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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin

The “high” or courtly arts managed to hang on through their vicissitudes, though not without crucial adaptive change. In music, that process of adaptation may be viewed with exceptional clarity thanks to the presence on the German scene of a composer of irrepressible genius, whose long career, mirroring in an intense creative microcosm the general fate and progress of his art, furnishes us with an ideal prism. His name was Henrich (or more commonly, Heinrich) Schütz. Despite the conditions in which he was forced to work, he became the first internationally celebrated German master.

Born in 1585 to a family of innkeepers in the Saxon (east German) town of Köstritz near Gera, a musical instrument center, Schütz early displayed his gifts. His singing voice was noticed by a music-loving nobleman, the Landgrave Moritz of Hessen, who happened to stay at his father’s inn in 1598, when the boy was just entering adolescence. Over the objections of his parents, the Landgrave had the lad brought to his residence in Kassel for instruction and training “in all the good arts and commendable virtues.” After his voice changed, Schütz ostensibly gave up music for university studies in law, also underwritten by Landgrave Moritz, who had become a surrogate father to him.

But then one day in 1609, when his protégé was twenty-four, the Landgrave came to visit him at school with a proposition: “Since at that time a very famous if elderly musician and composer was still alive in Italy,” as Schütz recounted his patron’s words in old age, “I was not to miss the opportunity of hearing him and gaining some knowledge from him.”9 Since the proposal was backed up with a generous cash stipend, the young man “willingly accepted the recommendation with submissive gratitude,…against my parents’ wishes.”

The musician in question was Giovanni Gabrieli. Schütz spent three years in Venice under his tutelage, right up until the master’s death, by which time the young Saxon had become his prize pupil. “On his deathbed,” Schütz recalled, “he had arranged out of special affection that I should receive one of the rings he left behind as a remembrance of him.” This gift not only signaled the passing of the Venetian musical heritage to a new generation, but also symbolized its becoming, through Schütz, an international standard.

A Creative Microcosm

fig. 2-6 Heinrich Schütz, portrait by Christoph Spetner (ca. 1650) at the University of Leipzig.

The year before, Schütz had composed a book of Italian madrigals that Gabrieli thought worthy of publication. It was issued in Venice in 1611 with an attribution to Henrico Sagittario allemanno—“Henry Archer (i.e. Schütz) the German”—but its contents are completely indistinguishable in style from the native product. Schütz wanted nothing else. He went back to Germany in 1613 with the intention of fulfilling his promise to his patron by adapting the glorious Venetian style to the needs of the Lutheran church, just as Praetorius and others were also doing, but with the added benefit of authenticity arising out of training at the source.

For the rest of his life Schütz saw himself primarily as the bringer of Italianate “light to Germany” (as his tombstone reads), and saw the composition of grand concerted motets and magnificent court spectacles as his true vocation. Given that ambition, his career was dogged by cruel frustration. His actual contributions, not only to the musical life of his time but to the historical legacy of German music, tallied little with his intentions. But his musical imagination was so great, and his powers of adaptation so keen, that what he did accomplish was arguably a greater fulfillment of his gifts than what he set out to achieve.

A Creative Microcosm

fig. 2-7 Schütz directing his choir at the Dresden court chapel. Copperplate engraving from the title page of his pupil Christoph Bernhard’s Geistreichen Gesangbuch (“Artful songbook”) of 1676.

On returning to Germany with his sterling credentials, Schütz went back to work, as expected, for Landgrave Moritz of Hessen. The very next year, however, the Elector of Saxony, a personage far superior in rank to the Landgrave, called Schütz to his legendarily appointed court at Dresden, the very court that Praetorius was adorning so splendidly with his Polyhymnia motets, and Moritz had to release him. Schütz arrived in 1615 and spent his entire subsequent career at Dresden (from 1621 as court Kapellmeister), serving faithfully through thick and thin for almost sixty years.

At first the times were “thick,” indeed downright opulent. Schütz’s first German publication, issued at Dresden in 1619, was Psalmen Davids (“The psalms of David”) a book of twenty-six sumptuous concerted motets for up to four antiphonal choruses with continuo (“organ, lute, chitarrone, etc.,” according to the title page) and parts for strings and brass ad libitum. There are also archival records of gala court performances of secular compositions by the young Kapellmeister. They included “The Miraculous Transport of Mount Parnassus” (Wunderlich Translocation des … Berges Parnassi), a mythological ballet performed for the visiting Holy Roman Emperor Matthias, and a polychoral birthday ode for the Elector on the subject of Apollo and the Muses. The most tantalizing such reference is to an opera, the first ever composed to a German text, on the time-honored subject of Apollo and Daphne, for the marriage of his first patron’s son to his second patron’s daughter. The libretto was in fact an adaptation by a court poet of Rinuccini’s libretto for Peri’s Dafne of 1597, the first musical tale of all. Except for the early book of madrigals, though, Schütz’s secular output, comprising as well an Orpheus opera and a whole series of court ballets, has perished with only the most negligible exceptions. The five hundred or so works by which he is known to us are virtually all sacred.

And from his Latin-texted Cantiones sacrae of 1625 to his German-texted Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648, Schütz’s output reflects to varying degrees the austerity of wartime conditions, when court establishments were decimated by conscription and budgets for the fine arts were ruthlessly slashed. Schütz was forced to renounce the polychoral style in favor of simpler choral textures and even sparser forces. In 1628, he issued a new collection of settings from the Psalter, again called Psalmen Davids. But where the first collection, counting on the Dresden court chapel forces at their most lavish, had assumed the grand manner, the new one consisted of simple part-songs with continuo, based on metrical psalm paraphrases by Cornelius Becker, a Leipzig churchman, which (as the “Becker Psalter”) were then popular.

Faced with increasingly difficult conditions in Dresden, Schütz petitioned for leave so that he could visit Venice again and wait out the war. He departed in August 1628 and stayed for about a year. He seems to have become acquainted this time with Monteverdi, now the maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, and to have experimented on the scene with the new declamatory styles that Monteverdi had pioneered. While in Italy he published a book of fifteen sacred concerti to Latin texts, which he called Sacrae symphoniae in tribute to his late teacher Gabrieli, who had published a similarly titled collection in 1597. These are comparatively modest works, scored for one or two solo voices (in one case for three) with obbligato instrumental parts. Only one of them is antiphonal in the literal sense of employing spatially separated ensembles, but all of them remain Venetian in spirit by extracting a maximum of color and interplay out of their reduced forces.

O quam tu pulchra es (“O how comely art thou”), one of the best known items from Schütz’s Symphoniae sacrae of 1629, is set to a text from the Song of Songs that had already served countless composers going back as far as the early fifteenth century (see “Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century” chapter 11). The reason for its popularity, and also the reason why this particular concerto of Schütz has served so long as a favorite introduction to his work, surely lies in the spectacularly erotic text, replete with a catalogue of the beloved’s anatomy, that furnished Schütz, as it had furnished his predecessors, with both a wonderful opportunity to display the attractions of a new “luxuriant” style, and a pretext for pushing the style to new heights of allure.


(9) Heinrich Schütz, letter to the Elector of Saxony (1651), trans. Piero Weiss, in P. Weiss, Letters of Composers Through Six Centuries (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1967), pp. 46–51; abridged in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 157–59.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02007.xml