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Heinrich Schütz by Manfred Bukofzer (1947)

October 24, 2009

Extracts from Manfred F Bukofzer’s account of the career of Heinrich Schütz, from Music in the Baroque Era,1947.  Omissions are indicated by dots and my comments by square brackets.

German music soared to unprecedented heights in the works of the undisputed master of the dramatic concertato:  Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), the greatest of the quartet of S’s.  Schütz belonged to the few German baroque composers who combined a wide European perspective with the aristocratic attitude of an highly individual artist.  Reared in a Calvinist milieu, but an orthodox Lutheran himself, he showed remarkable tolerance in religious matters.  He approached, at times, a Catholic spirit in his music…….

 In his first great work of German church music, the polychoral Psalmen Davids (1619), Schütz adopted the grand manner of Gabrieli in compositions for two, three, and four choruses with instruments.  Like Gabrieli, he allowed a wide margin for the arranger since he did not always specify the orchestration……  Schutz claimed in his preface that he had composed the psalms in “stylo recitativo, hitherto almost unknown in Germany.”  He referred here not to the monodic style, but merely to the rigid declamatory principle that governed his choral settings.  Imaginatively utilizing speech rhythm, he arrived at a discontinuous, yet rapidly flowing, musical rhythm that was frequently interrupted by cadences and echo effects.  The omnipresent contrast motives indicated that Schütz, like Gabrieli and Monteverdi, transposed the madrigal style to sacred music.  The point is confirmed by the musical monument that Schütz raised to his teacher.  He turned Gabrieli s madrigal Lieto godea into a German contrafactum without essential changes……

Schütz accomplished in the Psalmen Davids and his subsequent works as perfect a union of words and music in the German language as Purcell did in the English language.  It is true that certain passages seem to run counter to the natural speech rhythm, but many of them (though not all) do so only if sung in the modern accentual interpretation, not yet applicable to Schütz.  Perhaps no other German composer ever derived so much purely musical inspiration from the German speech rhythm…… Masterpieces of the collection, like Ist nicht Ephraim for two solo voices with cornetti and trombones, or the monumental polychoral Zion spricht demonstrate how consciously and often intellectually Schütz arrived at his inspired pictorial motives……

 The Cantiones sacrae (1625) were based on mystic Latin texts, more appropriate for the Catholic than the orthodox Lutheran service.  In their extremism they form a sacred pendant to the madrigal book.  Schütz composed them in a radical concertato motet style for four voices and continuo which he added only reluctantly at the entreaties of his publisher.  The subjective attitude of the texts very closely corresponds to that of the music which goes to the very limits of pictorial dissonance treatment.   The severely contrapuntal texture is shot through with simultaneous cross-relations, melodic dissonances, and augmented triads, characteristically set to the word dulcis.

 [An example, an extract lasting 5 bars, from O bone from the Cantiones sacrae.]

 Although Schütz continued to write music of remarkable austerity he never returned in his later works to this overemphatic style.  Very few other German composers could equal it……

In the Symphoniae sacrae, published in three parts (1629, 1647 and 1650), Schütz reaped the fruits of his second journey to Italy.  They hold as important a position in his creative career as the works of the same title do in that of Gabrieli.  The fact that Schütz in his full maturity went a second time to Italy to learn from the “sagacious” Monteverdi, as he called him, bespeaks not only his personal humility but also his great respect for the Italian style.  In Part 1 of the Symphoniae sacrae the concertato style appears fully stabilized and the three vocal parts form, with the exactly specified instrumental ensembles, a highly colouristic yet thoroughly unified whole.  Several of Schütz’s pieces were only German adaptions of Italian compositions by Monteverdi and Grandi.  In the medium of the small concertato Schütz created scenes of great vision, like the somber plaint of David for Absalom, for bass voice and four trombones, which must be singled out as an incomparable masterpiece.  At the beginning the trombone quartet intones a sinfonia that anticipates the motive of the voice, and then the bass comes in with a bold idea of successive major thirds, a typically Schützian theme of a sophisticated simplicity.

[An extract from Fili mi, from Symphoniae sacrae I.]

In Parts II and III of the Symphoniae sacrae Schütz acknowledged his debt to Monteverdi not only in his interesting revisions of Monteverdi’s compositions, but especially in the adoption of the stile concitato.  While he adhered in Part II to the few-voiced concertato he resuscitated in Part III the splendour of his earlier polychoral compositions.  The vast combinations reflect the reassembling of the Saxonian court chapel after its dispersal during the Thirty Years War.  Part III contains works on the largest scale which approach the dramatic church cantata.  One of these, the deeply stirring Pauline conversion (Acts 9, 4ff.) Saul, Saul, was virfolgst Du mich?, is perhaps the most impressive of all of Schütz’s compositions.  This dramatic concertato was rediscovered by Winterfield more than a century ago.  It is scored for an ensemble of six favoriti (solo sextet), two four-voice choruses or “complements”, two violins, and organ continuo. At the beginning the solo voices give out the insistent calls “Saul, Saul” in an impetuously accelerated rhythm and come to an uncompromising cadence with stern parallel seconds, of which Schutz was as fond as Monteverdi [music example]. The calls are answered by the complementary choruses and lead to a fortissimo climax which tapers off in a staggered echo effect, expressly prescribed by the composer.  In the course of the composition Schütz uses the motives of the  calls in contrapuntal combination with the graphic idea of “kicking against the pricks” and achieves a dramatic grandeur unmatched by any of his contemporaries………..

 The Geistliche Chormusik  or Musicalia ad Chorum Sacrum (1648), dedicated to the city of Leipzig and the Thomas choir, brought the conservative side of Schütz’s genius to the fore.  In the preface the aging Schütz expressed his concern about the steadily progressing decline in technical proficiency that he thought to observe in the younger generation, brought up only on the continuo, and advocated the return to the thorough training that he had himself received in Italy.  He admonished the budding German composers to perfect themselves properly in the style without continuo before they proceeded to the concertato style, to learn the requisites of a “regulated composition”, and to “crack the hard nut in which one has to seek the kernel and the proper foundation of a good counterpoint”……..  In the Geistliche Chormusik Schütz succeeded in doing the impossible; he fused stile antico and stile moderno into a higher unity.  It is symbolic of the whole collection that Schütz inadvertently slipped into the collection a motet by Andrea Gabrieli that he had provided with a German text, probably during his student years in Italy.

 The oratorical compositions of Schütz which accompany his entire career form a group by themselves.  They consist of the Auferstehungs Historie (1623), the Sieben Worte am Kreuz, the Historia von der Geburth Gottes (1664), and three Passions according to St. Luke, St. John and St. Matthew (1666).  The Passion according to St. Mark is probably spurious.  Some of these have come down to us only in strongly revised versions.  The first of the so-called “histories”, the Easter Oratorio, is a freely modernized variant of an earlier work by Scandello (d.1580).  Schütz used here an old-fashioned type of recitative that combined the elements of the Gregorian tonus lectionis and the operatic recitation.  The archaic style appears also in the fact that text passages of single persons are set for more than one voice, an indication of how far removed the “history” still was from the opera.  The Seven Words at the Cross and the Christmas Oratorio are much more complex works written in the modern dramatic style and involving a great many instrumental and vocal ensembles in the presentation of the story.  Both compositions are framed by powerful instrumental and choral movements between which the story unfolds in form of recitatives and ensembles.  Words are based on the text of the chorale, but, significantly, its melody is not used.  The words of Christ are often accompanied, as in Bach’s Matthew Passion, by the halo of a string ensemble………

 In the Passions, which belong to the latest works of the composer, Schütz dispensed with instruments altogether, including even the continuo.  Written in a strict a-cappella style they employ with extreme economy only an unaccompanied (!) solo recitative and turbae or choruses.  The recitatives are freely composed in the fashion of a neo-Gregorian tonus lectionis.  In continuation of the ascetic trend, already manifested in the Chormusik, Schütz resuscitated the old Gregorian Passion in so rarified an atmosphere that it had little effect on any of his contemporaries or pupils.  These works, in which liturgical severity and highly personal artistry strangely intermingle, are symbols of the creative solitude in which the aged master was to outlive his own fame.

 Schütz never wrote any instrumental music independent of vocal compositions;  all his efforts were directed toward the vocal pole.  This fact marks the abyss that separates him from Bach who probably knew not a note of his, except perhaps his music for the Calvinist Psalter.  Deeply concerned over the spreading of facile and shallow compositions prompted by the German vogue for the Italian style – the very style Schütz had brought home and Germanized in his own fashion- Schütz staunchly upheld throughout his life the supremacy of the Italian style even when it was challenged by such conservatives as the organist Siefert…..

Bukofzer, Manfred F, Music in the Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Co., New York,1947, ISBN 0-393-09745-5, pp. 89-95.

2 Comments leave one →
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