Christmas and Easter Historias
Musica Fiata Koln
Conductor, Frieder Bernius
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Heinrich Schutz: Easter Historia and Christmas Historia
Since the middle of the sixteenth century, the Evangelists' accounts of Christ's birth and resurrection have come down to us in musical forms modeled on the polyphonic passion. The two Historias that Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) wrote for the church services at the court in Dresden are the most important contributions to this genre of liturgical music, a form whose history later merged with that of the oratorio.
In the Historia of the Joyous and Victorious Resurrection of our only Redeemer and Benefactor, Jesus Christ dating from 1623, Schutz reveals himself simultaneously as a traditionalist and as an innovator, a dual role that is, on the whole, typical of his role in music history. The conservative elements necessarily arise from the fact that the composition was intended to replace an older work of the same genre, namely, the Easter Historia by Antonio Scandello (1517-1580), one of Schutz' predecessors as court music director as at the Dresden court. Schutz not only borrowed the text from Scandello's version, an original compilation of the resurrection accounts made by Luther's friend and colleague Johannes Bugenhagen, but also elements of the musical setting. As in Scandello's version, the Evangelist's narration was based on a liturgical recitation formula (Easter tone - Dorian mode) and, with the exception of Cleopas, the ' disciple, the speech of individuals was set polyphonically (in Scandello's version with two or three vocal parts and in Schutz version with only two).
Schutz innovations firstly consisted in providing a basso conrinuo accompaniment in his composition. Thus, a feature appeared that had been introduced a quarter of a century-earlier as the basis of dramatic recitation in the new genre of opera. (As accompaniment tor the Evangelist, Schiitz nevertheless wrote a 4-part arrangement for viols, for which an organ could be substituted in exceptional circumstances). In many passages, the Evangelist's narratives deviate from traditional practice, expecially where images and emotions in the text permit imitation - as in the case of the descent of the angels from heaven, the rolling back of the stone or Mary's sorrow. In the two-voiced settings oi the texts for Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Schutz provided the option of one part being sung and the other being performed instrumentally or even being omitted entirely, the latter alternative made feasible by the addition of figured bass. One is able to see a role-oriented conception of the characters in such innovations. On the other hand, however, Schutz did not consider the "Easter Historia" a work to be staged, but rather an attempt to bring the Gospels to life. This is evident from the introductory remarks in which the composer recommends that the Evangelist be positioned visibly and the other characters hidden from view.
The "Easter Historia" is Schutz second liturgical work after "The Psalms of David" dating from 1619, In the 1619 collection, Schutz had already allowed the sound patterns and meaning of his texts to become a source of musical inspiration in a previously unknown manner. This principle was first applied to the representation of action in the "Easter Historia". It is here that the thirty-eight-year-old Schutz shows his supreme talent in translating, as it states on the title page, the behavior and feelings of people into music.
The Historia of the Joyful and Merciful Birth of God and Mary's Son, Jesus Christ was first heard at the Dresden court chapel during Christmas vesper services in 1660. Apparently, the seventy-five-year-old Schutz wanted to make use of the wide range of possibilities that opened up to Dresden's court music through the merger of Elector Johann Georg II's chapel with that of his father's after the former had come to power in 1657.
The special demands of the work were probably also why Schutz hesitated about its publication. A printed version first appeared in 1664, yet it only contained the parts for the Evangelist, not the ten opulently-scored "Concerti" (the supporting choruses and sections of direct speech). The composer thought that these pieces could only "achieve dieir proper effect" in a princely court chapel; whoever wanted to perform them had to "apply to" the court music director at St. Thomas in Leipzig or to the Kreuz Church organist in Dresden "for a copy". The production of such a copy required the authorization of the composer. This caution led to the necessity of supplementing the new edition of the printed version with handwritten sources and, what is especially unfortunate, to the loss of the introductory choral parts, with the exception of the figured bass. Therefore, this passage can only be performed using a modern reconstruction of the score.
The text is based on Gospel accounts of the birth and early childhood of Jesus from Luke (2:1-21) and Matthew (2:1-23) and is rounded off with an additional verse from the Gospel of Luke that ends with the story of Jesus' presentation in the temple (2:40). (In comparison with the text of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Schutz' text is richer in detail concerning the stories about the flight to Egypt, the murdering of the innocents in Bethlehem, and the return journey of the Holy Family). A fundamental principle valid for the "Easter Historia" as well is that the Evangelist's narration is presented without any sort of additional comment, apart from the accompanying choruses (the Annunciation and the Thanksgiving). In spite of this similarity, "The Christmas Historia" has a different character, which lies primarily in the structure of the Evangelist's text. While the resurrection stories continuously alternate between accounts and direct speech, thereby producing a subdivision into 58 individual sections, the Christmas story contains only eight sections of direct speech. Thus, the Evangelist's text in the latter divides into only seventeen passages and predetermines a large-scale formal structure from the outset.
The so-called "interuiedien," or musical settings of sections of direct speech, constitute the center of the musical virtuosity and characterization. Each of the figures and groups of characters who appear in them has a specific vocal/instrumental scoring. In basic principle, the speech of the angels is represented musically by string instruments, but that of people by wind instruments. Thus, King Herod (bass) is designated by traditional royal instruments i.e., clarino trumpets (cornetts can also be substituted), the three shepherds (alto voices) by flutes, and the high priests and scribes (four basses) by trombones - a usage suggested by Old Testament passages such as Joshua 6:4 ("Let the priests bear the trombones"). Only the scoring for the Three Wise Men from the East deviates from the basic principle of angels/strings and people/woodwinds: they, like the throngs of angels, are represented by two violins. It is presumed that Schutz used horns for the performance at the Dresden court. An explanation for the fact that violins were substituted for them in the manuscript parts surviving today is that Schutz could not have reckoned that such instruments, not common to the music of his day, would be available at other places besides Dresden.
The musical and expressive qualities of the "intermedien" should not lead us to forget the art of characterization in the Evangelist's part, which is completely rhythmical in contrast to that of the "Easter Historia". Schutz also knows how to avoid the danger of monotony in the longer reported-speech passages by subtly adapting the music to suit single words and changes in situations. In the characterization of the lament for the murdered innocents in Bethlehem, Schutz transcends the "conventional" practice of recitative composition in a way only dared later by Bach in his depiction of St. Peter's tears of.... remorse in the St. Jojin Passion.
- Werner Breig