Program Notes, April 2013
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was the finest German composer of the 17th century. As a young man he was a serious and talented student of the Italian concertato style and a master at setting words to music. One of his greatest contributions to German music was to marry the lighter and dramatic Italian musical style with the more severe German language in a way that expressed the words without sacrificing the music.
As a boy, Schütz's musical talent came to the attention of the Landgrave Moritz of Hesse-Kassel, who persuaded his family to allow him to take Schütz to the court at Kassel. There he sang in the choir and was educated with the other boys at court. Moritz sent Schütz to study with Gabrieli in Venice, where he was exposed to the Italian concertato style, studied composition, and became a proficient organist. Following Gabrieli's death, Schütz returned to the court at Kassel. However, it wasn't long before his reputation reached Johann Georg I, the Elector of Saxony, who asked to "borrow" Schütz for several months at his court in Dresden. Since the elector was Moritz's superior, Schütz moved to Dresden, where he spent most of his musical life.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had a devastating impact on Germany, and it directly affected Schütz and his fellow musicians. Massive physical destruction and drastic economic pressures decimated the musical and artistic establishments throughout Germany. Early in 1625, Schütz suffered the loss of his beloved wife and children. In the late 1620s, feeling the effects of economic pressures and personal loss, Schütz returned to Italy, where he became acquainted with Monteverdi and immersed himself in the new musical styles of drama and theater. Throughout the war, while the court in Dresden was in disarray, Schütz was able to maintain his career and support himself by spending part of these years at the royal court in Copenhagen.
By 1650 the war was over, Schütz was back in Dresden, and the musical forces at the court were recovering. It was during this time that Schütz completed the magnificent third volume of the Symphoniae sacrae. The works in this collection are large and complex, with solo singing and beautiful polychoral music interspersed with virtuosic instrumental passages. The texts, mostly from the Lutheran Bible, are expressive and dramatic parables, psalms, Gospel stories, and sermons, set to some of Schütz's most masterful music. Each work is unique, evidence of the skill that Schütz brought to the interpretation of each text: his choice of vocal and instrumental combinations, his development of melodic line specific to each line of text, and the overall forward motion of the music as the drama unfolds.
One of the remarkable features of this music is the very specific use of instruments, no longer interchangeable with vocalists. Most works begin with an instrumental sinfonia. Obbligato instrumental parts interweave with solo and duet sections, and the large choral sections are often enhanced with independent instrumental forces. The solo sections are very "Italianate," alternating lovely melodic lines with fast-moving recitative-like segments. But most notable is the overall dramatic effect that Schütz has created by the intensity of his interpretation of the text.
It is impossible within these notes to discuss all of the individual works on this program, but here are brief synopses of a few remarkable ones:
Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? (Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?) is one of the most interesting and dramatic works in the collection. It is short, based on just one verse of biblical text about the conversion of St. Paul (Saul in Aramaic), an early Christian apostle who spread Christianity throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Schütz has set this text in a very dramatic, concise way with large vocal and instrumental forces: six soloists, an eight-part double choir, double brass choir, violins and continuo. The text "Saul, Saul" permeates the entire work. Introduced initially by a bass duet, this dramatic melodic segment is repeated in other solo voices and then by the eight-part choir and brass. In the almost frenzied climax to the work, all chorus, solo, and instrumental forces come together and a stong tenor voice repeats "Saul, Saul" in sustained longer notes, rising continually with each iteration.
Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns das getan? (My son, why have you done this to us?) is the story of Jesus at the temple, when, as a boy of twelve on a trip to Jerusalem with his family, he disappears and is later found in the temple talking with the elders. In the opening dialogue, Jesus' parents reprimand him in a duet that alternates the melodic material between the two voices. There is a moving musical interpretation of the phrase "mit Schmerzen" (worried). Jesus replies in a lovely, innocent-sounding vocal line, accompanied by a duet of two violins, in which he announces surprise that his parents did not understand his need to be at the temple.
In Herr, wir lange willst du mein so gar vergessen? (Lord, for how long will you forget me utterly?) Schütz has set the text, verses from Psalm 13, in a highly dramatic style with recitative-like lines throughout. The dramatic lines appear not only in the vocal solo parts, but in some of the choral sections and the instrumental brass choir as well.
Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist's (See how beautiful and pleasant it is), a setting of a more serene psalm text, is much less dramatic but no less expressive. A five-voice choir and five-part instrumental choir function separately alternating sometimes with contrasting musical material and sometimes echoing the same phrases.
Komm Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God) is one of the few instances that Schütz used a German chorale tune as the basis for his setting. The text and tune were originally derived by Martin Luther from the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. After an opening instrumental sinfonia, Schütz has observed the verse structure by interjecting a repeating "alleluia" refrain between the three verses and again at the end.
With credit to Joshua Rifkin and thanks to Sara Tanke.
~ Barbara Davidson