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When Heinrich Schutz went to Italy to complete his musical studies he was no longer a young man by the standards of the time. Born in the Thuringian town of Kostritz in 1585, he owed his musical career to a coincidence: while passing through the town, the young Landgrave Moritz of Hesse heard the 12 year-old boy's beautiful treble voice and shortly afterwards invited him to join the choir of his chapel at Kassel. Schutz could not have encountered a more suitable princely patron: Moritz of Hesse was not given the nickname of "the Scholar" for nothing; he spoke several languages, and was interested in science and the arts - very unusual virtues in a ruler of the period. His court was one of the most brilliant in Germany. But Moritz did not spend money only on keeping an extravagant court and on expensive studies; he was also a patron, especially of the young and gifted among his subjects. Thus it came about that after his voice had broken, Heinrich Schutz was permitted to remain as a pupil at the newly founded Collegium Mauritianum, and after finishing his school studies he began, much to the relief of his parents, a "proper" study of jurisprudence at Marburg. But the prince once again intervened in favour of the musical career of his protege. He made him an offer which would have shaken even the firmest determination to renounce music: he was given the opportunity, and a well-filled purse of 200 talers a year, to go to Venice to study composition with the most famous organist of his time, the aging Giovanni Gabrieli. In 1609 the now 24 year-old Schutz arrived in Venice and soon became the favourite pupil of the master of the chapel of St. Mark's. The originally planned two-year period of study grew into four, and even after the death of Gabrieli in the summer of 1612, Schutz remained several months longer and returned to Germany only at the beginning of 1613.
The most palpable result of the Venetian student years was his Opus primum, printed in 1611, a collection of eighteen five-part Italian madrigals with an additional eight-part dedicatory madrigal for double choir, composed for the dedicatee (who also footed the printer's bill) of the publication, Count Moritz. This madrigal does not figure in this recording.
The collection, which was entitled "Libro primo de Madrigali" - not that there was ever to be a "Libro secondo" - is regarded by Schutz scholars as the beginning of a musical career, and as a journeyman's piece, a point of departure. In the history of the madrigal, however, it is for several reasons more in the nature of a conclusion. Coming eleven years after the first operas, six years after Monteverdi's programmatic Fifth Book of Madrigals with continuo, these madrigals are among the last examples of fully polyphonic madrigals without continuo. And they represent a final peak in the textually interpretative, emotionally charged art of the 16th century madrigal, an art which was as sensitive as it was intellectual, and which was soon to be replaced by the new, more theatrical language of affetti of the solo song. From the Italian madrigal Schutz learnt not only the refinements of polyphonic writing, which he could probably have learnt just as well in Germany, but above all, he learnt how to combine the form and the content of a poetic text with an adequate musical setting, to trace the connotations and the tone of the words in musical terms without allowing the composition to disintegrate into incoherent fragments.
The assertion that Heinrich Schutz taught German music to speak is confirmed here in his only Italian work where one can clearly see how he learnt to make music speak. Six of the poems of the madrigals come from Giovanni Battista Guarini's pastoral play, "Il pastor fido". They are all lyrically veiled laments of spurned lovers, poems full of woe and yearning for death, which are easily lifted out of their dramatic context, as Monteverdi did for his Fifth Book. However, most of the poems are by Giambattista Marino, the early 17th century word magician, the great master of the "concettismo", that witty, artificial verse full of metaphors and wordplay that builds up to a cleverly phrased point at the end.
Marino's ten madrigals in Schutz's Opus primum are completely different in nature from Guarini's plaintive poems. They are humorous and fresh, elegant and witty, but not as heartfelt as Guarini's. Schutz did not show any particular originality in his choice of madrigal texts - all of these poems were set to music many times. But his choice of poems does show that he set himself a different type of exercise in two such widely differing emotional spheres. The remaining three madrigals are settings of lesser known or unknown poets.
The madrigalmotet principle of investing each new idea in the text with a new musical idea was rigorously respected by Schutz in his madrigals. At the same time one observes the constant inclination towards an overall musical architecture. Schutz had a wide range of musical and textual interpretative means at his disposal - harsh chromaticisms at particularly intense moments of sorrow, sospiri, playful or circling movements on words like "scherzar", "gir" or "ride". But he knew how to incorporate all of these individual elements, often disapprovingly spoken of as "madrigalisms", into a structure in which fully scored passages alternate logically with lightly scored sections, and in which the texture of the writing becomes increasingly dense in the course of the composition and develops into a musically coherent whole.