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8.553514 - SCHUTZ: Christmas Story / Cantiones Sacrae
Heinrich Schütz (1585 - 1672)
One might naturally assume that a composer would go to any lengths to have his work published. Indeed Schütz tried to get as much of his music into print as possible during his lifetime - the majority of his five hundred surviving pieces were issued in a series of fourteen collections spanning a period of fifty years from 1611 to 1661. Of these fourteen publications, nine were issued in Dresden, two each in Venice and Freiberg, and one in Leipzig. However, a substantial part of Schütz's output remained unpublished owing to the intervention of war and resultant financial hardship. Of this unpublished music, much has been lost, the most significant of it owing to fires in Dresden and Copenhagen in the century after Schütz's death. One can only lament the loss of such a substantial corpus of music, coming as it did from the pen of the first German composer of international repute.
In spite of the fact that Schütz was keen to have the bulk of his music published, the case of The Christmas Story is different. Schütz allowed only part of the work to be available for sale: that of the music sung by the Evangelist. The rest of the piece (the Introduction, Conclusion, and the eight Intermedia) was only available for hire. Sinister as it sounds, it seems that only musicians of a certain standard were allowed to hire these movements. As Schütz himself put it: 'Other than in well-appointed royal chapels, this music cannot be adequately performed'. So, what of those musicians who did not make the grade? How were they to perform this 17th century masterwork? For those unfortunates, the advice was to intersperse the Evangelist's recitatives with any music that they saw fit. One might be tempted to regard this policy as somewhat short-sighted, for whatever musical crimes a well-meaning group of dilettantes might have committed during a performance of The Christmas Story, it would surely be more desirable to allow them access to the complete work rather than to encourage sub-standard musicians to tamper with its dramatic structure. Given Schütz's possessive and territorial attitude towards The Christmas Story, any group of musicians that undertakes its performance must do so with a certain degree of trepidation, even three centuries after the composer's death.
The Christmas Story is a succession of set pieces linked by narrative. Schütz's genius is most apparent in his use of the different textures that paint this series of Christmas portraits. The chorus is reserved for three Intermedia; the almost matter-of-fact Introduction, the declamatory Conclusion, and the appearance of the Company of Angels (the most lavish and characterful of the choir's three movements). The Angel's three Intermedia are characterized by the accompaniment of two violas -a particularly effective sonority. Whereas another composer might naturally have leaned towards the use of high instruments in an angelic context, in Schütz's hands the urgency of the Angel's message is lent gravitas as well as optimism. Herod is accompanied in fittingly regal style by cornetts, and his duplicitous High Priests by sackbuts (this six- part low-voiced texture of Intermedium V being one of the most individual sonorities of the 17th century). The Shepherds are placed in their rough-and- ready rustic setting to the accompaniment of a pair of recorders and a dulcian, while violins introduce the Wise Men whose bluff sagacity is enhanced by the dulcian's low tessitura. The Evangelist is called upon to link these diverse portraits in accordance with the drama of the Christmas message and is variously required to be objective narrator, subjective commentator, and mouthpiece of prophetic fulfilment - nowhere more effectively as the latter than in the extended recollection of the Vox in Rama passage from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (Auf dem Gebirge).
The remainder of the music on this recording comprises music written earlier in Schütz's career. The Cantiones sacrae (op. 4) were published in Freiberg in 1625 - a collection of over forty sacred pieces. These Latin motets are often reminiscent of earlier Italian models. Some of the textures and the stranger dissonances seems to hark back to music written a few years earlier by the likes of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, and a work such as Cantate Domino shows the obvious influence of Gabrieli with whom Schütz had studied in Venice between 1610 and 1612. Gabrieli's influence is equally obvious in the virtuosic German setting of the 100th Psalm (from Schütz's op. 2). The alternation of a large and a small choir is particularly Venetian, although Schütz has his own inimitable way of handling the German text. The Gloria of the psalm (beginning Ehre sei dem Vater) is wonderfully inventive: the two choirs cease their competition and the upper voices answer one another effortlessly; thereafter the lower voices gently join in until the vigorous antiphonal effect is finally restored for the Amen.
1996 Jeremy Summerly
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