Imperial chapel, he became a student of Heinrich Isaac (around 1450–1517), who entered Maximilian’s services as court composer at the beginning of April 1497. When his voice broke, Senfl was probably sent to Vienna to study at the University ca. 1504–1507, although his name doesn’t appear in the matriculation register. Hereafter Senfl stayed at the Imperial diet in Constance as part of the court chapel beginning in the autumn of 1507. There the Emperor assigned him a benefice at the Cathedral of Basle. At that time Senfl was a cleric of the diocese of Constance and was at least ordained with minor orders. In 1510 Maximilian allocated him a further prebend at San Michaelis de Englario in the diocese of Verona. After Isaac’s leave of absence in 1515, Senfl was most likely responsible for supplying compositions for the Imperial chapel, but there is no documentary evidence that he was ever officially appointed as court composer. During the last years of Maximilian’s reign, Senfl and the chapel accompanied the court to political events such as the double wedding in Vienna 1515 and the Imperial diet in Augsburg 1518. It was probably there that he first met Martin Luther.

After Maximilian’s death and the disbandment of the court chapel Senfl undertook quite a few travels: to the Imperial diet in Worms in 1521 and to several princely weddings, for which he composed custom-made Lieder. Around 1520 Senfl is again traceable in Augsburg where he published the first printed motet anthology of the German-speaking lands (Liber selectarum cantionum, RISM 1520/4). In 1523 Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria appointed him as court composer. In his new field of work he enlarged the Munich court chapel with repertoire and personnel following the model of the Imperial chapel and thus established a professional ensemble. Despite being in the service of a catholic duke, Senfl maintained good and close contacts with central persons of the Reformation, including Duke Albrecht of Prussia and Martin Luther; he also composed Lieder and motets for them.

In 1529 Senfl acquired a house in Munich and in 1527 he married the daughter of A. Neuburger, ship master and tax collector from Passau. Her name is unknown and she must have died in the following years as Senfl was married to Maria Halbhyrn in spring 1535 at the latest. Two years later she gave birth to a daughter. Senfl died at the beginning of 1543 at the age of 53. The inscription on his tombstone praises him as the son of ancient goddesses and muses, and it emphasises once more Senfl’s closeness to humanism, the fact that he was a pupil of H. Isaac, and his outstanding position at the Munich court.


Senfl is acknowledged as one of the leading composers of his generation. He delivered a vast oeuvre to posterity comprising all of the genres practised at the time: six masses that can be ascribed to him with certainty, over 90 mass proper cycles, ca. 140 motets, eight Magnificat settings, around 250 Lieder, Latin ode settings and some pieces with Italian and French texts. Up to now, a date or time span of origin is known only for a few of these compositions. The motet Surge virgo and the songs contained in the manuscript Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg Ms. 2° 142a must have been composed approximately 1509–1514, and a large-scale motet Sancte pater for six voices around 1515/1516. Two important works seem to have been composed in 1530: the Missa dominicalis L’homme arme, probably written for the entrance of Charles V in Munich; and the motet Ecce quam bonum, intended for performance at the Imperial diet at Augsburg in the same year.

Senfl’s fame as a composer was in part due to the sheer amount and high quality of his Lieder compositions. Apart from sacred songs, the song texts focus mainly on topics of love and incidences of daily life (i.e. dancing and drinking songs as well as satirical songs). Only in exceptional cases is it possible to draw parallels between their contents and Senfl’s life, as for example in the autobiographical song Lust hab’ ich g’habt zur Musica (with the acrostic “Ludwig Sennfl”). The musical settings of the Proprium Missae play a further central role in Senfl’s oeuvre. In the service of Wilhelm IV he continued composing in this genre following Isaac’s model. Senfl brought several of Isaac’s propers of the mass with him to Munich, where the repertoire was partly revised, copied and ordered anew, while Senfl also added newly composed settings. The Opus Musicum, which comprises four choirbooks (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 35–38), is a valuable contribution to this field. The manuscripts were completed in 1531 and unite Senfl’s own composition and those by his teacher to form a polyphonic Gradual for the entire ecclesiastical year. In their structure they reflect the liturgical practice at the Munich court.
Senfl’s motets present a third extensive complex of his compositions. Up to now only a small portion of them has been edited and researched. Especially in this genre is it possible to trace Senfl’s involvement with compositions by Josquin des Prez  (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 10 and 12), an interest reflected in the selection of pieces for the Liber selectarum cantionum. Senfl either takes up melodic material or a compositional principle by Josquin, and he further develops the genre of the psalm motet.

Compositional challenges exerted a special fascination on Senfl, such as the combination of multiple cantus firmi and the use of canon (for example the riddle canons: Salve sancta parens, Crux fidelis, Crux ave spes unica). Senfl’s edition of pieces by Josquin provided an essential contribution to the reception of Josquin’s music in the German speaking lands. With his compositions Senfl influenced the musical life of his time significantly; they continued to be performed and used for teaching purposes even decades after his death.


Four medals, each containing Senfl’s motto „Psallam Deo meo quamdiu fuero” (all of them reproduced in Ludwig Senfl, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 1, p. VIII and in Martin Hirsch, „Vera Imago Ludovvici Senflii – Die Medaillen auf Ludwig Senfl“, in Senfl-Studien 2, pp. 3–22):

The often reproduced charcoal drawing by Hans Schwarz, around 1519/20 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferkabinett, KdZ 6045) most likely does not represent Senfl but rather an unknown male person; cf. Richard Kastenholz, Hans Schwarz: Ein Augsburger Bildhauer und Medailleur der Reniassance, Munich etc. 2005 (Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien 126), pp. 298f., cat.-no. 206.