Heinrich Schütz and Reformation 500

Each year on July 28, the church commemorates a trio of important musicians—Bach, Schütz, and Handel—and prays for those who nurture and equip the church’s song. While Schütz (baptized October 9, 1585; died November 6, 1672) is probably the least known among the three, his music was influential in setting the stage for the mixture of national styles seen in the music of later composers such as Buxtehude, Böhm, and Bach. Today, Schütz’s works continue to appear in new editions and creative arrangements, some of which are listed below as suggestions for the 2017 anniversary year.

Schütz’s Life

Heinrich Schütz grew up in the town of Weißenfels where his parents were innkeepers and respected citizens. Despite their son’s musical gifts, they persuaded him to “choose a secure profession” and it was not until 1609 when the regional Landgrave—akin to a count or prince—convinced Schütz to pursue his calling as a musician. In a delightful example of musical ecumenism, Schütz (a Lutheran) received funding from the Landgrave (a Calvinist) to visit Giovanni Gabrieli (a Catholic) at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, where he studied organ, composition, improvisation, and probably substituted for Gabrieli at mass.

After Gabrieli’s death in 1612, Schütz returned to Germany where, during a visit to Dresden, his gifts impressed the Elector of Saxony who resided there. By 1615, Schütz was directing the day-to-day musical activities of the court chapel, including the preparation of several new works for the centenary commemoration of the Reformation in 1617. Surviving court documents indicated that his musicians were expected to win the “praise and admiration of visitors,” and Schütz traveled throughout Saxony as an advisor on matters of music education. He returned to Italy during 1628–1630 where he encountered the influence of Monteverdi, observed “fresh devices” used by Italian composers, purchased instruments for the Dresden court, and completed a set of SATB harmonizations we know today as the “Becker” Psalter.

But upon his return to Dresden in 1630, Schütz discovered that the combined effects of plague and the Thirty Years’ War had exacted a significant toll on the personal, economic, and material resources which had sustained his work in previous years. Throughout the next two decades, he composed many works for small performing forces and sparse accompaniment, though these pieces in no way lacked the quality and craft of his larger works for multiple choirs and instruments. Even after peace was declared in 1648, conditions were slow to recover and Schütz’s many requests to retire were ignored until the Elector’s death in 1657. The new Elector was more sympathetic, granting Schütz quasi-retirement status and a pension that allowed him to continue composing and revising until only a few years before his death at age 87, twice the average lifespan of the time! At his request, the funeral sermon given on November 17, 1672, focused less on his life and more on the use of music in service to God.

Schütz’s Music

Schütz’s surviving vocal music amounts to about 500 individual pieces that he organized into some fourteen collections published between ca. 1612–1666, sets for which he usually supplied the paper and oversaw the printing process. His text sources were almost exclusively biblical and utilized both Latin and German translations, thus allowing for their inclusion in Protestant and Catholic services alike. His approach to composition shows a special reverence for the text—individual words, phrases, dialogue, meanings, interpretations—that guided his choices of rhythm, melody, harmony, and texture.

From the outset, Schütz made equal use of the prevailing styles including the stile antico (old-style Renaissance counterpoint), the stile moderno (contrasting forces, instruments), as well as recitative and choral exclamations reminiscent of the stile teatrale (theater and stage). His written introductions to printed collections discuss the theory and practice of continuo playing, or the improvisation of a keyboard accompaniment from a bass line. He understood the importance of adaptation and flexibility for performance, an approach that remains useful for church musicians today. This flexibility can be heard alongside his rhetorical prowess in recordings of his music by ensembles such as the Cappella Augustana and Dresdner Kammerchor.

Schütz and Lectionary Year A 2017

As you plan your musical selections for the Reformation anniversary year, consider some of the following lectionary-based works of Schütz available in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and Prelude Music Planner. If you have access to back issues of CrossAccent, the journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, consult the Winter 2004 issue for an extensive list of Schütz’s lectionary-related works compiled by David Mennicke.

Third Sunday of Advent: December 11, 2016

If your assembly will sing the Magnificat as the psalm this day, consider using the setting by Schütz (ELW 573) along with keyboard settings by Wolfgang Rübsam (Introductions and Alternate Accompaniments for Organ, Vol. 5) and Keith Kolander (Introductions and Alternate Accompaniments for Piano, Vol. 5).

Nativity of Our Lord: December 24–25, 2016

“A Child to Us Is Born” (Ein Kind ist uns geboren) for SSATTB originally appeared in Schütz’s Geistliche Chormusik of 1648. An edition in Chantry Choirbook: Sacred Music for All Seasons includes both English and German texts as well as a separately printed continuo part. One may also choose to “color” the texture with a retinue of C instruments such as flutes, recorders, strings for upper voices and trombones, cello, or bassoon for lower voices. You may also consider asking instrumentalists to add Baroque-style embellishments such as trills and mordents.

Transfiguration of Our Lord: February 26, 2017

“Lift Up Your Voice” (Lobt Gott mit Schall) comes to us from the “Becker” Psalter of 1628 and is included in the Chantry Choirbook. Scored for SATB and continuo with English and German versions, the text ends with a shower of “alleluias”—a chance to get them all out before the “alleluia” is buried at the end of this service!

Second Sunday of Lent: March 12, 2017

“God So Loved the World” (Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt) also contains English and German versions of John 3:16, a passage heard in the gospel reading for this day. This composition for SATTB was also included in the Geistliche Chormusik of 1648. Some performances vary the textures of the repeated sections—for example, a soloist singing the uppermost line with “light” continuo the first time followed by full ensemble and “fuller” continuo group. Again, voice parts may be doubled with “transparent” C instruments so long as they do not interfere with diction.

Holy Week

“Praise to You, Lord Jesus” (Ehre sei dir Christe) is taken from Schütz’s St. Matthew Passion, SWV 479, and praises Christ, “who in deepest need on the cross did suffer.” Passion settings in Dresden were usually rendered without instrumental accompaniment, hence the “for rehearsal only” indication in the Chantry Choirbook edition. This work is appropriate for the Sunday of the Passion or Good Friday.

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 29A): October 22, 2017

“Sing to the Lord a New Song” (Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied) is also from the “Becker” Psalter and is presented in the Augsburg Motet Book for SATB and continuo. The text is founded upon the appointed psalm for the day (Psalm 96).

Day of Thanksgiving: November 23, 2017

“We Offer Our Thanks” (Dank sagen wir alle Gott) is scored for SATB and continuo and is included in the Chantry Choirbook. While “thanks” and “thanksgiving” are prominent themes, the original text was actually used during the Christmas season. Consider adding “bright” and “light” percussion such as tambourine, triangle, hand drum, or finger cymbals to enliven this dance.

General

“Rejoice in God,” a paraphrase of Psalm 150, is arranged by Nancy Grundahl for SATB, keyboard, flute, finger cymbals, and tambourine. A sprightly and energetic recording is available at the Prelude site.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Leaver, Robin A. Music in the Service of the Church: The Funeral Sermon for Heinrich Schütz. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984.
  2. Ramshaw, Gail. More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016.
  3. Schalk, Carl F. Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition (1524–1672). St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2001.
  4. Varwig, Bettina. Histories of Heinrich Schütz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.