Schütz: Baroque before Bach

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

Exactly one hundred years before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1685, his greatest German predecessor was born in Köstritz, a small town in what is now Saxony. Heinrich Schütz was arguably the greatest German composer before Bach, the first German composer to enjoy an international reputation. Unlike Bach’s extensive clan, the Schütz family was more involved in commerce and civil service than music. Heinrich’s father, Christoph, eventually became mayor of nearby Weißenfels, but he worked as an innkeeper in that town when Heinrich was a boy. It was there that Heinrich’s natural musical talent emerged through his participation in the local Lutheran church choir.

One night in 1598, Landgrave Moritz von Hesse-Kassel, a nobleman in the Holy Roman Empire, spent the night in the family’s inn and apparently heard the charming treble voice of young Heinrich. The landgrave — himself a serious musician — was eager to encourage new talent and eventually persuaded Heinrich’s parents to let him come to sing and study as a chorister in his court chapel. They reluctantly allowed their son to leave home, but continued to urge him not to get too involved in music so he could prepare for a real job (sound familiar?). So in 1607 he dutifully followed his brother and a cousin to the University of Marburg to study law, a career path more in keeping with the family’s experience and expectations.

With Gabrieli in Venice

Just two years later, Landgrave Moritz visited Marburg and met with Schütz, insisting that (as Schütz would later recall) “since at that time a very famous if elderly musician and composer was still alive in Italy, I was not to miss the opportunity of hearing him and gaining some knowledge from him.” The composer was Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the most influential figures of the Venetian school of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Centered at the ornate St. Mark’s Basilica, a structure noted for its Byzantine architecture, shimmering mosaics, and glorious acoustics, the Venetian school pioneered spectacular musical techniques using multiple choirs, often accompanied by brass and organ. Gabrieli had been the organist at St. Mark’s in the 1580s and 1590s, when the polychoral style of music developed there was at its peak. By 1609, his health was declining, but he was still working with students and young Heinrich Schütz was advised to become one of them.

Imagine: an unmarried, 24-year-old Lutheran law student with repressed musical ambitions is offered a generous stipend from an enthusiastic benefactor to abandon his provincial college town for an exotic, dazzling city on the Adriatic. Schütz — “being a young man, and eager to see the world besides” — accepted the offer “with submissive gratitude,” if against his parents’ wishes. This story could have had a sad ending, like those of countless small-town naïfs who set out to make it in Hollywood. As it happened, Landgrave Moritz’s instincts were uncannily accurate: that boy treble he heard singing one night in a humble Saxon inn possessed a musical imagination rarely equaled in Western history.

Early Works

Schütz’s first published works comprised a collection of Italian madrigals, dedicated to and admired by his teacher. Gabrieli was best-known for large-scale, sonically powerful musical show-pieces, but Gabrieli also recognized the benefits of mastering the delicately expressive emotional intimacy of the madrigal. After only two years of formal training in composition, the ex-law student produced a collection that, in the judgment of musicologist Richard Taruskin, is “completely indistinguishable in style from the native product.” 

Schütz returned to Germany in 1613, and six years later, his first collection of sacred choral music was published, dedicated to Landgrave Moritz. Psalmen Davids includes 26 works, most between four and seven minutes long, scored in the Venetian style for multiple choirs of voices and brass. The texts are based on twenty psalm settings (Luther’s own translations) along with several movements using texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a Lutheran hymn. Though the language is Luther’s German, the forms of musical expression owe a great deal to the Counter-Reformation composers from Venice.

A more austere sound is evident in his next major work. The 1623 composition, Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi, tells the story of the Resurrection with a text conflated from the Gospel accounts and sung by a tenor narrator (like the Evangelists in later Passion settings by Bach and others) in the company of soloists portraying key figures in the story (Mary Magdalene, angels, disciples, and the risen Christ). Throughout the work, Schütz employs a form known as monody, a declamatory structure with a single melodic line (as opposed to the multiple interweaving lines of polyphony) accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble providing harmonic support.

Dresden Compositions

Beginning in 1615, Schütz worked at the Dresden court of the Elector of Saxony, where he remained for the rest of his long career (he lived to be 87). From that fruitful tenure we have almost 500 works, mostly short pieces based on Biblical texts. Since he was employed as a court musician, the style of his composition was affected by politics: the economic consequences of the Thirty Years’ War (1629-1648) meant less money to pay musicians, so many of his best compositions are for smaller forces than was typical at St. Mark’s.

These were not the sorts of works he thought he would be writing, based on his early heady experiences in Venice. But what they say about necessity and invention is true, and Schütz’s compositional skills were versatile. Musicologist Paul Henry Lang writes of Schütz that “his artistic development shows a steady growth toward simplification and crystallization.”

In addition to three Passion settings, a Christmas and an Easter oratorio, and a setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ, most of Schütz’s compositions were released to the public in collections of 20-40 pieces. Among the most compelling are the two volumes of Kleine geistliche Konzerte (“Little Sacred Concertos”), published in 1636 and 1639, and the 1648 collection of motets, Geistliche Chormusik  (“Sacred choral music”).

Also notable is his final work, which was dramatically called just that: Opus Ultimum is a setting in German of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 (conductor Matteo Messori says that “while Bach was Kantor of the Lutheran chorale, Schütz was Cantor of the Psalter”), in which plainchant, Italian polychoral textures, German chorale melodies set in cantus firmus, and older forms of polyphony are all employed in a remarkable tapestry of sound. The work was not performed before Schütz’s death in 1672, and the scores were long lost, only recovered in the mid-1970s. Recent recordings (especially the one conducted by Philippe Herreweghe) give us an opportunity to hear this work with marvel and submissive gratitude, a posture I find I’m compelled to assume in hearing all of Schütz’s work. I hope his parents were finally proud of him.

Here is the opening movement of Schütz’s Opus Ultimum,
performed by Collegium Vocale Gent and Concerto Palatino
conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.