Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

The Cantata Singers’ Schütz Season Opens with Schütz, Distler, Bach, and Schoenberg

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Heinrich Schütz, c. 1650-1660 (Leipzig), by Christoph Spetner
Heinrich Schütz, c. 1650-1660 (Leipzig), by Christoph Spetner

The Cantata Singers
David Hoose, conductor
Jordan Hall, November 7, 2009

Sonja Tengblad, Lisa Lynch, Luellen Best, Christine Swistro, sopranos
Gloria Raymond, alto
Matthew Anderson (replacing an indisposed William Hite), Jason Sabol, Stephen Williams, tenors
Mark Andrew Cleveland, Benjamin Cole, Joshua Taylor, basses

Heinrich Schütz, Musikalische Exequien (1636)
Hugo Distler, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” Op. 12, no. 1 from Geistliche Chormusik
J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 8, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
Arnold Schoenberg, Friede auf Erden

Hear David Hoose in conversation with Michael Miller: click here.

For the past few years the Cantata Singers have organized their seasons around a single composer, for example Kurt Weill and Benjamin Britten. This focus and the deep musical knowledge of David Hoose and his colleagues have resulted in marvels of “curated” programming, as some have called it. This season the principal composer, Heinrich Schütz, points the way to the Cantata Singers’ original focus, Johann Sebastian Bach and lays out in rich array of Schütz’s context and legacy throughout western music, from his great contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi, to Boston’s own John Harbison. As in previous years, the programs for all four concerts are contained in one elegant book, which amounts to a convenient introduction to the principle composer, his cultural milieu, and his influence. The premise is basically forward-looking, and the programs are planned to bring out threads which lead up to our present musical environment: hence it is entirely appropriate that historical performance practice is not on the Cantata Singers’ agenda. Chorus and soloists sing with vibrato, and not a single gut string or original instrument is in evidence.

In the entirely sympathetic acoustic of Jordan Hall we heard a rich, full-blooded sound from the 44 singers, never muddled or excessively bright on top, and with a wonderful range of variegated colors in the middle voices. Contrapuntal lines were always clear and in perfect balance. The intonation of the choir was also impeccable, an important strength throughout, which also made it possible to follow Schoenberg’s preferences with an a capella performance of Friede auf Erden. Ever in good taste, Mr. Hoose and his Singers never exploited virtuosity for its own sake or even put it in the forefront, but the very fact of the a capella Schoenberg and the Musikalische Exequien with only an organ, cello, and double bass continuo, not to mention the Distler a capella work, which is openly virtuosic in its own exuberant way, put their efforts on the highest technical level. There was a sort of perfection in the size of the group, their impressive musical skills, the Jordan Hall acoustics, and Mr. Hoose’s priorities, which were founded on clarity, clean articulation, expressive phrasing, a rich and beautiful sound, and unwavering concentration on the musical and spiritual values of the composers.

If Heinrich Schütz (Köstritz near Gera 1585-Dresden 1672) had been born anytime from a hundred to two hundred fifty years later, his works would be as much a part of the basic repertoire as the symphonies of Beethoven or Brahms. As it is, his intellectually rigorous and spiritually profound oeuvre remains less well known to the general public than it should be. The Cantata Singers’ season and book provide an accessible and stimulating opportunity for Boston audiences to change this.

Unquestionably the greatest German composer of the seventeenth century, Schütz was born into a prominent bourgeois family which had settled in western Saxony in the late fifteenth century. His father, Christoph, was town clerk in Gera, the seat of local rule, but later moved to nearby Köstritz to take over his father’s inn, “Zum goldenen Kranich.” Christoph later acquired more inns and moved to Weissenfels, where he became burgomaster. The children of this prosperous family received solid religious and liberal educations. Two of Heinrich’s brothers studied law and became prominent jurists, and their father intended the same profession for him as well. As apt a scholar of languages as he was, Heinrich also showed an early gift for music.

The Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel, who was a distinguished musical amateur, heard the boy sing while he was staying at the inn in 1598, and was so impressed that he invited him to come with him to his court in Kassel, where he would attend the Collegium Mauritianum, a first-rate school founded for the local nobles. Christoph balked and continued to resist for some time. The next year, however, he brought Heinrich to the court, where he had an opportunity to excel at Greek, Latin, and French, as well as music. In 1608, Heinrich went to the University of Marburg to continue his classical and legal studies, but the Margrave intervened once again, persuading him to leave the university and go to Venice to study with Giovanni Gabrieli (Venice ca. 1554/7–1612). After some initial difficulties he became Gabrieli’s star pupil. A year after Gabrieli’s death he returned to the Margrave’s court as a musician, while his family continued to discourage him from a professional career in music. He was about to give in to their unrelenting pressure and return to the law, when the Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony invited him to Dresden. In 1615 the Elector gave such support to Heinrich’s musical vocation, that his family finally relented, and he settled into the court at Dresden, where he remained for the rest of his life, appointed court Kapellmeister in 1621.

Schütz, then, was a profoundly educated man, especially in Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages, which gave him the key to his great achievements in bringing music and the German language together, adapting the choral style he had learned from Gabrieli to his native tongue.

The Sarcophagus of Heinrich Posthumus Reuss, for whom Schütz wrote his Musikalische Exequien
The sarcophagus of Heinrich Posthumus Reuss, for whom Schütz wrote his Musikalische Exequien

Schütz wrote his Musikalische Exequien, a Lutheran funeral Mass to German texts, for the funeral of Prince Heinrich Posthumus Reuss, a member of the ruling family of the region in which Schütz was born. He and Reuss had known each other for some twenty years before Reuss’ death in 1635. Schütz showed considerable devotion to the ruling family of his home town, but his relations with Heinrich appear to have been closer than that. Schütz’s long, formal introductory text to the published score of the Exequien, shows his respect and warm feelings. Reuss was himself a deeply learned man and an active patron of the arts, a humanist-aristocrat after the model of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), Dürer’s friend and patron. He was also a responsible and competent prince, who worked systematically and effectively to restore his principality’s shaky finances and shelter it from the violence of the Thirty Years’ War. The Schütz’s and people like them can only have felt gratitude for his efforts.

Like the good Lutheran humanist that he was, Heinrich began to prepare seriously for death as his grand climacteric (age 63) approached. Over the next year he made detailed preparations for his funeral. He commissioned a copper coffin to be made in secret, decorated with biblical and choral texts of his own choosing and arrangement, which reflected the Lutheran theology of death. These texts, in fact, were the very ones Schütz used for the first section of his tripartite Exequien, the “concerto in the form of a German funeral Mass.” Over the past fifty years several musicologists have established the relationship between the complex symmetrical structure of the text and music with the arrangement of the texts on Reuss’ coffin. [See G.S. Johnston: “Textual Symmetrics and the Origins of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien,” Early Music, xix (1991), 213–25.] This means that Reuss had some influence on the form of the Exequien, which was formally commissioned by his widow. Since the collection of texts was the confessional testament of this extraordinary prince, Schütz had exemplary material in which to apply his insights into the relationship of music and language. It is remarkable how expressive and complex Schütz’ music turned out to be without disturbing the natural rhythms of German speech.

A drawing of Reuss' sarcophagus, with texts set by Schütz
A drawing of Reuss' sarcophagus, with texts set by Schütz

While the first movement was written for a single six-part chorus, alternating with duets and trios by the soloists, the second movement is a motet for double chorus (“Herr, wenn ich Dich nur habe/Lord, if I have none other than You”) on one of the texts for the funerary sermon at Reuss’s funeral. The third movement, a setting of the “Song of Simeon” from the Gospel of Luke, is a “Concerto for two choruses in which each chorus has its own words” with a third group from the second chorus singing “Selig sind die Toten/Blessed are the dead” from the Beatitudes. This third group was to sing from a remote location, an effect Schütz’s teacher Gabrieli often exploited in San Marco. (In Jordan Hall, two groups of three soloists sang from opposite sides of the balcony.) The first section would have functioned as an Introit or Missa Brevis, while the second and third would have followed the sermon.

The sonorities of the various groupings of soloists and chorus in all three movements are varied and complex. The Cantata Singers were superb in both capacities, maintaining an even balance as well as the flow and coherence of each movement. David Hoose’s eloquent stick technique encouraged the most heartfelt expression as well as holding balances and tempi together. As in all the works on the program, he exerted a strong sense of pace and energetic rhythm, while lovingly moulding each phrase to the expressivity of text and melody. In Schütz the repetitions of phrases arise from rhetorical exigencies, not from the imposition of a tripartite form on the text. Hence Mr. Hoose and his singers had to accomplish a great deal in very little time, and in this they succeeded admirably. Today one often hears works like the Musikalische Exequien performed by much smaller choirs, even one singer to a part. This approach has its virtues, but in this performance there were no regrets in hearing the gorgeous sound of a massed chorus with no appreciable loss of clarity or color.

Hugo Distler (1908-42) took up the study of the organ and composition early in his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he was in any case immersed in the music of Bach through the performances of the Thomanerchor. At this time he also became attached to the music of Schütz. While a director of sacred and secular youth choruses, he composed prolifically, eventually embarking on his Geistliche Chormusik, a series of motets inspired by Schütz. His musical production was deeply imbued with the spiritual and musical traditions of the Lutheran Church. This eventually brought him into disfavor with the Nazi authorities, and he only narrowly escaped denunciation as a practitioner of “degenerate art.” In 1940 he was appointed to a teaching post at the Staatliche Akademische Hochschule für Musik in Charlottenburg, Berlin. Although he enjoyed his work, professional and artistic difficulties, the deaths of friends, the nightly bombings, the threat of conscription, and pressure from the Nazi authorities undermined him, and he committed suicide in late 1942. His setting of Psalm 96, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” shows an almost frisky delight in the contrapuntal and stylistic legacy of Schütz. Distler is able to spin long, monumental lines from Schützian ornamentation, and, apart from the mimesis of trumpets in the higher registers, there is a plethora of vocal color in the writing. The Cantata Singers sang magnificently, and Hoose was as sensitive to its refinement as to its flamboyant virtuosity.

The most familiar work on the program was Bach’s early masterpiece, the cantata BMV 7, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The Cantata Singers mustered a substantial orchestra (four first violins) with three superb wind soloists (Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte, oboe d’amore, and Jacqueline DeVoe, flute) which balanced the choir solidly, and responded sensitively to Hoose’s lively pulse and rhythm, which balanced Bach’s dreamy questioning phrases with energy and clearly defined patterns. The quality of the choral and instrumental execution was matched by the vocal soloists, especially Mark Andrew Cleveland, who sang the baritone aria “Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen” with a winning sense of joy and faith. Sonja Tengblad, soprano, also sang most affectingly, and Matthew Anderson ably filled in for William Hite, showing a nicely balanced tenor and a fine sense of phrasing. Gloria Raymond seemed perhaps slightly ill as ease in her recitative, but her singing was quite attractive nonetheless.

The concert closed with Arnold Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” (1907), a work some might find uncharacteristically beautiful, rich as it was with sensuous dissonances and Tristanesque chromaticism. We were, as I have mentioned, lucky to be able to hear the work in its a cappella form. The delicacy of the colors and textures of the chorus were astonishing. In the early performances of the work Schoenberg was obliged to compose orchestral parts to support the choirs, who could not sing it with clean intonation. It is also worth noting that the first chorus to sing it numbered 200. I can’t imagine the effect we heard at Jordan Hall surviving in such a large ensemble. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s poem, a sophisticated expression of the traditional Christmas call for peace on Earth, contains, stanza by stanza, complex shifts of expression and mood, which also determine Schoenberg’s musical structure. Mr. Hoose, who has been performing this work for many years, proved a surely guide through its many subtleties as well as its structure. Meyer’s dialectical transformation of violence into an instrument of justice and ultimately piece, plays a determinant role in Schoenberg’s music as well, and it came through admirably in this splendid performance, which was repeated as an encore. Schoenberg’s invention was so multi-faceted and the performance so transparent, that my ear seized on different elements in the second hearing, so that it almost sounded like a different piece.

Over the course of this season I’ll keenly look forward to the three remaining concerts in this exploration David Hoose and the Cantata Singers have so admirably begun—a labor of the heart as well as the intellect.

Hear David Hoose in conversation with Michael Miller: click here.

2 thoughts on “The Cantata Singers’ Schütz Season Opens with Schütz, Distler, Bach, and Schoenberg

  1. Enjoyed the attention given to Heinrich Schütz . At one time he was my 2nd favorite composer (Bach, being the 1st). I even joined the Schütz Gesellschaft.

    The greatest influence on Schütz performance in the 1960s came from Wilhelm Ehmann, who I had the pleasuring of hearing and meeting twice. His recordings have been
    reissued: very colorful voices, very unusually textured, luminous. His choir, the Westfälische Kantorei was trained primarily for this music. Joshua Rifkin, who was a huge fan of his, wound up trampling him in his article “What Ever Happened to Heinrich Schütz?” – a screed aimed at Barenreiter, and the post-war German confessional movement. It
    was, I think, in Opus magazine in the 1980s (probably 1985). Rifkin was the scholar who annotated Ehmann’s great recordings re-released by Nonesuch.

    Anyway, hearing Ehmann do the Psalms of David with antiphonal choirs
    was an experience. Matched only, and perhaps trumped, by Philip
    Herreweghe performing the Musicalische Exequien in a beautful Jesuit
    hall about a decade ago. Ehmann’s performance is still the best, but
    Herreweghe is almost as good, and the choral singing is much more polished.

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