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Johann Abraham Peter SCHULZ (1747 - 1800): Peters Bryllup

Hannah Husáhr (Grethe), Svenja Kruse (Cille), Eva-Lotta Ohlsson (Anna), soprano; Regina Jakobi (Kirsten), Vivian Ramirez, Edina Soriano-Neubert, contralto; Reiner Goldberg (Hans Smed), Mathias Hudelmayer, Volker Kammerer, Matthias Siddhartha Otto (Frederik), Thaisen Rusch (Martin), Tobias Westman (Peter), tenor; Bernhard Hansky (Jon), Manos Kia (Hans Jensen), Christian Oldenburg (Henrik Jensen), Johan Rydh (Halvor), baritone; Ulrich Kisters, bass
l'arte del mondo
Dir: Werner Ehrhardt

rec: August 28 - 30, 2013 (live), Copenhagen, Børsen
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88843017602 (© 2015) (70'07")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Before the 19th century the music scene in the Scandinavian countries was largely dominated by composers from Germany. That was the case, for instance, under Christian IV of Denmark (1588-1648), when composers such as Heinrich Schütz, Melchior Schildt and Matthias Weckmann worked for some years at his court. In the 1740s Johann Adolph Scheibe worked in Denmark as Kapellmeister under Christian VI. He was dismissed in 1747 by Christian's successor, but modern German music was still very much preferred in Denmark, for instance the oeuvre of the Graun brothers. The present disc brings us to the late 18th century when another German composer played a major role in Danish music life.

Johann Abraham Peter Schulz was born in 1747 in Lüneburg. From an early age he was strongly interested in music. He studied theory and learnt to play various instruments, such as the flute and the keyboard. Stylistically he was under the influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Philipp Kirnberger. Through the latter he became acquainted with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1768 he became the accompanist and music teacher of the Polish princess Sapieha Woiwodin of Smolensk. With her he travelled across Europe and met composers such as Grétry, Haydn and Reichardt. He came also under the impression of Gluck's music. In the late 1770s and early 1780s he was active in the field of opera, for instance as director of the French theatre in Berlin. He had a strong preference for new French operettas which resulted in his dismissal as court composer of the Prussian Prince Heinrich in 1787.

That year he moved to Copenhagen where he became Hofkapellmeister and director of the Royal Theatre. During his stay in Denmark - from 1787 to 1795 - Copenhagen developed into a musical centre in Europe. In his compositions and his ideas on music he was a representative of the Enlightenment; there is also an unmistakable influence of the French Revolution. He staged pieces in which several problems of society, such as land reform, were brought up. In 1790 he published his 'Thoughts on the influence of music on the education of the people', originally written in German and translated into Danish that same year. His interest in the education of common people also comes to the fore in his preference for simple melodies and harmony. In 1779 he had published his first collection of songs; this is the genre for which he has become best known. The sacred song Der Mond ist aufgegangen is still one of the most popular in Germany and often sung by amateur choirs.

This disc sheds light on another aspect of his compositional activities which is connected to his position as Hofkapellmeister. Crown Prince Frederik, who acted as regent during his father Christian VII's mental illness, instituted several social and economic reforms, among them measures to grant personal liberty and legal protection to the peasants. When in 1790 the Prince was about to marry the poet and schoolmaster Thomas Thaarup wrote the libretto for the opera - or Singspiel, as it is called in New Grove - Høstgildet (The Harvest Festival) which was not set in antiquity but in the world of peasants in a village in Zealand, the largest island of the Danish kingdom. Schulz set the text to music and his tunes soon became very popular across the country.

Peters Bryllup (Peter's Wedding) is a sequel to Høstgildet. The same characters figure in this work and some new are added. One of them is Frederik who is destined to become a blacksmith, like his father, but prefers to become a schoolteacher. This reflects the general interest in education; schoolteachers should propagate modern farming methods, but music was also considered an important means of educating the people. A friend of Schulz was the first music teacher. A second new character is the black slave Martin. Slave trade had been prohibited in Denmark in 1792, but slavery was only to be abolished in 1848. In the second act Martin sings an aria about the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.

The content is an expression of what was going on in society and the contemporary social and political ideas. Schulz' views on music are also exposed here; the tunes are not fundamentally different from the songs he had written before. New Grove, in its worklist of Schulz, marks Peters Bryllup as a Singspiel - like its prequel - but the manuscript of the score says "opera in two acts". New Grove defines a Singspiel as "[an] opera, usually comic and in German with spoken dialogue". However, this work is neither comic nor in German. I assume that there was a spoken dialogue; it is suggested by the description of the story in the booklet, but the liner-notes omit any information about it and the manuscript includes neither any spoken text nor any indication of where it should be included. This disc offers the recording of live performances in August 2013. I don't know whether that included any spoken dialogue; here we get only the musical items. As a result there is a lack of drama; it would have been useful if the libretto in the booklet had included at least summaries of the dialogues between the vocal items.

Peters Bryllup is divided into two acts. The first opens with a sinfonia, the second with a lullaby. The work ends with a divertimento in four short movements and a chorus in honour of Prince Frederik. The vocal part is divided into arias, duets and choruses. The arias have little in common with the arias in operas from the late 18th century. Most of them are strophic songs and are rather straightforward; that is where the connection with Schulz' songs is most notable. In this form and in its simplicity Peters Bryllup is not unlike the French operettas Schulz performed during his time in Berlin. Such pieces had also earned much popularity in Denmark during the 18th century, and the playwright Ludvig Holberg had established a tradition of plays with spoken text and music. At various moments it also reminded me of Haydn's oratorio Die Jahreszeiten which is set in the world of peasants as well. Even musically I noted some affinity, especially in several choruses and a couple of arias.

It is not that easy to find the right approach to a work like this. The straightforward character and the rather simple tunes require a style of singing which is different from the way an opera is performed. In this respect Werner Ehrhardt seems to have missed the point. I didn't know any of the singers except Regina Jakobi whom I have heard a long time ago in performances of early music. The internet reveals that most of them have few if any credentials in early music and are rather active in the 'traditional' music scene, especially in opera. Virtually all of them sing with the incessant and often wide vibrato which seems to be common practice in traditional opera performances. That is not only untenable from a historical point of view but is also at odds with the simplicity Schulz aimed at. The arias have the character of songs and should be sung as such. This also means that the text should be clearly understandable. That is not the case here, and that is not due to the fact that it is in Danish. The operatic approach of Ehrhardt and his singers is wide off the mark.

That makes it hard to give a fair assessment of this work. Is it worth being performed in our time? From a historical angle it certainly is: it gives some idea of the influence of contemporary political and social views on music, and that in a part of Europe where one would not exactly expect it. Scandinavian music from before the 19th century is not often performed and recorded anyway. Moreover, this work expands our view on Schulz and his oeuvre as it sheds light on a side of his compositional activities which is hardly known. He is much more than the composer of Der Mond ist aufgegangen. I also can imagine that Danish people will be delighted to hear this piece which is connected to a phase in the history of their country.

But I am not so sure about the strictly musical value for a wider audience. I would like to hear Peters Bryllup in a more appropriate interpretation which is closer to the intentions of the composer. It is disappointing when a work like this receives a less than ideal performance, because there is not much chance that another recording will be released. But we can always hope.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Hannah Husáhr
Manos Kia
Svenja Kruse
Eva-Lotta Ohlsson
Christian Oldenburg
Matthias Siddhartha Otto
Thaisen Rusch
Johan Rydh
l'arte del mondo

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