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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Schütz

Today’s post contains some of the most beautiful and moving music I know. It’s the product of the life of a remarkable musician, someone I’ve admired ever since I discovered his music when I was a student. Coming from that dim, distant period we might call “before Bach”, this composer had an amazing life and left some amazing music. His name is Heinrich Schütz. Have a listen to his sound world... [listen]

Schütz's birthplace in Bad Köstritz, now a museum

Heinrich Schütz was born in October 1585 in the town now known as Bad Köstritz (roughly halfway between Berlin and Nuremberg). He was the second child and eldest son of Christoph Schütz, a town official and inn-keeper, and his second wife Euphrosyne Bieger, daughter of the burgomaster of the nearby town of Gera. When Heinrich was nearly five the family moved to Weissenfels, about 50 km to the north, when the boy’s father became a respected businessman and eventually the town’s burgomaster.

The Schütz home in Weissenfels, now a museum

Heinrich showed musical talent at an early age and his parents, who thought music was not a respectable profession for their son, were eventually persuaded to allow him to go to the city of Kassel at the request of Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Moritz, himself a skilled musician, heard the 13 year old boy sing when was staying at the Schütz’s inn in Weissenfels, and he gave him a place the following year in his court as a choirboy, a place which enabled him to have an excellent education. By all reports the young Heinrich thrived, showing particular skill in languages as well as music.

Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1662)

After completing his schooling and starting law studies at University, Moritz suggested to Schütz that he should go to Venice to study with Giovanni Gabrieli. Moritz undertook to provide the funds for Schütz to study in Venice for two years. Gabrieli, at that stage nearing the end of his life, had a reputation as a fine teacher. Others from the Kassel court had preceded Schütz in studying with Gabrieli but the old Italian master and his young German student clearly developed an especially close relationship. In 1611, at the end of his second year in Venice, Schütz (aged 26) published a volume of nineteen Italian madrigals, dedicated to Moritz and showing the fruits of his studies with Gabrieli. [listen]

Moritz eventually granted an extension to his support for a third year of study, and eventually gave Schütz leave to stay for a fourth year, although this was underwritten by Schütz’ parents and not the Landgrave. At the start of the fourth year, Gabrieli died, aged in his late 60s. On his deathbed he gave Schütz one of his rings, and for the rest of his life Schütz acknowledged no-one else as his teacher.

Schütz returned to Kassel around 1613. In 1614 he began a professional connection with the court of the Elector Johann Georg I in Dresden, who by 1617 eventually forced Moritz to give up Schütz so that he could work permanently in Dresden. Even in his early 30s, Schütz was highly sought-after and admired as a director of church musical establishments and as a composer.

Luycx: Elector Johann Georg I (1652)

Two momentous events took place in Schütz’ life in 1619. The first took place in the spring, the publication of his first collection of sacred music. Called Psalmen Davids (the Psalms of David) this comprises 25 pieces, including the psalm setting for double choir I linked at the start of this post. The collection shows that Schütz had mastered the polychoral style for which Gabrieli had been famous. Here's another Psalm from the collection: [listen]

The other momentous event in Schütz’ life in 1619 was his marriage to Magdalena Wildeck, the 18-year old daughter of a court official. They had two daughters in what seemed to be a loving and happy marriage: Anna Justina, born in 1621, and Euphrosina, born in 1623. However in September 1625, after only six years of marriage, Magdalena Schütz died after a short illness. Contrary to the custom of the time, Schütz never remarried.

Around the time of his younger daughter’s birth, Schütz published the first of his biblical “histories”. We would call them short oratorios and this one was on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus. The Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi has a tenor soloist (the Evangelist) telling the story with other singers tasking the parts of the other characters. It opens with an introductory chorus and ends with this chorus movement. The main text in German is a hymn of praise to God for the raising of Jesus from the dead, in the midst of which is woven the Latin word victoria, meaning victory. [listen]

In 1625, shortly before his wife’s death, Schütz published his first major sacred music collection since the Psalmen Davids of six years before. Called Cantiones sacrae, this contained forty works in Latin which were conceived on a more intimate scale than the earlier collection. This setting of the text Spes mea, Christe Deus - a hymn of adoration to Christ - is typical of the set. It’s scored for four solo voices - soprano, alto, tenor and bass - with continuo. This again shows the influence of Italian music of the period on Schütz. The mood is intense, personal, intimate, and highly charged emotionally. It’s reminiscent of the music Monteverdi was writing at exactly the same time. [listen]

Whilst continuing to fulfil his duties at the Dresden court in the period immediately after Magdalena’s death, compositionally Schütz largely withdrew for a time from writing large-scale sacred music. He chose to work on a relatively simple psalm collection which he published on the second anniversary of her death, as well as other stand-alone motets for specific occasions.

It’s at this time we learn of one of the great losses to the history of music. In 1627 Schütz and his musical establishment spent a month at the castle of Hartenfels at Torgau. The Elector here mounted a lavish series of entertainments to mark his daughter’s wedding. Records of the event tell us that in mid-April there was performed a musical version of the story of Daphne, the first opera in German, for which Schütz wrote the music. The text survives, but alas not a note of the music. Throughout his career Schütz wrote a number of theatrical works for celebrations of this sort and not a single one of them survives.

Fortunately, a little secular duet which Schütz wrote for the same series of celebrations does survive. [listen]

Schloss Hartenfels, Torgau

In 1628 and 1629 Schütz undertook a second visit to Italy. He noted in his letters that much had changed in the 15 years of so since his last visit, and on this trip he spent time in Florence and Mantua as well as Venice. Keen on absorbing the latest developments, Schütz made the acquaintance on this trip of Monteverdi, who seems to have been of invaluable assistance. This fresh encounter with Italy led to the publication of Schütz’ next major collection of sacred music in Venice in 1629, the first volume of the Symphoniae sacrae. These “sacred symphonies” for voices and instruments again set Latin texts and show how completely Schütz had absorbed the Italian style. [listen]

Back in northern Europe, the Thirty Years War had started in 1618, but Saxony (at whose capital, Dresden, Schütz had been based) had managed to remain out of the hostilities, for some time at least. This hadn’t prevented the financial situation in Saxony worsening considerably and the court music establishment was in a parlous state; some musicians were not paid for years. Schütz returned to Dresden in November 1629, but in autumn of 1631 Saxony became embroiled in the War. This only made Schütz’ efforts to improve the situation at court for his musicians and himself completely ineffective. Numbers among the singers and instrumentalists fell and in the early 1630s things almost ground to a halt in Dresden as far as church music was concerned.

For this reason, an invitation in 1633 from Crown Prince Christian of Denmark for Schütz to work at his court for a time must have been extremely welcome. This was only ever meant to be a temporary appointment but it was still a lucrative one for Schütz. He worked in Denmark in 1634 and 1635, returning to Dresden afterwards.

Schütz was well-acquainted with death. Apart from the loss of his wife, he had in recent years lost his sister-in-law, father, father-in-law, and numerous close friends and colleagues. In 1635 the cultured and music-loving Prince Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss died. On his death bed he gave detailed instructions regarding the texts he wanted set to music for his funeral, and after his death his wife and son commissioned Schütz to do exactly that. The Musikalische Exequien (Musical Exequies, or Musical Funeral Rites) was the result, an amazingly moving and intense collection of music lasting about half an hour which was directed by Schütz himself at the prince’s funeral. This video on YouTube aligns a beautiful recording with the complete score. [listen]

Engraving of Schütz aged 42 by Augustus John

More death was to follow. When Magdalena died his two daughters were both under the age of five and he'd clearly felt unable to look after them. He had placed them in the care of their maternal grandmother, but in 1638 the elder daughter, Anna Justina, died at the age of 17.

The work continued unabated. 1639 saw the publication of a second volume of small sacred concertos (the first had been published three years earlier). These were collections of both Latin and German works for small combinations of voices and continuo, with some requiring extra instruments. In 1639-40 he took leave from Dresden and worked in Hanover and Hildesheim. At the start of 1641 he was back in Dresden but by then the church music establishment there was in a state of near-total collapse. Schütz’ efforts to fix things were again unsuccessful and many of the musicians continued to go unpaid. Schütz himself suffered a serious illness at this time but recovered. He then spent a further two years working in Denmark, then a year in the town of Wolfenbüttel, before returning to Dresden in 1645.

In 1645 Schütz made his first attempt to retire. He was nearly 60 but the Elector refused his request to release him from his duties. This would be a familiar refrain over the next few years.

One of the few happy events in Schütz’ personal life took place in 1647 with the engagement of his surviving daughter. In this same year he published his next major collection of sacred music, the second set of Symphoniae sacrae. These 27 German works represent an astounding understanding of the Italian style. One could almost imagine these pieces being written by Monteverdi, but for the German text. [listen]

Monteverdi’s spirit very clearly hangs over this entire set. In one movement Schütz bases his music on two duets by the Italian master which had been published the preceding decade.

In 1648 the next published collection, called Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choral Music) appeared, comprising 29 German language motets. Most are for voices and continuo, although a few require extra instruments. There is less overt Italian-ness in these sublime pieces. The composer's simplicity and clarity are to the fore as always, though, with some utterly delightful turns of harmony. [listen]

The end of the Thirty Years War with the Peace of Westphalia the following year did not lead to any great improvement in the state of music at the Dresden court. Yet still Schütz continued to compose and to publish his magnificent collections of sacred music. In late 1650, aged 65, Schütz brought out the third volume of Symphoniae sacrae, a collection of 21 German language motets on a larger scale than anything he’d released for some time. [listen]

In 1651 he again tried to retire and the Elector (who was about the same age) again refused. He tried again the following year, and again the Elector refused. Two further attempts to retire in 1653 were again refused.

The famous Spetner portrait of Schütz aged about 65

In 1655 Schütz suffered a tragic blow with the death of his second daughter only seven years after her marriage. Again, his attempts to retire after this were not accepted by the Elector. The following year, though, Elector Johann Georg died. On the accession of Johann Georg II in 1657, Schütz was finally permitted to retire on about half his former salary. He was 72.

Fink: Elector Johann Georg II (1675)

Freed from his daily responsibilities, Schütz continued to travel widely as a consultant and guest director, and he continued to compose. Among his late works are some sublime masterpieces, including the Christmas History, which has the delicious German title of Historia, Der Freuden- und Gnadenreichen Geburth Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi, Unsers Einigen Mitlers, Erlösers und Seeligmachers (History of the Joyful and Merciful Birth of the Son of God and Mary, Jesus Christ, our only Mediator, Redeemer and Saviour). The Christmas History was performed in 1660 and like the earlier Resurrection History is structured as an Evangelist’s narrative interspersed with episodes sung by the various characters in the story. It contains gorgeous, charming music like this, sung by the shepherds as they decide to go to the manger in Bethlehem. [listen]

The entire work is a delight, and can be heard complete, starting here.

In the mid-1660s Schütz wrote his beautifully austere, and completely unaccompanied, settings of the Passion: two versions of the St John narrative and one each of the St Matthew and St Luke. In 1669 he turned 84 and the event was marked with particular celebrations, possibly as part of the German tradition of the Stufenjahre, which marks twelve-year intervals as major life events. On this occasion he was presented with a gilt cup by the Elector.

In 1670, Schütz was reported as being increasingly frail and hard of hearing; in October of that year he turned 85. He started to make plans for his end, overseeing preparations of his tomb in the Dresden Frauenkirche and selecting the 54th verse of Psalm 119 as the basis for his funeral sermon: Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage. Yet even at this late stage, he still had more music to give, undertaking his final work and calling it his Schwanengesang (Swan Song). This “opus ultimum” (final work) is no trifle, either. It is a monumental setting of the entire psalm which provided the verse for his funeral sermon - Psalm 119 - which at 176 verses is the longest chapter in the Bible. The 22 sections of the psalm were grouped by Schütz into 11 sections, each of which is set as a separate motet. The eleven motets total nearly an hour and a half of sublime music for double chorus and organ, a fitting end to a life given to expressing the inexpressible. This is the conclusion of the final motet in Schütz’ Schwanengesang, his final work, written when he was 86. [listen]

Heinrich Schütz died on 6 November 1672 at the age of 87. Approximately 500 works by him survive, and so much more has been lost. His legacy was enormous. In the words of Grove Music Online:

He was the greatest German composer of the 17th century and the first of international stature. Through the example of his compositions and through his teaching he played a major part in establishing the traditions of high craftsmanship and intellectual depth that marked the best of his nation’s music and musical thought for more than 250 years after his death.

The Schütz monument in Dresden

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2007.

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