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Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628 - 1665): "Sacred concerts for voices and violas da gamba"

Jolle Greenleafa, Elise Grovesb, Molly Quinnc, soprano; Martin Near, altod; Jason McStoots, tenore; Sumner Thompson, baritonef; Paul Guttry, bassg
Long & Away
Dir: Sarah Mead

rec: Feb 1 & 7 / March 2, 2015, Roslindale, MA, Futura Studios
Cornetto - COR10044 (© 2015) (71'32")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Audi me Domine Deus meusdeg; Magnificatbcefg; Miserere mei Deuscefg; O venerabile sacramentumde; Quis dabit capiti meo aquamdeg; Wo willtu hin weil's Abend istac; Zwey Lieder von dem Leyden und Tode Jesuac

Karen Burciaga, treble viol; Anne Legêne, treble viol, bass viol; James Williamson, tenor viol; Rebekah Ahrendt, Rosalind Brooks Stowe, bass viol; Jane Hershey, bass viol [bc]; Anne Trout, violone; Catherine Liddell, theorbo; Frances Conover Fitch, organ

Samuel Friedrich Capricornus is one of the German composers of the 17th century who has received very little attention. In all the years I am reviewing discs with early music the present disc is the first entirely devoted to Capricornus that has landed on my desk. I am only aware of one other disc with his sacred music, performed by Le Parlement de Musique, directed by Martin Gester (Opus 111, 1993). Two further discs with sacred works and instrumental music respectively have been released by the Cornetto-Verlag which also publishes the scores of his output.

One may wonder why he is more or less neglected, especially considering the size of his output and the fact that he, according to New Grove, "was an important figure in the development of German sacred music between Schütz and J.S. Bach." Scott Edwards, in his liner-notes to this disc, blames partly his "peripatetic life that transcended national borders. With no country today able to claim him exclusively as its own, it is perhaps this mobility that has done most to obscure him from our view". I am not sure whether he is right. Mobility was very much a feature of the European musical landscape in the 17th century. Someone like Johann Jacob Froberger travelled across Europe but is one of the most frequently-performed keyboard composers.

Capricornus' mobility brought him in various places in Europe and that had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. He was born in Schertitz (Zercice) in Bohemia and baptised with the name of Samuel Friedrich Bockshorn. In order to escape from religious persecution his family fled to upper Hungary. In 1643 Capricornus went to Silesia to study Latin, theology and philosophy. After a short sojourn in Strasbourg he went to Vienna where he came into contact with the main musicians who served at the imperial court, such as Giovanni Valentini, Antonio Bertali, Wolfgang Ebner, Froberger and Giovanni Felice Sances. The Austrian court was under the spell of Italian music and this was also the style which greatly influenced Capricornus. However, he didn't stay there for long; after a short period as a teacher in Reutlingen, south of Stuttgart, he returned to upper Hungary. For two years he acted as a teacher in Pressburg (Bratislava) and in 1651 he was appointed director of music at the Church of the Holy Trinity. In 1657 he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court in Stuttgart where he stayed for the rest of his life.

It is here that he became the subject of a conflict which reveals much about his stylistic stance and about the debate on various aspects of composing in the 17th century. It largely concentrated on the freedom of a composer towards the rules of counterpoint. The conflict was initiated by Philipp Friedrich Böddecker (1615-1683), organist at the collegiate church. It is assumed that his complaints against Capricornus' style of composing were largely motivated by disappointment that he was not appointed Kapellmeister when that position fell vacant. Even if it was indeed the case, that doesn't mean that the subject of the debate didn't matter. In a letter Böddecker included several passages from compositions by Capricornus which he believed were in conflict with the traditional rules of counterpoint. Capricornus' reply is interesting and tells us much about his ideal in composing sacred music. He emphasized that it was not right to break the rules of counterpoint, except in the interest of expression and in order to emphasize specific words. It is here that we notice the Italian influence: expression was the main aim of any music and the dominance of the text over the music is the direct heritage of the seconda prattica as propagated by the likes of Giulio Caccini in the early 17th century. He also uses "the famous Athanasius Kircher" to support his case.

The Italian influence also comes to the fore in Capricornus' connections to the music of two Italian masters: Giacomo Carissimi and Marco Scacchi. The former appreciated his compostions and performed them in Rome, according to Capricornus. The connection to Scacchi - chapel master at the Polish court in Warsaw - is a stylistic one, as Edwards explains in the booklet. "In the sacred concertos of Capricornus, musical textures often alternate between concerted imitative passages and recitative that recalls the stile imbastardito described by Marco Scacchi (...). Scacchi characterises this hybrid or mixed style as a blend of theatrical recitative and sacred melismatic setting suited not to the operatic stage but rather to the church (...)." Among the features of Capricornus' sacred concertos are metric and dynamic contrasts, indepedent instrumental parts - with a strong preference for the sound of viols - and a use of dissonants in the interest of expression.

An example of the latter is the main work of the programme, Zwey Lieder von dem Leyden und Tode Jesu (two hymns about the passion and death of Jesus). These two hymns are well-known: Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld and O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid. But Capricornus doesn't use the melodies with which these hymns are known. They are set to original material for two sopranos, four viole da gamba and bc. The various stanzas are separated by ritornellos of the viols. Especially in the two vocal lines we note various strong dissonants, inspired by the text, for instance in the last: "Why the glorious Prince of Life should sink into the grave".

Several pieces include a notable low bass part, for instance Audi Domine Deus meus. These were inspired by Johann Magg, the bass soloist in the Stuttgart chapel. In general many vocal parts are demanding which certainly not only bear witness to Capricornus' ideals but also reflect the skills of the members of his chapel. Audi Domine Deus meus and Venerabili sacramentum are both connected to the Eucharist. Wo willtu hin weil's Abend ist is a setting of a poem by the mystic poet Angelus Silesius which clearly refers to the story of the men of Emmaus.

Although in most pieces a consort of viols plays an important role, several pieces include two upper parts which are for violins, sometimes with cornetts as alternatives. Here these parts are played on treble viols. This is one of the issues of this recording: I am not so sure that this was the right decision. Viols played a major role in German music, both in sacred vocal music and in instrumental works. A scoring for two violins, three viole da gamba and bc was quite common. But then we talk about bass viols; treble viols seem not to have played a substantial role - if any - in German 17th century music. The use of treble viols lends these pieces something old-fashioned, and that is exactly what Capricornus' music is definitely not. Considering his Italian leanings violins would have been very much preferable. A second issue is the too modest dynamic shading. Dynamically these performances are often rather flat and as a result they are not as rhetorical and theatrical as they should be. That is also due to the singers. All of them have nice voices - although I don't particularly like the tremolo of Molly Quinn - but the amount of expression is rather limited. The delivery is not as good as one would wish and the pronunciation of German is less than perfect.

As much as I am happy with the release of this disc I am not overly enthusiastic about its interpretational merits. This music has more to offer than these performers are able to reveal. A thorough exploration of Capricornus' oeuvre is long overdue.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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Long & Away

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