Musica Fiata, Kammerchor Stuttgart; Frieder Bernius
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Heinrich Schutz s "Symphoniae sacrae" are among the most important musical compositions of the 17th century and certainly the most significant in the composer's oeuvre. The title which Schutz chose was generally used in the early 17th century to designate a collection of sacred vocal concertos, hence, of church music for one or several voices with thoroughbass accompaniment. Schutz produced three such collections. The first was written in Venice in 1628/29, during his second stay in Italy. It contains 20 concertos on exclusively Latin texts - a concession of the Protestant composer to his Catholic hosts - and was influenced by the "ratio modulandi", the new compositional style of the Italians. Schutz sent his other two collections off to print in Dresden in 1647 and 1650, thus shortly before and after the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the horrors of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. They consist of 27 and 21 purely German vocal concertos, some of which were written in the middle of the War years. Schutz explained why he published these concertos only at the end of the War by referring to the "times which have been so consistently deplorable in our fatherland, and unfavorable to music as well as to the other arts". He thereby indirectly alluded to the unique make-up of the "Symphoniae sacrae": they are "large" concertos which could not be performed during the chaos of the War. In this sense, they replace the "Kleine geistliche Konzerte" which Schutz published in 1636 and 1639. They reflect the improving economic situation by their considerably larger scoring, but above all by the participation of obbligato instruments. In comparable works by Schutz, like the "Psalmen Davids" for example, the instruments were optional; they could be used at discretion and according to the circumstances of the respective performance to highlight or reinforce the sound of various solo voices. In the "Symphoniae sacrae", the instrumental parts are necessary components (obbligato). Not only are they independent partners of the vocal parts, but they are also responsible for the purely instrumental introduction and interludes, called "Symphoniae". Indeed, it is one of the essential characteristics of these works that the instruments are inseparable from the compositional texture.
Heinrich Schutz is one of the most eminent vocal composers in music history. Language was sacred to him. particularly the language of the Bible in Luther's translation, and it was that language which he sought to "translate into music", as he put it himself. Indeed, his art turned music into a language in an unprecedented manner. It is certainly not fortuitous that Schutz s surviving works are exclusively for voice. As Electoral Saxon Kapellmeister at the court of Dresden (from 1617 to his death in 1672), he was also in charge of secular music, for example, the instrumental music for banquets, balls or other festive occasions at court. Nonetheless, not one of his instrumental works has come down to us today. It is only his sacred vocal music which Schutz neatly compiled in collections, sent off to print and thus bequeathed to coming generations. He apparently considered his instrumental music, written for the most part on order for specific occasions, unworthy of being preserved. The "Symphoniae sacrae" are thus all the more valuable to us today. They not only span a long period of his creative life, but also reveal the "whole Schutz", and above all his art of blending the vocal and instrumental idioms.
Schutz does not confer a special character to the various types of voices, for example instrumental figurations for one voice or a certain line or pattern for another group. In this sense. Schutz is far more conservative than his contemporaries. He is much more intent upon establishing equality, and herein lies the greatness of his art. One can almost say that the vocal parts, although fully in the service of the declamation and interpretation of the text, can be "played", while the instrumental parts can be "sung". The refinement found on a miniature scale in the "Kleine geistliche Konzerte" blossoms to impressive proportions in the "Symphoniae sacrae" which their large numbers of singers and instrumentalists.
The third part of the "Symphoniae sacrae", which is presented here in a complete recording for the first time, is the crowning achievement of the three collections for several reasons. The solo voices, which ranged from three to six in the earlier collections, have been expanded and now number five to eight voices, including two or three instrumental soloists. The latter parts are always scored for violins, with an occasional bassoon in addition. It should be pointed out that violins were considered as extremely modern at that time, particularly in Germany. They had only gradually established themselves as the most important solo instruments in Italy towards the end of the 1620's. In addition, two four-part choruses or "complements" can be used optionally in most of the concertos to reinforce the sound - one of them is for several voices, the other for instruments ad libitum. However, they are so interwoven with the entire texture that they actually should not be omitted at all. Finally, the third collection contains a number of works which are particularly magnificent, among which Schutz's perhaps most dramatic piece, the concerto "Saul, was verfolgst du mich?". the strikingly expressive dialogue "Mein Sohn. warum hast du uns das getan?", the intense setting of the "Our Father" ("Vater unser") and the especially splendid final concerto "Nun danket alle Gott", which was possibly composed in connection with the Peace of Westphalia.
In his "Symphoniae sacrae", and above all in the third section of 1650, the 65-year-old Heinrich Schutz reached a climax not only in his own creative output, but also in the music of the 17th century.