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Daniel BOLLIUS (c1590 - c1642): "St John's Oratorio"

Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble
Dir: Arno Paduch

rec: May 9 - 11, 2014, Stiftsbasilika Aschaffenburg
Christophorus - CHR 77389 (© 2016) (73'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sabine Götz (Maria virgo), Simone Schwark (Gabriel Archangelus), soprano; Johanna Krell (Elisabeth), mezzo-soprano; Rolf Ehlers (Isaias Propheta), alto; Georg Poplutz (Evangelista Lucas), tenor; Markus Flaig (Zacharia Sacerdotus), bass
[ripieni] Ralph Petrausch, Joachim Streckfuß, tenor; Christoph Kögel, bass
Miriam Grapp, recorder; Anna Schall, recorder, cornett; Bernhard Stilz, recorder, dulcian; Friederike Otto, cornett; Volker Mühlberg, Christiane Volke, violin; Ghislaine Wauters, Renate Mundi, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller, lirone, violone; Johanna Seitz, harp; Dennis Götte, chitarrone; Martin Lubenow, harpsichord; Margit Schultheiß, organ

John the Baptist has been the subject of a number of dramatic works in the course of music history. Probably the best-known work is San Giovanni Battista, an oratorio by Alessandro Stradella. It tells the story of the end of John's life: he is beheaded by order of King Herodes, at the request of his daughter. The present disc includes an oratorio about his birth and the events preceding it. The Repraesentatio harmonica conceptionis et nativitatis S. Joannis Baptistae (Musical representation of the conception and birth of St John the Baptist) is from the pen of Daniel Bollius, a little-known German composer from the early 17th century. This oratorio is one of the few parts of his oeuvre which have come down to us.

Bollius was from Hechingen in Württemberg where his father was vice-Kapellmeister at the Hohenzollern court. Daniel attended the university in Dillingen and then was educated as an organist by Jakob Hassler and Christian Erbach. From 1613 to c1619 he was organist at Sigmaringen which also fell under the jurisdiction of the Hohenzollern. Nothing is known of his whereabouts in the early 1620s. In 1626 he was in the service of Elector Archbishop Johann Schweikard von Kronberg in Mainz. From 1631 at the latest until his death he was also Kapellmeister. Here he remained until his death.

The name of John (Johannes in German) played a major role in the Archbishop's life. He himself was called after John the Baptist and his second residence in Aschaffenburg which was consecrated in 1614 was called the Johannisburg. Here Bollius's oratorio was performed, probably somewhere between 1618 and 1626. In the latter year the Archbishop died. The work was dedicated to Johann Schweikhard "in natalem diem", for his birthday. But Jörgen Ostmann, in his liner-notes, suggests that it may have been written at the occasion of the Archbishop's nameday which at the time was more important than a birthday. As the feast of John the Baptist was on 24 June and the Elector's birthday on 15 July it seems possible that both feasts were celebrated on the same day.

The Archbishop had received part of his education at the Collegium Germanicum in Rome. At the time of his stay there Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo was performed and it seems likely that he attended its performance. It has been suggested that he may even have owned a copy of the score. Fact is that Bollius's oratorio shows a strong stylistic similarity to Cavalieri's Rappresentatione. Bollius was well acquainted with the new style of singing as it had emerged in Italy. In 1642 the theorist Johann Andreas Herbst published a book Musica practica sive instructio pro symphoniacis which included a contribution by Bollius under a title which can be translated as "Thorough and correct instructions on the current Italian method of singing".

The oratorio has a symmetrical structure. It opens with a symphonia. This is followed by a Prologus; the text is from Isaias (ch 59, vs 1-7) which is interpreted as a prophecy of the birth of John the Baptist. Next is another symphonia which introduces the Actus prima. This consists of three scenes. In the first the archangel Gabriel announces John's birth to his father, the priest Zachariah. He has doubts and is punished with muteness. In the second scene the Evangelist tells that Zachariah's wife Elisabeth gets pregnant. In the third scene he reports how Elisabeth is visited by her niece, the virgin Mary; the baby in her womb greets the mother of the Lord. This scene closes with Mary singing the Magnificat. Another symphonia leads to the Actus secundi, again divided into three scenes. The first is about the birth of John, the second about the reaction of friends and neighbours and their surprise about his name: John. His father Zachariah can talk again and sings his canticle, Benedictus Dominus. In the third scene we are told that John grew up, lived in the desert and was to start his work among the people of Israel. Another symphonia is followed by the Epilogus: the Magnificat antiphon for the Vespers of the feast of John the Baptist. The oratorio closes with the Quinta symphonia.

Despite the similarities with Cavalieri's Rappresentatione there are also some significant differences. Cavalieri's work is theatrical in character and was staged during its performance in 1600. It is sometimes even considered the first opera in history. Bollius's oratorio is not particularly dramatic, also due to its subject matter. It was almost certainly not staged. Whereas Cavalieri used free poetic texts in the vernacular Bollius confines himself to texts from the Bible in Latin. Only the antiphon in the Epilogus has a free text. But, like in Cavalieri's work, the characters in the text are allocated to solo voices. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a tenor, Zachariah is a bass, the angel Gabriel, Elisabeth and Mary are sopranos. The prophecy of Isaiah is sung by an alto. In the first act the passages which refer to the people are in four parts, and so are the episodes about the actions of the Vicini & Cognati (neighbours and friends) in the second act. In both cases they are not quoted in direct speech. For instance, the second act opens with Elisabeth giving birth to her son. The second verse (Luke 1,58) then says: "And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her." This verse is sung by the tutti. Only in the second scene of the second act some individual neighbours and friends are quoted: "What then will this child be?", sung by various solo voices in turn.

This Repraesentatio harmonica could well be the first oratorio in Italian style in Germany. As we don't know exactly when it was first performed Schütz may have been the first with his Auferstehungshistorie of 1623. The existence of Bollius's oratorio was already known in the 19th century but due to historical events - World War II and its aftermath - it was only after the dismantlement of the Eastern Bloc that the score was available again. It is notable that earlier attempts to perform it have failed, partly because Bollius is a completely unknown quantity. Arno Paduch also mentions that negative assessments of this work were largely due to a lack of understanding about performance practice. "[The] music was conceived entirely without improvisatory ornamentation which was so much a matter of course during the period of the work's composition that these embellishments were never notated. More modern findings have led us back to original performance practice. Bollius's own article on vocal didactics was in actual fact a tutorial in ornamentation which not only demonstrated how notated ornamentation could be learned, but also indicated points at which additional embellishment could be incorporated into the rudimentary notation in the scores from this era."

Considering Bollius's interest in and knowledge of the Italian style it is certainly right to perform it according to the principles of early 17th century monody. It seems also appropriate that the performers apply them with some modesty, for instance in regard to dynamics. They avoid extreme dynamic shading which is probably better suited to music of a more theatrical character. The solo episodes are sung in a declamatory manner with quite some ornamentation. As I don't have access to the score I can't check what has been written down by Bollius and what has been added by the performers. It is notable that the solo for John the Baptist in the last scene of the second act - again a description of his early life rather than a quotation - is quite virtuosic and I wonder to what extent this is from Bollius's own pen.

While acknowledging that this oratorio is not of the same standard as comparable works by Heinrich Schütz it is a very interesting and musically rewarding piece. We should be happy that it is available on disc, and on top of that in such a fine performance. The only issue is the Italian pronunciation of Latin which seems unjustified. The singing and playing is of a high standard. Georg Poplutz is a very communicative Evangelist and Sabine Götz and Markus Flaig deserve praise for their performances of the roles of Mary and Zachariah respectively, in particular in their canticles. The voices blend perfectly which makes the tutti episodes come off to maximum effect. The moments of text expression are effectively explored. The same goes for the strong chromaticism in the Quarta symphonia; the instrumentalists deliver excellent performances. The disc ends with another of the few compositions by Bollius which have been preserved: Salve lux mundi is a three-part elevation motet.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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