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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): "Opus ultimum - Schwanengesang"

Collegium Vocale Gent; Concerto Palatino
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe

rec: April 2005, Gent, Groot Seminarie
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901895.96 (© 2007) (1.28'49")

Königs und Propheten Davids Hundert und Neunzehender Psalm in Eilf Stükken nebenst dem Anhange des 100. Psalms: Jauchzet dem Herrn! und Eines deutschen Magnificats: Meine Seele erhöbt den Herrn (SWV 482-494)

[CVG, soli] Dorothee Mields, Cécile Kempenaers, soprano; Matthew White, Alex Potter, alto; Andreas Weller, Friedemann Büttner, tenor; Peter Kooy, Yoshitaka Ogasawara, bass; [CP] Bruce Dickey, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Charles Toet, Wim Becu, sackbut; with: Rainer Zipperling, Nick Milne, Sofia Diniz, Rebeka Ruso, viola da gamba; Miriam Shalinsky, violone; Matthias Spaeter, lute; Herman Stinders, organ

Heinrich Schütz, the 'father of modern music', as he was called, reached the exceptional age of 87. Several times towards the end of his life he had asked to be released from his duties as Oberkapellmeister at the court in Dresden, but to no avail. He indicated that he felt it increasingly hard to fulfill all his obligations, and that composing music became more and more difficult as well. In the early 1670's he started to make preparations for his funeral. He asked his former colleague – probably pupil – Christoph Bernhard to compose a motet on the text which he had chosen for the sermon at his funeral. It was the 54th verse from Psalm 119: "Deine Rechte sind mein Lied in meinem Hause" (Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage). Despite his age and his deteriorating health he undertook the huge task of composing the whole psalm himself. The result – with additional settings of Psalm 100 and the Magnificat on German text - was what was called in his circle the Schwanengesang (the swan song). The official title was Königs und Propheten Davids Hundert und Neunzehender Psalm in Eilf Stükken nebenst dem Anhange des 100. Psalms: Jauchzet dem Herrn! und Eines deutschen Magnificats: Meine Seele erhöbt den Herrn.

Psalm 119 isn't only exceptional in its length, it is also its content which makes it unique in the whole of the Bible. It is a lengthy ode on the Word of God and of God's commandments. The tone is set in the first verses: "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart". This Psalm was considered a summary of the whole Bible, both Old and New Testament. Its 176 verses are grouped into sections of 8, and every section is marked with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet (from Aleph to Thau), which led this Psalm being called the 'Golden ABC'. It says much about Schütz's spiritual convictions that it is a verse from this particular Psalm which he chose as the subject for the sermon at his funeral and that he set the whole Psalm as his 'swan song'.

Psalm 119 is set in 11 motets – every motet consists of 16 verses (two sections of 8 each), and is preceded by the two respective letters of the Hebrew alphabet. All motets are written for two four-part choirs with a basso seguente. Just as this work reflects the faith of Schütz it is a testimony of his artistic ideals. During his whole career Schütz followed musical developments – in particular in Italy – very closely, and mostly with sympathy, but at the same time he always stuck to what he learned from his first teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli. During the 17th century the concertato style became more and more fashionable, at the cost of the polyphony which was the feature of the stile antico. But Schütz always underlined the importance of polyphony as the basis of the art of composing. One of his main collections of music, the Geistliche Chormusik of 1648, is an impressive statement of his aesthetic ideals. And it can hardly be a coincidence that at the end of his life he followed up on what he stated with that opus. In line with this is the motet for his funeral he asked Christoph Bernhard to compose: it had to be written in the stile antico, and when Schütz received it he was completely satisfied, and stated that there wasn't a single note he could improve. He must have been very happy to see that the art of writing polyphony hadn't died out.

Another feature of Schütz's compositional style is the attention he pays to the text. That was the main reason he was called musicus poeticus. His main focus was always to express the text into the music. And to that end he made use of all tools a composer of his time had at his disposal. In this work he uses the split of the ensemble into two choirs to create dynamic contrasts: the two choirs join each other to single out verses which Schütz must have wanted to give special attention to. For instance, in the very first motet three lines are emphasized: "verlaß mich nimmermehr" (o forsake me not utterly), "gelobet sei der Herr" (blessed art thou, O God), and "schaue auf deine Wege" ([I] have respect unto thy ways). Repetition of the same word or phrase in both choirs is used to enhance the emotion ("ach, ach"; SWV 486) or to increase the expression ("hilf mir"; SWV 487 - "hasse"; SWV 489). The use of specific rhythmic patterns also serves the emphasis on some passages in the text, like "deine Rechte sind mein Lied in meinem Hause" (SWV 485) - the text of the sermon at Schütz's funeral. Direct text illustration is, for instance, the extended treatment of lines with words like "ewiglich" and "immer und ewiglich" (ever [and ever]). Repetition is also used to depict specific words, in particular "Verfolger" (persecutors). The last motet of Psalm 119 is the most intimate. Here the poet expresses his longing for God's salvation. It is dominated by lines like "Let my cry come near before Thee, O Lord", "Let thine hand help me", "Let my soul live" and ends with "Seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments". It brings to a close one of Schütz's most impressive compositions.

To his setting of Psalm 119 Schütz added two further hymns: Psalm 100 - an ode to God and his creation - and the Magnificat which is an ode to God's grace and salvation. Both are reworkings of older compositions.

Schütz doesn't give any indication as to whether and, if so, which instruments should be used. But there is general agreement that in those of his works which are strongly rooted in the tradition of counterpoint instruments can or should be used to support the voices. Here the instrumental ensemle is rather modest, and two groups of contrasting instruments are used.

The Collegium Vocale Gent is the ideal ensemble to perform this repertoire. Its flexibility and transparency, the perfect blending of the voices, the immaculate diction and articulation - these qualities result in a performance which discloses the full grandeur of Schütz's swan song. Whether a scoring of three voices per part is historically justified is a matter of debate, but doesn't take anything away from the merits of this recording which is a true monument for the 'father of modern music'.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Collegium Vocale Gent
Concerto Palatino

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