Saul on the Road to Damascus, Part 3

The week before last, I introduced readers to Heinrich Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? (SWV 415). This short work presents the moment when the words of Jesus come to Saul, the initial phase of his conversion.

Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
It will be hard for you to kick against the thorns.

Calvin Stapert (whose books on various musical topics I often cite) wrote to share with me some comments on how Schütz constructed this short work. With Stapert’s permission, I’ve posted his comments below. First, here is another recording of Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? featuring the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

Some Analytical/Interpretive Notes
on Heinrich Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?

by Calvin Stapert

The words are those Saul heard from heaven on his way to Damascus.  Schütz chose to set them as Paul reported them during his trial before King Agrippa. (Acts 26:14). There are two parts to the text:

A:  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

B:  “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Schütz set the two parts, each to its own music, in alternation:  A – B – A’ – B’ – A”.


Paul heard the words after he had been blinded by a great light and fallen from his horse. But Schütz, rather than starting with music dramatizing that startling moment, chose instead to emphasize the inescapable nature of God’s call. So he started with the solo bass voices singing Saul’s name in the lowest part of their range. After singing a short rising sequence, they hand it off to the tenors. The tenors in turn hand it off to the higher voices, who in their turn hand it off to the violins to carry it beyond the normal range of human voices. When the violins bring their part of the rising sequence to a close, two antiphonal choirs join the solo voices. Since the choirs and the soloists are situated in different locations around the church, Saul’s name resounds from all around. The voice of God is inescapable. It sounds from the depths to the heights and from every direction.  As the writer of Psalm 139: “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?”


When the calling of Saul’s name fades away, the voice goes on to reason with him: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The attempt to persuade Saul is presented calmly and reasonably. First a solo tenor and then a solo alto sing the words as simply and clearly as possible save for little bit of rhetorical punch on the word “löcken” (“kick”).  


The antiphonal call of Saul’s name returns, echoing around the church, but it quickly fades away. It is merely a reminder of its continuing presence before the reasoning resumes.


This time the argument is pressed on Saul with much greater intensity. It is presented first by two solo voices instead of one, and the little rhetorical punch on “kick” is extended fourfold. But there is more. All six solo voices join singing “It is hard (schwer) for you” nine times in a rising sequence, always with the emphasis on “schwer. Schütz also employs a subtle compositional technique that increases the emphasis on “schwer.” He makes the melodically ascending sequence pull against a descending harmonic sequence. And then the whole passage climaxes on a dissonance between the two soprano soloists that lasts for six beats before resolving. Throughout the whole passage the strain of resisting God’s call is made palpable.


Before the music of B’ is finished, it is interrupted by the antiphonal choirs loudly calling the name “Saul” from all around. It is as if God realizes that Paul isn’t going to be swayed from his purpose no matter how forcefully he presents the argument. After the interruption, the combined voices of soloists and choirs sing the whole sentence five times. The first statement begins with all the forces singing “Saul” in the familiar antiphonal manner. But the choirs drop out as the soloists sing “why do you persecute me” (“was verfolgst du mich”) in gradually softening echoes marked f, mp, pp.  But as that is happening, a solo tenor is detached from the rest of the singers. Above them all he repeats the name “Saul, Saul, Saul” in long notes as the others sing the rest of the sentence in the same pattern of softening echoes.  

When the story of Saul’s conversion is first told in Acts 9:4-5, Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer is: “I am Jesus.” In this last part of the piece, the personal voice of Jesus (the solo tenor), the one who came “to seek and to save those who are lost,” emerges from the generalized voice of God to call Saul to himself. And when the last pianissimo phrase fades into silence, we know that Saul has been won over. And we know that he was not won over by persuasive argument, but by hearing the voice of the Shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name.”