The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists
His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts
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Heinrich Schutz: Musikalische Exequien Motets, Concertos
Two of the strands in the work of Heinrich Schutz intersect in his Musikaliscke Exequien (SWV 279-281): on the one hand it counts as an occasional composition, one of those written to order; on the other hand, however, Schutz included it among his major works, the ones he regarded highly enough to give opus numbers to and have printed. Posterity has hilly endorsed his opinion of his "opus 7": no one would question that it is one of the most artistically accomplished, and most expressively profound, of all his works.
The Musikalische Exequien was composed for performance at the funeral of Prince Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss (1572-1635), who was laid to rest in Gera on 4 February 1636. Heinrich von Reuss (his second name, Posthumus, referred to the fact that his father had died before his birth) was not one of the great territorial princes of Germany at that date, but his prudent and successful administration of his Thuringian principality and his cultivation of intellectual and artistic interests had earned him a high personal reputation. Schutz, whose birth in Kostritz made him a subject of the prince, was personally associated with him from 1617 at the latest, when he was consulted over the organization of the music at the court in Gera.
While it borrowed the name of "exequies" (from "exsequi", to accompany a departure) from the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, the Musikalische Extquien took a different form from that of the Roman service. Information about its prehistory can be gathered from surviving documents (funeral orations, the text of the funeral service itself, and the tide-page of the first print of the work). About a year before his death the prince ordered a copper coffin, inscribed with scriptural texts and hymn verses, which he chose himself, on the subjects of death, the transitory nature of life on earth, the resurrection and life everlasting. He gave instructions that these texts and certain others, which he also selected, should be set to music and performed at his funeral. When he died on 3 December 1635, it was his widow and sons who commissioned Schutz to compose the music for the ceremony which took place two months later. The legend that Heinrich Posthumus himself heard the music before he died, beautiful as it is, is based on an erroneous reading of a passage on the title-page. There is not even any evidence that the prince made any provision for the music to be composed by Schutz or expressed the wish to his family that it should be so. It is certainly conceivable that he might have done either of those things, but even if he did not there is nothing surprising about his family turning to a composer born in the principality of Reuss, now the court kapellmeister at Dresden, and only recently returned from Copenhagen. In agreeing to set the given texts to music, Schutz was accepting a task that can be described without exaggeration - especially as regards Part I of the work - as a challenge to his powers of musical invention. The hymn verses and biblical texts inscribed on the coffin, to be sung at the opening of the service, formed a "composition" of deep theological meaning; but the sequence of no fewer than 22 portions of text posed the threat, for the musical realization, of a medley of only loosely connected components. The greater number of the texts, however, were in an order which alternated scriptural passages and hymn verses, and that provided the basis for an ordered musical structure: from "Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt" onwards, there are eight chorale stanzas, each preceded by a text from scripture (the only exception is the fifth chorale stanza, "Er ist das Heil und selig Licht", which is preceded by three such texts). Schutz took advantage of this prescribed order by setting the biblical verses in the style of the concerto for a small number of solo voices with continue accompaniment and the chorale verses for the full complement of six soloists; additionally, in order to emphasize the difference, he recommended that the ensemble be reinforced in the chorales (it is designated "Capella" there). Thus the chorales became the principal members, the columns bearing the weight of the musical edifice. The formal integrity is enhanced by the fact that the first and the last of the chorales are verses from the same hymn ("Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein") and therefore employ the same tune (although in a different arrangement). This gives the whole structure a frame which is strengthened by making the two biblical verses preceding these chorales ("Auf dass alle" and "Herr, ich lasse dich nicht") the only two set for the full ensemble of six solo voices.
The group of four biblical texts which prefaces the whole also has the structural reinforcement of "Capella" passages. Schutz achieved this by inserting a German version of the Kyrie eleison, addressed to all three persons of the Trinity, which was not part of Heinrich Posthumus's original text: "Herr Gott, Vater im Himmel/Jesu Christe, Gottes Sohn/Herr Gott, Heiliger Geist, erbarm dich uber uns!" In this manner the whole introductory section took on the shape of a "troped" Kyrie, that is, a Kyrie filled out with passages of comment. In his preface to the first edition of the Musikalische Exequien, Schutz sought to explain the structure of the first part of the work by saying that he had set the texts inscribed on the coffin "in the form of a German mass", that is, a Lutheran missa brevis consisting of Kyrie and Gloria. While the analogy is quite clear in the case of the Kyrie, it is considerably less obvious in that of the Gloria.
Within this architectural framework, Schutz unfolded the special skill which a contemporary described as "setting out texts in a varied and lively manner". The settings of the biblical texts reflect the style of the Kleine gtislliche Konzerte, which Schutz was preparing for the printer at the time, but whereas the texts of the latter were elaborated to produce quite large-scale works that are each complete in themselves (they are "small" - "klein" - only in respect of the forces they were written for), the concertos of the Musikalische Exequien are of epigrammatic brevity and concision. Schutz's art as a "preacher of sermons in music" is probably displayed more tellingly here than in any other work. Part II of the Musikalische Exequien is an eight-part motet setting the text on which the funeral oration was preached ("Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe"); it was sung directly after the sermon. The style of composing for double choir that Schutz had studied in Venice a quarter of a century earlier is demonstrated in this piece with a mature lucidity.
The Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis) ("Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener in Frieden fahren"), which Schutz had to set as Part III of the funeral music, is one of the most frequently composed of sacred texts, because of its place in both the Catholic and Protestant liturgies; we know of three other settings by Schutz himself (SWV 352, 432 and 433). The version he wrote for the Musikalische Exequien, for a chorus of low voices in five parts (i. e. AATTB), is lent a special significance by his addition of an extraneous text, "Selig sind die Toten", sung by a group of three singers representing the beata anima of the dead man (high bass) and two seraphim bearing the soul to heaven (two sopranos). As the composer explained in his preface, his wish was "to indicate in some small measure the joy of the disembodied blessed souls in heaven, in the company of the heavenly spirits and holy angels". In order to enhance his idea with a spatial element, Schutz directed that the group of three singers should be "placed at a distance". He also recommended that this group should be multiplied so that, "according to the opportunities the church building offers", it could be heard singing "in a number of different places" - not simultaneously, of course, but one after another, at increasing distances, so as to create the illusion of the soul and the seraphim leaving the earth behind. This would, "the author hopes, augment the effect of the work in no small measure". If we take into account the fact that this theatrical representation of the soul's heavenward journey would directly precede the "taking up and interment of the prince's body", it becomes evident that the "effect" was backed by a sound theological argument...