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"Von den letzten Dingen"

amarcord; Cappella Sagittariana Dresden

rec: Nov 2006 & Jan 2008, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Raumklang - RKap 30107 (© 2010) (72'34")

anon: Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte; Stephan OTTO (1603-1656): Der Mensch vom Weibe geboren a 6 [2]; Michael PRAETORIUS (c1571-1621): Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin a 4 [1]; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (c1619-1684): Welt ade ich bin dein müde; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1596-1663): Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, chorale arrangementa; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Threnus (Ich will schweigen) a 6; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Mit dem Amphion zwar (SWV 501); Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281)

Sources: [1] Michael Praetorius, Musae Sioniae, VIII, 1610; [2] Stephan Otto, Kronenkrönlein, 1648

[amarcord] Wolfram Lattke, Martin Lattke, Dietrich Barth, tenor; Frank Ozimek, baritone; Daniel Knauft, Holger Krause, bass; with: Gesine Adler, Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Dorothea Wagner, soprano; Stephan Gähler, tenor
[CSD] Amrai Groze, violin; Renate Pank, Benjamin Dressler, Thomas Grosche, Thomas Fritzsch, Siegfried Pank, viola da gamba; Donatus Bergemann, Norbert Schuster, violone; Axel Andrae, dulcian; Petra Burmann, theorbo; Sebastian Knebel, organ (solo a)

There is an old expression in Latin: "memento mori", litterally: "remember to die". It is used to remind people of their own mortality. In Christianity this thought was interpreted as: prepare to die. This thought is reflected in literature, art and music which has been created since the beginning of Western history. As far as music is concerned, many compositions have been written about death and the expectation of death. It was often not just seen as a sad thing, but also as a liberation from daily misery and from sin. In Christianity it was also closely connected to the expectation of the resurrection and eternal life.

Those aspects come to the fore in one of the most famous pieces of music related to death, the Musicalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz. This composition is at the heart of this disc which is entitled "On the last things". It was performed in February 1636 during the funeral of Herr Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß, who had died on 3 December of the previous year. He himself had painstakingly outlined every detail of his funeral. He should be buried in a copper coffin which should be adorned with 22 texts he himself had chosen. These were passages from the Bible as well as stanzas from hymns.
The Musicalische Exequien are divided into three sections. Part 1 contains the quotations from the Bible and from hymns which are set in the form of a German Mass. Schütz called it a Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Missa. The quotations from the Bible are set as little sacred concertos, the hymns as 6-part motets.
Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs.
Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis), Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace"). Here Schütz has added that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

The programme begins with Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte, a setting of Psalm 51 (50, Vulgata), which is best-known under the Latin title Miserere mei, Deus. It is one of the seven penitential psalms. Strictly speaking these psalms are not about death, but the inclusion of such a psalm nevertheless makes sense. According to the Bible death is the result of man falling into sin, and therefore the penitential psalms remember mankind about its inevitable fate as a result of that. Moreover, in Christianity "memento mori" is also an appeal to confess one's sins before dying. It is no coincidence composers wrote music like this at the end of their life. I refer here to Orlandus Lassus and his Lagrime de San Pietro, generally considered an expression of personal penance.

This composition is also interesting as it has been discovered recently and is recorded here for the first time. The composer is not known; the manuscript is dated 1711. It was written in Leipzig, and it is assumed it has been composed around 1700. Stylistically it belongs to the 17th century, which is also reflected in the instrumental scoring for violin, three viole da gamba and bc. It has an additional part for bassoon. The verses are either for tutti or for one or various solo voices. It is a beautiful piece with some eloquent text expression, like the very long melisma on "großen" (great [compassion]). In the seventh section (vs 9) the phrase "wasche mich" (cleanse me) is repeated several times. In the next section the violin plays some lively figures expressing the text "let me hear joy and gladness".

Stephan Otto was a pupil of Christoph Demantius, and worked for some time in Augsburg and later in Freiberg. He was a close friend of Schütz' pupil Andreas Hammerschmidt. His motet Der Mensch vom Weibe geboren (Man, that is born of a woman) is another example of the way a text was set by German composers, who were mostly strongly influenced by Heinrich Schütz. The phrase "lebet kurze Zeit" (hath but a short time to live) is set to short notes. Words like "fället" (withers) and "fleucht" (flees) get graphic illustration. Johann Rosenmüller's chorale setting Welt ade, ich bin dein müde is moving in its simplicity. Johann Sebastian Bach was also impressed by it and incorpotated the first stanza in his cantata BWV 27.

No less moving is the lament Henrich Schütz composed at the occasion of the death of his wife Magdalena Wildeck in 1625, Mit dem Amphion zwar. He also wrote the text which is a typical example of how Christians at the time approached death: it is an expression of sadness, but at the same time voices the expectation of resurrection and eternal life: "Thus will I join with you, there we will united wait until Christ calls us to new life. Then together we will leave our graves and find eternal joy". It is set for solo voice and basso continuo.

Composers often wrote music for funerals - all but one of Bach's motets are written for such occasions - and Johann Hermann Schein, who was one of Bach's predecessors in Leipzig composed his 6-part motet Threnus at the occasion of the death of the duchess Dorothea Maria von Sachsen in 1617. Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin was one of the most famous funeral hymns and used or quoted numerous times by composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach. Here we hear a four-part setting by Michael Praetorius, one of the most prolific composers of German Lutheran sacred music of the early 17th century.

This disc gives a good insight into the way German composers of the 17th century dealt with one of the harsh realities of everyday life. It is a mixture of sadness about the loss of loved ones and the expectation of the resurrection and life everlasting. The singers and players have a thorough understanding of the meaning of the texts and of the spiritual background of this repertoire. That is indispensible in order to reveal its expressive powers. Equally important is the ability to pronounce and articulate the texts correctly. That is indeed the case here as all performers are native German speakers.
The result is a very moving programme of music which has a lasting impact on anyone who is willing to open his mind for what the composers had to say.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Cappella Sagittariana Dresden

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