Music/Popular Culture

Death, Schütz and Scarlatti

Here are my program notes for Orlando Chamber Choir’s triumphal concert last night, sightly edited, since, actually, you’re not at the concert.

If you could pick the time and place of your birth, you would probably not pick the last twenty years of the 16th century. This would be a particularly bad time to be living in Germany. Plague was rampant, even though there was relative peace for a period. Death surrounded everyone, and Schütz, growing up in this milieu, was no exception. 1585, the year of Schütz’s birth, saw a recurrence of the plague that had swept through Weissenfels (where Schütz grew up) in 1577, and which was to return several more times in Schütz’s lifetime. If anything, the first half of the 17th century was even worse, mainly on account of the 30 Years Wars (1618-1648). These conflicts, between bitterly divided catholic and protestant Central Europe, consumed much of Germany, and left much of the country devastated, both spiritually and physically, particularly in Saxony. Schütz, composer at Dresden for much of this period, was continually faced with periods of complete collapse of any musical performances, or resources—his musicians were usually underpaid, if paid at all, during much of this period. And Schütz was also to experience his own personal tragedies—losing his parents, his wife, his only brother, and one of his two daughters within several years of each other (and eventually outliving his other daughter). Schütz remained a widower for 47 years.

It is no surprise, then that death was a recurring theme in Lutheran theology, and in Schütz’s music as well. But this was also the period of the Reformation in Germany, when faith—Luther’s faith—was built on a foundation of life as a “vale of tears,” but a journey that was redeemable by belief in Christ and the salvation that the death of Christ offered. Luther, of course, believed that music was the most effective means of mobilizing and reaffirming faith—music was a gift from God. Schütz, a devout Lutheran himself, composed a considerable amount of material for the church, often during periods when there were few resources—instrumental and vocal—available. Depleted choirs were a problem Schütz was to face repeatedly. During the period of the 30 Years War Schütz’s compositions became increasingly sparse, and more informed by Biblical texts, especially those offering assurances of the promise of faith, of Christ, in the face of an increasingly desolate world.

We begin with Schütz’s Deutsches Magnificat (Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, SWV 494), one of the last works Schütz composed, in 1671—right around the time he was composing his final work, the scoring of Psalm 119, the Psalm of David. A mature work, then, composed after Schütz had buried his wife and children, but one that still incorporates some of Schütz’s daring. Unlike many of Schütz’s compositions, however, it lacks the customary intonations and cantus firmus that would accompany a religious piece of much of this period. In this piece, Schütz again proves his mastery of matching text, including individual words, to music—the first appearance in German music of a unique personality, an individual style in the German vernacular. Schütz here, as in so much of his work (and that of Bach later), is driven by Luther, and like nearly all of Schütz’s religious works, the text is drawn from the Bible, specifically from Mary’s song in Luke I in a translation by Luther. Luther turned religion in to drama, and Schütz, here and in other works, excelled at embodying this drama in musical form—here, in a double choir. Denied the opportunity to compose operas because of the war, Schütz blended the drama of opera into other works, where the drama came from the match of words or phrases to music lines, driven by the underlying drama of the Biblical text.

We follow this with a work by Claudio Monteverdi, Salve Regina. This seems to be the only setting of the four Marian antiphons that Monteverdi actually scored, and he accompanied it with his two favorite instruments, organ and chitarrone. Schütz worked with Monteverdi during his second visit to Venice, and studied his works intensely to seek further mastery over how Monteverdi had expanded the expressive vocabulary of music. This version, for two voices, comes from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640/41, and was originally scored for two tenors for performance during Vespers.  Like Schütz’s Meine Seele, this is a mature work, published when Monteverdi was in his 70s (although a three-part Salve Regina had been published in Venice in 1629). Monteverdi composed throughout his life, and the motets of his later years stand in direct contrast to the larger works (such as the 1610 Vespers) of his middle period. Monteverdi often was highly experimental and adventurous in these motets, usually for one to three voices, and often single words or phrases underpin whole lines of music. Monteverdi’s influence was pervasive in Venice, of course, but through Schütz Monteverdi’s influence in Germany was perhaps even more significant. The Salve Regina was popular in Venice, especially with the city’s significant veneration of the Virgin.

Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (Musical Funeral Rites, loosely) was commissioned for its first performance in 1635 by the widow of Count Heinrich the Posthumus Reuss of Gera, who died in December of that year. (1635 was also the year of the death of Schütz’s mother, and four years following the death of his father.)  By this time Schütz had already been to Italy and returned, having studied with Giovanni Gabrieli. Heinrich had prepared his own funeral service, including a copper coffin, which he had inscribed with a selection of Biblical and Lutheran texts.  Schütz’s task of preparing a funeral work was undoubtedly complicated by the disparate range of texts that Heinrich had chosen. Schütz’s solution was to arrange the texts in the form of a German “Burial Mass,” paraphrasing the Kyrie and Gloria. The pieces were actually composed independently of each other, all before Heinrich’s death, and collected as the work we know as Musikalische Exequien after Heinrich’s funeral. Heinrich apparently performed in the funeral rehearsals before his death, and Schütz appears to have rewritten some portions to include an extra singer as an accommodation to Heinrich, with whom Schütz had enjoyed a long friendship. Heinrich’s will was explicit about the funeral arrangements—it not only included instructions about the music, but also the positioning of the attendants to the service itself.

The texts that Heinrich had inscribed in his coffin form the basis of the first movement of this three part work.  This section, Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Messe, is set for SSATTB. Schütz employs the antiphonal style he learned from Gabrieli here, with soloists and the chorale alternating repeatedly. Schütz’s two part piece has each part preceded by a plainchant intonation of, first, the Kyrie, and then the Gloria.  The text for the first part is drawn from a variety of Biblical sources, alternating with a selection of verses from Lutheran hymns (some from Luther himself.) The only accompaniment is a basso continuo.

The second part, the Motette Herr, wenn ich nur Dich habe, is scored for an SATB double choir. The text here provided the sermon for the funeral service itself, and was also chosen by the Prince. Part III, the Canticum B. Simeonis Herr, nun lässest Du Deinen Diener, is scored for an SATTB choir and three soloists. Here the text offers a setting of the Canticle of Simeon, which Heinrich had wished to be sung during the internment of the coffin, which indeed is what occurred. As with many Renaissance and early Baroque pieces, the 13th century Nunc dimittis provides a foundation for the solo trios, representing angels and the soul of the departed as they loft themselves into heaven. Schütz encouraged the trios to be placed around the galleries during the performance. The overall structure is ingenious, and unlike pretty much everything that had gone before, including most of Schütz’s own compositions.

We open the second half of the concert with a duet by Agostino Steffani, Dolce è per voi soffrire. Steffani was best known as an opera and instrumental composer, but he also published a series of chamber duets, most of which were completed and published by 1702. Dolce è per voi soffrire is an exception—this seems to date from 1711. Steffani studied in Rome from 1672 to 1674, when he accepted the post of Kappelmeister at Munich. In addition to a lively and relatively comfortable musical career, Steffani was also a well-known and highly successful diplomat and churchman, and eventually became Bishop of Spiga in 1706 and the Vicar Apostolic of Northern Germany—which did not necessarily curtail his composing activities.

We follow this with a short organ work by Juan Bautista Cabanilles (1644-1712), one of the premier organists of the Baroque period in Europe. He spent his entire musical career at the cathedral in Valencia, where he was appointed assistant organist in 1665, and principal organist a year later, a post he held for 45 years. He was ordained as a priest in 1668. He composed a number of works for choir, a small number of which survive, but his fame rests on his organ compositions, including a number of tientos, which in structure are similar to the fantasies composed for keyboard instruments in England and Germany at the time. Cabanilles’ organ works generally are characterized by an extreme contrapuntal density and the occasional strange dissonance, as well as requiring a high degree of technical dexterity. Cabinalles’ tientos combined the strict counterpoint of the traditional tiento, developed during the previous century, in alteration with more toccata, fantasy-like sections. Cabanilles’ tientos are regarded as the culmination of this style in Spain.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was born into a different world from that of Schütz, literally—if the past is another country, it’s actually more than one. Europe was a radically different place for a professional musician when Scarlatti was working. Born exactly a century later than Schütz, in 1685 (the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frederick Handel, and two years after Jean-Philippe Rameau), Domenico was born into a family that, like the Bach family, was a highly musical one. The family was dominated by Domenico’s father Alessandro, himself a highly successful operatic composer.  Alessandro’s sisters were themselves successful albeit controversial opera singers, and Alessandro had determined that Domenico would follow in his stead and have a life in opera. But, like Mozart’s father, this had such a stifling effect on Domenico that the latter eventually had to seek legal help to get his independence from his father, and from Rome, which he did in 1717, at age 32. Domenico had other ideas, but took some time to achieve them. His first musical appointment was as Organist in the royal chapel in Naples—where his father also had an appointment. He eventually found his way to Rome, and then to Portugal, where he became Chief Harpsichordist to the King and teacher to the Princess, Maria Barbara. When she married the King of Spain in 1729, he accompanied her to Madrid, where he remained the rest of his life. There was a detour in Venice along the way, although little is known of his stay there.

Scarlatti’s life in many respects could not have been more different from Schütz’s. Domenico did not experience any of the horrors, or tragedies, experienced by Schütz. He lived in relative comfort most of his life, with generous patrons for much of that time. How unlike Schütz, who for years believed he and his musicians were underpaid, and undoubtedly were. And yet there is the determination to establish a home where he could find some sort of independence from the expectations of a powerful father, and pursue his primary interest—the keyboard.  Scarlatti is probably best known for his keyboard works, including his 555 keyboard sonatas—most of which were not published in his lifetime. But he enjoyed a broad range of styles, and composed operas, cantatas, and religious works from time to time, especially during his 12-year residence in Rome.

The Stabat Mater, probably Scarlatti’s best known choral work, traces its origins back to the 13th century, as a Catholic hymn to the sorrows of Mary during the Crucifixion. Much like the Musikalische that closed the first half, this is a work about death, and the Christian response to death. Scarlatti has scored this, not for the traditional double choirs, but rather for ten voices, and it stands almost unique among Scarlatti’s choral compositions in its complexity and scale. It also stands somewhat apart from other pieces of this time in its almost archaic style—as some observers have noted, some of this work could almost have been composed by Palestrina. Scarlatti would certainly have been aware of his father’s version, as well as those of Palestrina and Lassus. Written between 1715 and 1719 when Domenico was in Rome, Domenico had the services of Palestrina’s old choir, the Vatican Capella Giula at St. Peter’s Basilica.

This is clearly a liturgical work, during which Scarlatti weaves a number of polyphonic melodies through individual parts over a 16th century counterpoint foundation. We move from an austere opening through the work’s ten movements to an increasingly dynamic and complex close, with a wide range of sonorities and tone colors capturing the range of Mary’s (and the observer’s) emotions along the way, topped off by a resolute but vibrant Amen. We are treated to a celebration of faith as deeply held as that of Schütz, expressed in a work that melds text and music in a way that Schütz undoubtedly would have approved of.

The German postage stamp above was issued in 1972 in honor of Heinrich Schütz. That’s his signature, right there.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture