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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin

The term “luxuriant style” (stylus luxurians), meaning a style brimming abundantly with exuberant detail in contrast to the “plain style” (stylus gravis) of old, was coined by Christoph Bernhard (1628–92), Schütz’s pupil and eventual successor as the Dresden Kapellmeister, in a famous treatise on composition that circulated widely in manuscript in the later seventeenth century and was widely presumed to transmit Schütz’s teachings. What mainly abounded in the luxuriant style was dissonance, which makes the stylus luxurians the rough equivalent of what Monteverdi called the seconda prattica.

Like Monteverdi, Bernhard stipulated that freely handled dissonances arose out of (and were justified by) the imagery and emotional content of a text.10 They were an aspect of rhetoric: ornamental figures, so to speak, of musical speech. That is why Bernhard called them figurae (Figuren in German), and why his theory of composition, which treats the novel dissonances of the luxuriant style as ornaments on the surface of the plain style, is known as the Figurenlehre (the doctrine of figures). Bernhard’s Figurenlehre, which may derive from Schütz’s own take on Monteverdi, was the first of many theories of composition, mainly put forth by German writers, that conceptualized and analyzed music in terms of an ornamental surface projected over a structural background.

But the stylus luxurians was anything but a passive response to the contents of a text. On the contrary, and as O quam tu pulchra es shows especially well, the composer actively shaped the text to his musical purposes even as he shaped the music to conform to the text’s specifications. It was a process of mutual enhancement and intensification—indeed, of mutual impregnation—that bore an offspring more powerfully expressive than either words or music alone could be.

Reading Schütz’s setting of the concerto’s opening words in terms of Bernhard’s opposition of plain background and luxuriant surface (Ex. 2-11a), we might characterize it as descending through the notes of the tonic triad (A–F–D in D minor) with lower neighbors (“overshooting”—quaesitio notae, literally “searching for the note”—in Bernhard’s parlance) decorating the F and the D in the manner of what we would now call an appoggiatura (see Bernhard’s illustration of the practice in Ex. 2-11b). The neighbor to the root of the triad is raised a half step to function as a leading tone, resulting in a diminished fourth—in Bernhard’s parlance a “hard leap” (saltus duriusculus)—from F to C♯. This chromaticized interval coincides by finely calculated design with the main “operator” in the text, the word pulchra, or “beautiful”.11


ex. 2-11a First line of Heinrich Schütz’s O quam tu pulchra es rhetorically parsed


ex. 2-11b Christoph Bernhard, example of Quaesitio notae

The lilting triple-metered refrain thus created is heard again and again over the course of the concerto. After addressing a series of endearments to the bride that intensify through sequences to a drawn-out hemiola cadence, the baritone soloist returns to the opening phrase, this time joined by the tenor in imitation. When the pair of vocal soloists have repeated the baritone’s invocation to the bride, the opening phrase jumps up into the range of the instrumental soloists, the violins, who fashion from it a sinfonia or wordless interlude—wordless, but still texted in a way, since the opening melody has been so strongly associated with the opening words. Finally, the vocal soloists join the violins for a final invocation in four parts over the basso continuo to finish off the first section of the concerto.

From this point on the text of the concerto consists of the famous inventory of the bride’s body, in which every part named is made the object of a vivid simile—a verbal figure. Since the music performs a similar “figurative” function, Schütz radically abridged the text, leaving most of the actual work of description to the music. This gives him time to bring back the opening phrase in both words and music as a ritornello to follow each item in the enumeration. Its dancelike triple meter contrasts every time with the freer declamatory rhythms of the simile verses.

The first simile is the most straightforward; the beloved’s eyes are compared with the eyes of a dove. The music is comparably straightforward, consisting of recitative in what for Schütz was a new style. The next, comparing her hair (presumably as it is blown by the wind) with a flock of (frisking) goats, is matched by trills and wide leaps in the music. The cadence on greges caprarum (mm. 66–67) is similar to that on oculi columbarum (mm. 56–57), but is intensified harmonically very much à la Monteverdi: by interpolating the subdominant (G) in the bass, the melody note (F) is turned into a dissonant suspension that does not resolve directly, but only through an intervening ascent to a more strongly dissonant ninth (A), from which a (goatlike?) leap is made to the note that would have resolved the original suspension by step (Ex. 2-12a). In such a passage it is especially easy to see the “structural” voice leading that underlies the frisky “ornamental” figures on the surface.


ex. 2-12a Heinrich Schütz, O quam tupulchra es (Symphoniae sacrae I), mm. 56–58, mm. 66–68


ex. 2-12b Heinrich Schütz, O quam tu pulchra es (Symphoniae sacrae I), mm. 91–95


ex. 2-12c Heinrich Schütz, O quam tu pulchra es (Symphoniae sacrae I), mm. 100–111

After a return to recitative for the simile comparing the bride’s teeth to the whiteness of shorn sheep, there is a steady increase in musical floridity with every extravagant textual figure. From here on the tenor and baritone are in constant, quasi-competitive duet, their intertwining lines suggesting the scarlet ribbon to which the beloved’s lips are compared, the winding staircases that encircle the tower to which her long neck is likened (Ex. 2-12b), and the cavorting of the twin fawns that symbolize (the jiggling of) her two breasts (Ex. 2-12c). The last being an especially potent sexual symbol, it is played out at length, with the violins at last taking part in the simile.

It is followed by what is quite obviously a musical representation of a sensual climax, the violins’ mounting arpeggios introducing a passage in which the singers vocalize on similar arpeggio figures, their text shrunk back to mere moaning iterations of the opening O, and with the violins now sounding the aching saltus duriusculus (the diminished fourth) not as a neighbor but as a harmonic interval, producing arpeggios of augmented triads. The baritone, it seems hardly necessary to add, reaches his highest note on his final O. The final cadence is packed with extra cathartic force by adding arbitrarily to its dissonance: the tenor’s C, on the “purple” word pulchra, is not only a dissonance approached by leap but also a false relation with respect to the C♯ immediately preceding it in the baritone and basso continuo parts (Ex. 2-12d). (The apparent ending on the dominant is resolved by the next concerto in the collection, Veni de Libano, set to a continuation of the same passage from the Song of Songs.)

The most remarkable aspect of O quam tu pulchra es is the refrain. There was nothing new, of course, about the idea of the refrain as such. It was one of the most ancient of all musical and poetical devices, with a literally prehistoric origin. The way Schütz employs it here, however, it acts in a double role—or rather, it combines two roles in a singularly pregnant way. It is of course a musical (or “structural”) unifier, quite a necessary function in a composition that otherwise sets so many contrasting textual images to contrasting musical ideas. It is at the same time the bearer of the central affective message both of the text and of the music, its constantly reiterated and intensifying diminished fourth saturating the whole with the “lineaments of desire,” to borrow a neat phrase from the English Romantic poet William Blake. The refrain, being both the concerto’s structural integrator and its expressive one, erases any possible line between the expressive and the structural. From now on, musical ideas would tend increasingly to function on this dual plane; ultimately that is what one means by a musical “theme.”


ex. 2-12d Heinrich Schütz, O quam tu pulchra es (Symphoniae sacrae I), mm. 112–end


(10) See The Treatises of Christoph Bernhard, trans. Walter Hilse, The Music Forum, Vol. III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973); excerpts printed in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 159–61.

(11) Aaron Copland, “The Teacher: Nadia Boulanger,” in Copland on Music (New York: Norton, 1963), p. 85.

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. 30 Nov. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02008.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 30 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02008.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 30 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02008.xml