Heinrich Schütz: The most significant German composer before Bach?

Byvu lita

Aug 24, 2023

Of all Heinrich Schütz’s works, The Christmas Story, first heard during Christmas Day Vespers 1660, is the best known.

Some three quarters of a century later, JS Bach would marry theology, meditation and jubilation in his own six-cantata Christmas Oratorio; Schütz, however, is content to deliver season’s greetings with a finely calibrated storytelling whose sheer freshness belies his 75 years.

The music is worlds away from the roughly contemporaneous portrait by Christoph Spetner in which a septuagenarian Schütz stares balefully ahead. Dignified, composed, he seems about to mutter ‘bah, humbug’… if only he could summon the energy.

The face is careworn – etched with the ravages of a life lived under the privations of the Thirty Years War – but Schütz’s Christmas ‘Historia’ is no mere upbeat parting shot. In the dozen years left to him, he would maintain a creative vigour that resulted in three Passion settings and the posthumously published Schwanengesang, a legacy-crowning ‘Swansong’ bringing together imposing double choir elaborations of Psalms 119 and 100 and the German Magnificat.

It could all have turned out so differently.

When was Heinrich Schütz born?

Heinrich Schütz was born on 8 October in Köstritz, Saxony 1585, and was the second of eight children in an upper-class family,

Like Handel after him, the young Heinrich had to face down parental opposition to any thoughts of a musical career. But he was doubly fortunate in coming under the patronage of Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel who admitted him to his court as a choirboy, thus guaranteeing a fine education at the Collegium Mauritianum.

Where did Schütz study?

When Schütz dutifully signed up as a law student at the University of Marburg, it was Moritz who again intervened, recommending (so the composer later recalled) ‘that a truly celebrated but quite old musician was still living in Italy and I should not miss the opportunity to hear him and learn from him’. As further inducement, the Landgrave offered generous financial assistance, and so it was that in 1609 Schütz arrived in Venice to seek out the ‘quite old’ (55!) organist of St Mark’s: Giovanni Gabrieli.

Bowled over by the basilica’s renowned predisposition towards polychoral music – setting choir against choir as well as combining them in ear-filling splendour – he felt something of a musical country bumpkin, but Gabrieli insisted on a firm grasp of Renaissance polyphony, so study of the likes of Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria was de rigueur alongside the opportunity to sample the newest Venice had to offer.

What did Schütz compose?

After two years with Gabrieli, Schütz felt able to unleash his Op. 1: Il primo Libro de madrigali di Henrico Saggitario Allemano in Venetia MDCXI – a collection ‘warmly received by the most distinguished musicians in Venice,’ he declared. What a pity that the ‘primo’ of the title never spawned a ‘secondo’, as it’s a remarkable debut – certainly no graduation exercise – and the contents deserve to be as familiar as the madrigals of Monteverdi or Gesualdo.

In keeping with Gabrieli’s didactic purposes, there’s no instrumental accompaniment and, dominated by settings of poets Giambattista Marino and Giovanni Guarini, the word-painting is subtly applied – ‘O dolcezze amarissimi’, for instance, is a masterclass in the deployment of concord and dissonance to illustrate its plaintive surrender to sweetness most bitter.

What Schütz learnt in Venice never left him, and importantly he was drawn back in 1628 (this time under his own initiative) to find out what had been ‘trending’ in the intervening years. His genius would reside in finding ways of adapting Italian tailoring to the homespun cloth of his native German tradition, and in doing so he set both the tone and the impetus of German music for a generation and beyond.

Returning to Kassel in 1613, the city must have seemed humdrum after Venice and, to make matters worse, Schütz subsequently bowed to parental pressure and resumed his law studies. But there intervened another stroke of luck – though Landgrave Moritz might not have seen it that way – as Schütz was headhunted by the tenacious Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony. After protracted to-ing and fro-ing, he was eventually assigned permanently to the Dresden Court, officially assuming the role of Kapellmeister in 1619.

Anyone perusing the 13 opus-numbered collections Schütz published over his lifetime might be forgiven for thinking of him as a composer of purely sacred music (Op. 1 aside). This seriously skews the truth. One of his early Dresden tasks was to provide a lavish ballet in honour of a Hapsburg visit, and creating suitably opulent theatrical and ceremonial occasional music went with the territory of Kapellmeister even if, by and large, it hasn’t survived.

Most intriguing of all is the case of Dafne, a pastoral tragicomedy, performed in 1627 and credited with being the first opera to be presented in Germany. Just how ‘operatic’ it was by current Italian standards is open to question, since it wasn’t until the following year that Schütz’s encounter with Monteverdi opened up new and highly relevant vistas. Venice, he confided to a colleague, taught him how to master ‘a range of diverse voices so that they can be translated into declamatory style and brought to the stage’.

In the meantime, however, Schütz had finally succumbed to publishing an Op. 2, and in the Psalmen Davids shared his initial Venetian impressions in an anthology of ‘German Psalms in the Italian Style’. The preface gives useful tips on the layout of musical forces to achieve the desired spatial effects, and there is discernable Italian fall-out to be found in some of the ornamentation deployed by the Resurrection ‘Historia’ of 1623. More intimate are the Cantiones sacrae of 1625, a volume of four-part Latin motets artfully varied in the ‘orchestration’ of the voices – private devotional music ideally suited to a Princely chapel.

The next collection has Venice stamped all over it, and not just because the first volume of Symphoniae sacrae was published there in 1629. ‘Motetti con sinfonie’, as championed by composers Donati and Grandi, were all the rage and Schütz studied what he called the ‘fresh devices’ that forward-looking composers were deploying ‘to tickle the ears of today’.

Here was a music that moved fluidly between duple and triple metres, encouraged seductive embellishment and revelled in instrumental give and take. But Schütz was no slavish copycat. While his mentors were drawn to the accompaniment of two obbligato violins and continuo, he, mindful of German partiality for wind instruments, rang the changes.

While six of the Symphoniae sacrae settings follow the example of his hosts, the remainder (nearly three quarters of the collection) are open to all sorts of possibilities. Particularly striking is David’s lament for his son Absalom, where four sonorous trombones support the solo bass. Two further volumes would follow in 1647 and ’50 with German texts replacing Latin, and in Es steh Gott auf Schütz paid overt and handsome homage to Monteverdi.

Emphasising his readiness to embrace the new requires a little qualification, however. Just as Schütz’s teacher Gabrieli had insisted on a solid grounding in the architectural discipline of Palestrinian polyphony, so the erstwhile pupil increasingly counselled aspiring composers to build on solid foundations.

And he led by example. In some respects the preface to the Geistliche Chor-Music published a year after the forward-looking Symphoniae sacrae II is almost a manifesto. In it, Schütz argues for the mastery of ‘an orderly management of the modes, the mechanics of fugue and double counterpoint, and (especially) mastery of polyphonic writing for voices’, before going on to demonstrate in 29 exquisitely crafted motets, the ‘stile antico’ in all its statuesque glory. Tellingly, when in 1670 he asked a favourite ex-student Christoph Bernard to compose a funeral motet in readiness for his obsequies when the time should come, he asked that it be ‘in the style of Palestrina’.

That time came in 1672, when Schütz had been in the service of the Dresden Court for 57 years – years long overshadowed by the privations of the Thirty Years War. In the foreword to Kleine geistliche Konzerte of 1636, he bemoaned the fact that ‘the laudable art of music has not only greatly declined but at some places has even been completely abandoned’.

The latter fate never befell Dresden, of course, but at times only by a hair’s breadth. Schütz’s available musicians numbered fewer than ten at one point, wages went unpaid for long periods, and even as late as 1651 (three years after the Peace of Westphalia was signed) he was petitioning on behalf of a singer who ‘lives like a sow in a pigsty, has no bedding, lies on straw, and has pawned his coat and jacket’.

Schütz must have been grateful for two lengthy sojourns in Denmark. Indeed, against such a backdrop, compounded – ironically – in later years by ill-feeling arising from the dominance of Italian musicians in the household, the quantity and sovereign quality of his output borders on the miraculous.

When did Schütz die?

Schütz died at the age of 88 in Dresden. His final work, known as his Schwanengesang or ‘SwanSong’, is performed at
his funeral.

Forging his own synthesis of musics, ancient and modern, northern and southern, opulent and austere, Schütz was the pre-eminent German composer of his age with an influence that long outlived him. A plaque attached to his tomb in Dresden’s Frauenkirche proclaimed ‘a joy for foreigners, a light for Germans’. A light down the centuries, in fact – for as a ‘collected works’ began to roll off the presses at the end of the 19th century, no one approached each new instalment with more excitement than a certain Johannes Brahms.

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