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Contents

Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

LUTHERAN ADAPTATIONS: THE CHORALE PARTITA

Chapter:
CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Source:
MUSIC IN THE SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

Most of Sweelinck’s chorale compositions are found in a huge manuscript of organ scores, now at the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek (German National Library) in Berlin, dating most likely from the early 1630s. It is otherwise devoted to chorale variations by a dozen or so of his German pupils, some in the form of collaborative sets, with individual variations contributed by both master and disciples.

In all these works, both Sweelinck’s own and those of the pupils, the basic technique is the same. The variations correspond to the verses of the chorale. In each of them the traditional melody is treated strictly—that is, with little or no embellishment—as a cantus firmus in a single voice. Where the secular variations keep the tune consistently in the uppermost voice, the chorale variations not only allow the lower voices to be tune-bearers in the old cantus-firmus manner but also allow the hymn tune to migrate through the texture as verse succeeds verse. The accompanying voices vary freely in number from a single one (producing a two-part or “bicinium” texture) on upwards. Sometimes they incorporate aspects of the chorale tune, thus integrating it into the polyphony; sometimes they contrast with it as countersubjects.

This, too, was a technique that Sweelinck had picked up from the English and passed along to his pupils. It corresponds exactly to the hymn-setting technique of John Bull, which derived in turn from that of Bull’s teacher, John Blitheman (ca. 1525–91), a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1558 to his death. Tracing it gives us a particularly crisp example of the way in which traditions of personal emulation can serve as the means through which the larger, less personal phenomenon of stylistic dissemination takes place. A technique that English organists had developed for accompanying and supplementing choral hymnody was transferred in stages to a new geographical terrain and a new, music-hungry church, which had an even greater need for organ music to supplement a choral hymnody that had spread from the elite choir to full congregational participation. Sweelinck was the middleman who brokered the transaction.

The end result was the Lutheran chorale partita, as practiced first by Scheidt, most spectacularly by J. S. Bach, and by Lutheran organist-composers to this day. Scheidt’s partita on the “cantio sacra” Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ lay in death’s bondage,” a venerable Easter hymn: Ex. 2-8) comes from the second volume of Tabulatura nova, printed exactly one hundred years after the earliest polyphonic settings of the chorale had appeared. In five verses, Scheidt’s set begins with two connected settings of the chorale in the highest part: the first is an integrated motetlike setting with some old-fashioned Vorimitation (imitative foreshadowing of the cantus firmus) in the accompanying voices, of a kind that Luther himself would surely have recognized; the second is more à la Sweelinck, with successive lines of the chorale set in relief against a series of ever more rhythmically active countersubjects, each treated in imitation (Exx. 2-8a-b).

Lutheran Adaptations: The Chorale Partita

ex. 2-8a Samuel Scheidt, Christ lag in Todesbanden, first versus, mm. 1–7

Lutheran Adaptations: The Chorale Partita

ex. 2-8b Samuel Scheidt, Christ lag in Todesbanden, second versus, mm. 1–5

The third verse, the centerpiece, is a “free” variation: an intricate bicinium in which the individual phrases of the chorale are independently developed in dialogue between the player’s hands, sometimes broken up into motives, sometimes superseded altogether by episodes (Ex. 2-8c). The fourth and fifth variation return to a stricter cantus-firmus style. In the fourth, after a brief foreshadowing in the bass, the cantus firmus, placed in the middle voice (the “tenor”), is pitted against two exceptionally florid outer voices that sometimes develop countersubjects in imitation, sometimes contrast with one another as well as with the subject, creating toward the end an “obbligato” texture with a fast-flowing line above the tenor, a slower “walking bass” beneath it (Ex. 2-8d).

The fifth and last variation is presented and harmonized in a very unusual fashion that could be considered either tonally wayward (to adopt the viewpoint and expectations of an observer contemporary with Scheidt) or tonally “progressive” (to adopt the viewpoint and expectations of an observer contemporary with us). It is a fascinating case to consider, for the difference between the two historical and aesthetic vantage points is rarely so clear-cut or easily identified. Do we get more aesthetic gratification from the standpoint that sees the piece as intriguingly capricious or “deviant,” or from the one that sees it groping, so to speak, toward a more modern (familiar? higher? more integrated?) conception of tonality? Can we somehow view it from both standpoints at once?

Lutheran Adaptations: The Chorale Partita

ex. 2-8c Samuel Scheidt, Christ lag in Todesbanden, third versus, mm. 1–19

Lutheran Adaptations: The Chorale Partita

ex. 2-8d Samuel Scheidt, Christ lag in Todesbanden, fourth versus, mm. 39–44

Here is how the piece works. The bass carries the complete cantus firmus (though the “cantus” or top voice and the “tenor” also get to quote phrases from it), but its various constituent phrases are independently transposed. The music thus seems to oscillate between implied mode finals on D, on A (the upper fifth), and on G (the lower fifth), staking out the tonal areas we now think of as “tonic,” “dominant,” and “subdominant.” Particularly “modern” in its tonal effect is the last phrase in the bass, ending on A (the dominant) so as to prepare the grandiose final cadence (Ex. 2-8e).

Lutheran Adaptations: The Chorale Partita

ex. 2-8e Samuel Scheidt, Christ lag in Todesbanden, fifth versus, mm. 65–end

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 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02004.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 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02004.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 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02004.xml