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Heinrich Schütz’s “Slight Work”

“This slight work consists of only three pieces… anyone liking this work of mine may find that it can be used to good effect as a substitute for a German Missa, and possibly for the Feast of the Purification…”

Thus did Heinrich Schütz hope to give the three pieces he composed for the funeral of Prince Heinrich Reuss Posthumus a life beyond their specific commission. Magnificat’s intention in our program is to realize Schütz’s suggestion, and incorporate the three pieces known collectively as the Musikalische Exequien, along with music by Schütz’s musical colleagues, into a Lutheran Mass for the Feast of the Purification, following the liturgical practice of the Dresden Court Chapel of the mid-1630s.

Shortly after the death of the prince in December 1635, Schütz received a commission from the widow to set the nearly two dozen scriptural verses and chorale strophes that the prince had ordered engraved on the copper coffin in which he was interred. Not only the choice of texts but also their order was prescribed, presenting Schütz with the formidable task of devising a coherent musical structure from an disparate array of texts. His ingenious solution to the architectural and musical problems was to manipulate the texts into “the form of a German Burial Mass”, parsing them so as to paraphrase the Kyrie and Gloria. Thus resulted one of his finest masterpieces, the vocal concerto for six voices and continuo Nakket bin ich von Mutterleibe kommen (SWV 279). Schütz also provided two motets for the funeral service, one a setting of the verses from Psalm 73 which served as the sermon text, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe (SWV 280), the other a setting of the Canticle of Simeon, Herr, nun leßestu deinen Deiner in Friede fahren (SWV 281), which the prince wished to have sung during the interment of his coffin. The three works were later published together in an elegant edition as the Musikalische Exequien.

Fulfillment and farewell are the themes of the Feast of the Purification, also called the Presentation in the Temple, which commemorates the presentation of the Christ child by Mary, in fulfillment of Jewish law. The central figure in the event is the old man Simeon, who after a long life of waiting has the joy of taking in his arms the child whom he recognizes as the promised one. The Canticle of Simeon, as recorded in Luke, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…” expresses the old man’s joyful acceptance of death and welcome to a new life. This feast, with its intersection of welcome and farewell, union and separation, was a traditional day for funerals for German nobility in the 17th century and, in fact, was the date that marked the beginning of the funeral observances that included the first performance of the Musikalische Exequien. Thus, Schütz’s suggestion of Purification as an appropriate feast on which to use his “slight work” is not surprising.

Our reconstruction follows the order of service for the Feast of the Purification described in the Ordung der Christlichen deutschen Gesänge so auf alle Fest- und Soontagsevangelia gerichtet und in der SchloßKirchen zu Dreßden gesungen werden… 1581, which was the basis for liturgical practice in Saxony throughout the first half of the seventeenth century We have also used this document as a source for the prayers and readings, and to determine which chorales were sung. The chorale melodies are drawn from the Dresden hymnal published by Gimel Bergen in 1625 and 1632, while their harmonizations are adapted from publications by Samuel Scheidt, Michael Prætorius, and Johann Hermann Schein. In common with all Reformation chapel orders, the Dresden liturgy allowed for considerable flexibility in many details of the service, reflecting Luther’s desire to create a liturgy that remained responsive to local tradition and developing interpretation. The resulting structures form a beautiful setting for a wide variety of music, from the simple folk-song derived chorales to the latest Italian concerted style.

Mass begins with an organ prelude and an introit, sung to accompany the entry of the clergy. The Kyrie and Gloria followed immediately, paraphrased in our program by the first part of the Musikalische Exequien. The pair of readings, proper to the feast day, which followed were retained essentially unchanged from the pre-Reformation church, and established the themes for the entire service. The Gradual, sung between the two readings in the pre-Reformation church, was replaced in Lutheran practice by congregational hymns that varied according to the season. Purification was the last day on which the Christmas Gradual-Lied Gelobet seistu Jesus Christ was sung.

Luther encouraged the continued use of Latin alongside the vernacular and so the Dresden chapel order calls for either the Latin and the German Credo, and typically Luther’s metrical paraphrase “Wir gläuben all in einen Gott” was sung by the congregation in unison. The first and third strophes of Luther’s chorale will be sung by the congregation in our program, while the second strophe is drawn from Schütz’s second collection of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, published in 1639. After the German Credo a motet was often sung, and it is here that we have placed the second part of Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien.

A chorale verse, the Our Father, and a recitation of the text on which the sermon was based, most often, the gospel of the day, introduced the sermon. We will perform the recitation of the Sermon text in a setting by Schein that employs a technique known as falso bordone, a type of harmonized chant. A polyphonic setting of that same text often followed the sermon, and the third part of the Musikalische Exequien serves perfectly in this role. A chorale, benedictory prayer, and blessing follow. Luther’s chorale Mit Fried und Freud, a paraphrase of the Canticle of Simeon, was universally associated with Purification, and served as the basis for Michael Prætorius’s motet that will conclude our program. The three musical jewels that are the Musikalische Exequien fit gracefully into this noble setting so beloved by Schütz, enriching the liturgy even as the liturgy reveals their most profound beauty.

  1. Matthew Harris
    February 14th, 2010 at 18:01 | #1

    Quite insightful, what a lot of effort it must have been to arrive at the authentic context. Reenactments of church services were also done at St. Jacobi in Hamburg by Professor Frederick K. Gable in the 1990s. How nice to see this kind of work on your part. Serious students of this stirring music will benefit from reading your blog post. Even after singing and studying the Exequien closely a number of times at funerals or in concert in Germany, this wider context is illuminating to say the least.

  2. April 9th, 2010 at 09:05 | #2

    Thanks for this infos, they are very interesting! I love Schütz’s music! For the Little Sacred Concertos and the Geistliche Chormusik I recommend the phantastic version of the Tölz Boys Choir: A Jewell!

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