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"Festmusik zur Reformationsfeier 1617" (Festive Music for the Reformation Celebration in 1617)

Simone Schwark, Johanna Krell, soprano; Raimund Fürst, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Markus Flaig, Dominik Wörner, bass; Susanne Rohn, organa
Kammerchor Bad Homburg; Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble
Dir: Susanne Rohn

rec: Feb 16 - 19, 2012, Bad Homburg, Erlöserkirche
Christophorus - CHR 77363 (© 2012) (67'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Michael ALTENBURG (1584-1640): Gaudium Christianum, das ist: Christliche Musikalische Freude a 5-19; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel a 22; Christoph DEMANTIUS (1567-1643): Und es ward eine Stille a 6 [1]; Melchior FRANCK (1580-1639): Und ich hörte eine große Stimme a 4 [2]; Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir a 3 (SSWV 321) [3]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672) (attr): Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel a 18 (SWV Anh 11); Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Fantasia auf die Manier eines Echo in a minor (SwWV 275)a; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (B 10)a

Sources: [1] Christoph Demantius, Corona harmonica, ausserlesene Sprüch aus den Evangelien, auff alle Sontage und fürnembste Fest durch das gantze Jahr, 1610; [2] Melchior Franck, Gemmulae Evangeliorum Musicae, Newes Geistliches Musicalisches Werklein in welchem die fürnembsten Sprüche auß den Fest und Sontäglichen Evangeliis durchs gantze Jahr zu finden, 1623; [3] Samuel Scheidt, Geistlicher Concerten ... dritter Teil, 1635

As 1517 is generally considered the year the Reformation started this event will be commemorated in 2017. Music will play an important part in the commemorations, especially because it was a major ingredient of the Lutheran Reformation and Martin Luther's thinking. The present disc carries us back to the first commemoration in 1617. Only recently deutsche harmonia mundi released a disc with music which may have been performed during the festivities from 31 October to 2 November in Dresden, performed by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, directed by Roland Wilson. Some years earlier Christophorus released a disc which focuses on a composition especially written for the commemoration of the Reformation. It was performed in Tröchtelborn, a small town in Thuringia (about 200 kilometres west of Dresden) which was then under the superintendence of Erfurt.

The commemoration brought Erfurt in a rather difficult position. It was dominated by Lutheranism but it was under control of the Electorate of Mainz which had not embraced the Reformation. In addition it housed eight Catholic monasteries and convents. "Erfurt was also surrounded by a variety of Protestant dukedoms whose good will and support had to be nurtured. Overtly close contact was however also not desirable as it was clear that the Dukes of the House of Wettin would have been only too eager to acquire Erfurt, and Moritz von Hessen was a staunch Reformist (*) who was potentially willing to enforce his religious convictions with violence. This uneasy situation necessitated skilful tactics on the part of the Erfurt city council who resolved to limit the festive events of the Reformation celebration to the 2 November to avoid provoking the opposite faction" (booklet).

In the light of this the performance of Gaudium Christianum, das ist: Christliche musikalische Freude (Christian musical joy) by Michael Altenburg was quite astonishing as it "displays no trace of the diplomatic attitude of his employers", as the liner-notes put it. Altenburg was not only educated as a musician but also - even in the first place - as a theologian. He was born near Erfurt and in 1598 he started his theological studies at the university there. He gained a bachelor's degree in 1599 and the master's degree in 1603. From 1610 to 1621 he worked in Tröchtelborn as a pastor, probably also taking the position of Kantor. In the first section of Gaudium Christianum - which was probably from Altenburg's own pen - Catholics and Calvinists are attacked in plain language: "Let us rage at the God of the Papists, let us ridicule the rot of the Calvinists". The Catholic church is compared to Babylon; the refrain says: "Babylon is fallen! Praise be to the Lord on his heavenly throne". In the second part verses from chapter 14 of Revelation are mixed with free texts. Here we find a text like this: "The Pope has lost his key; whatever he now undertakes he will remain so incensed that he cannot find his key again. A devout man in the land of Saxony has found the key. He is named Martin Luther and we welcome him in the name of the Lord".
The third part is a large-scale chorale arrangement of the best-known hymn from Luther's pen, Ein feste Burg. It has the four stanzas written by Luther himself and ends with a doxology which is of a later date and written by another author. It seems to have appeared for the first time in a hymnbook printed in Hamburg in 1565. This section is followed by a setting of verses from Revelation 12 which are traditionally connected to the feast of Saint Michael: "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon". One doesn't need much fantasy to understand that in this context the dragon symbolizes the Pope. Gaudium Christianum ends with a doxology.

Altenburg's composition which takes almost 30 minutes is an impressive work for 5 to 19 voices. The composer was evidently under the impression of the polychoral style as it was practised in Venice. Other German composers who made use of the technique of cori spezzati were Heinrich Schütz - for instance in his Psalmen Davids - and Michael Praetorius. Compositions of these two masters were part of the commemoration in Dresden. Gaudium Christianum is not the only composition in polychoral style from Altenburg's pen. He is one of many German composers from the decades around 1600 whose oeuvre has been hardly explored as yet. This occasional composition makes one want to hear more from his output.

The inclusion of verses from Revelation 12 has inspired the performers to devote the second part of this disc to music for the Feast of St Michael. Three are based on the same text used by Altenburg: Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach set exactly the same verses. They beg for a large-scale scoring for voices, strings, wind and percussion, and both composers use them. Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel, an anonymous piece which on stylistic grounds is attributed to Schütz and is assumed to date from around 1620, is in 18 parts. Johann Christoph Bach's setting for 22 voices dates from the late 17th century. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach called it a masterpiece and stated that "all were astounded by its effect" when it was performed in the church in Leipzig by his father.

The remaining three motets are very different. Melchior Franck uses verses from the same chapter but begins halfway, on the words "And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven". His oeuvre bears witness to the change from the stile antico to the stile nuovo. The collection of motets from which Und ich hörte eine große Stimm is taken reflects the traditional style of the renaissance. That does not prevent him from creating quite an expressive setting of the text. His first teacher was probably Christoph Demantius who is represented here with the 6-part motet Es ward eine Stille im Himmel. It is a setting of a compilation of texts from Revelation (ch 8 vs 1; ch 12 vs 10a) and a verse from the book of the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. Especially impressive is the way he sets the words "thousand thousands ministered unto him" and later "a voice was heard, many thousands of thousands". By splitting the six voices into two groups of three - high versus low - he creates a kind of cori spezzati which is quite effective in depicting the text. The most intimate piece is from the pen of Samuel Scheidt: Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir is a sacred concerto for three voices and basso continuo. It is based on the chorale which was also the starting point of Bach's cantata BWV 130 for the Feast of St Michael.

This is an exciting disc. It includes the first recording ever of Altenburg's Gaudium Christianum which not only is a musically captivating piece but also gives us some insight into the religious climate and the important role of religion in German society at that time. The second half of the programme also includes several pieces which are little known; the Scheidt piece is another first recording. The performances are generally very good. The soloists and the Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble are first class and bring this repertoire convincingly to life. The Kammerchor Bad Homburg is probably an amateur or semi-professional ensemble. The difference in sound between the soloists and the choir is clearly audible; the tutti sections are not as transparent as one would like. With 39 voices the choir is also larger than seems historically tenable. Obviously this is not music for soloists and choir but rather for a vocal and instrumental ensemble whose members also take care of the solo episodes. Such a line-up would create a stronger coherence between solo and tutti sections. That said, the singing of the choir is admirable and its qualities come to the fore in the choral pieces without instrumental accompaniment.

This disc is a most intriguing and thought-provoking contribution to the upcoming commemoration of the Reformation.

(*) meaning here: Calvinist

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Kammerchor Bad Homburg
Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble

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