Heinrich Schütz: Composing the Foundation for German Classical Music

Heinrich Schütz: Composing the Foundation for German Classical Music

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Before J.S. Bach, Germany did not produce a lot of earthshaking composers. Among the few Bach predecessors who make the cut is Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672), primarily a composer for the Lutheran church. Schütz is important for his spectacularly beautiful polyphonic music and his innovation in adapting techniques developed for Latin texts in Catholicism to the sounds of the German language. Both of those skills make his music an essential stepping stone, without which there could have been no J.S. Bach.

Happily, there have been several new Schütz recordings lately. While each features his sacred vocal music, the various ensembles find a different focus and inspiration for choosing this repertoire. Geoffroy Jourdain, conducting the ensemble Les Cris de Paris on a Harmonia Mundi release, called his album David and Solomon. In his essay for the CD booklet, he explains how that title represents the two aspects of Schütz: “I see in him a link between German and Latin culture, but also between the Renaissance music of his mentor Giovanni Gabrieli and a musical era in the making (the ‘Baroque’).”

The works on David and Solomon – Schütz’s Psalms and his setting of the Song of Songs – were written 16 years apart. It was in Venice as a man in his 20s that Schütz studied with the Gabrieli, important for inventing “cori spezzati” (split choruses) technique, a new way for polyphonic choral music to be physically as well as musically distributed when performed in a church. Schütz also became familiar with the more conservative but no less masterful choral composition style of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. That’s when he wrote his Psalm settings. A decade and a half later, when he wrote the Song of Songs, his new influence was the cutting edge music of Claudio Monteverdi.

The two collections also differ in the language of the texts they set. The Psalms are in German, from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, whereas the Song of Songs (Canticum canticorum) uses Latin words from the Book of Solomon in the Vulgate Bible, the centuries-old standard for Catholics.

One of the glorious aspects of this recording is use of instruments. First, there’s the range of types of period instruments employed, from harpsichord and theorbo (extra-long lute with sympathetic strings) to cornetti (straight wooden predecessors to the trumpet) and the trombone-related brass serpent. Second, the balance of chorus and orchestra does not favor the voices, as many recordings do, allowing for a more realistic blend as one might hear live in a church performance.

The effective balance can be heard in the powerful “Danket dem Herren” (Thank the Lord), with text from Psalm 136. The brass writing will loosen the fillings in your teeth. Schütz’s teacher Gabrieli was renowned for his writing for brass, so it’s no surprise that the German student picked up that skill. The fervent tenor soloist is Constantin Goubet.


Another recent Schütz recording has such a different sound that it’s hard to believe they’re singing the same composer as Les Cris de Paris. In a way, they’re not. Ensemble Polyharmonique’s Geistliche Chor-Music 1648, on the Raumklang label, emphasizes the celestial resonance of the Schütz’s final works, a set of motets that he called Spiritual Choir Music. While Jourdain’s group presents the composer as a wunderkind who appreciated the radicals of his field, Polyharmonique believes these late motets “were conceived in terms of [Schütz’s] legacy.” In other words, they are conservative because he wanted them to be eternal.

As if to honor the composer’s wishes, the singers use pure, intense sound, without vibrato and without giving overt emotion to each word. Palestrina, hired by the Church of Rome in the 1560s to “purify” the music of worship, would have approved. The sound is angelic and breathtaking, untouchable by mere mortals. An essential factor is the decision to use far fewer instruments – a wooden organ and a few bowed strings – plus a smaller group of singers.


The Spiritual Choir Music can also be heard on a recent recording on the Tacet label, featuring the Sächsisches Vocalensemble (Vocal Ensemble of Saxony) under the direction of Matthias Jung. Here the late work is interspersed with movements from the much earlier Psalms of David, in a comparative approach similar to that of Les Cris de Paris. Like Polyharmonique, the Sächsisches Vocalensemble chose to limit its instrumentation to organ and cello. This has the advantage of letting Schütz’s exquisitely constructed polyphony shine on its own.

The 23-voice choir has a beautifully sculpted sound, and exceptional intonation. Jung does an admirable job of blending the basso continuo and voices so they seem to be an extension of each other. Nowhere is the group’s skill more evident than in the tricky writing of Psalmen Davids, No. 8, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How lovely are they dwellings), in which the composer demands the kind of virtuosic runs from the singers that one is more likely to associate with later composers like Vivaldi or Handel.


For the recent Schütz recording with the most imaginative approach, the prize goes to Choralwerk Ruhr, conducted by Florian Helgath. On this release from Coviello Classics, rather than alternating the works of young Schütz and old Schütz, they offer movements from his Musikalische Exequien (Musical Funeral Rites) interrupted twice by selections from the 2016 work Earth Diver by living German composer Nikolaus Brass.

The concept is a fascinating one and would have been even more effective if the choral performance had been more engaged for the Schütz motets. The singing is accurate at all times, down to every detail, but it seems to lack commitment compared to the other recordings mentioned here. They create a pretty wall of sound rather than an intriguing interplay of individual voices. It’s a nice sound, but not thrilling.


Interestingly, the performance of the new works is far more convincing. Earth Driver sounds like a 21st-century work informed by the entire history of choir writing. Nikolaus Brass seems to draw as much from 14th-century vocal polyphony (Guillaume de Machaut in particular) as he does from the late Renaissance and early Baroque, but “Voices I” and “Voices II” are captivating landscapes of choral texture on their own and a wonderful reminder of Schütz’s still-vibrant legacy.

It’s not insignificant that Brass’ work is wordless, just using vocables. Consider it the extreme but logical outcome of Schütz’s own efforts. If Schütz deserves credit for one historical milestone, it’s the creative way he adapted Italian polyphonic techniques intended for the Latin language, making them sound completely natural in German. As Oliver Geisler puts it in his essay for the Ensemble Polyharmonique recording: “In Heinrich Schütz’ vocal works, language and music entered into an intimate amalgamation such as had never been achieved before, and has since perhaps been reached but never surpassed.” Just ask J.S. Bach.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Christoph Spätner/public domain.

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