Monday, April 18, 2011

Music for Holy Week, Part 1 – excerpts from Matthäus Passion

It may sound "a bit much" to the ears of modern American church-goers, who busy themselves about their business through the week, going to-and-fro, hither-and-thither. These days, mid-week services themselves seem to be regarded as a bother, and this Holy Week, when we Lutherans generally have two mid-week services, attendance can really seem to be a burden. But in "times of yore," for each day of the week leading up to the most important Festival of the Church Calendar, The Festival of Christ's Resurrection, there were appointed lessons, telling the story of Christ's Passion from the perspective of each Gospel writer.

By the early 16th Century, the Western system of musical notation had been so sufficiently developed (mostly in ecclesiastical circles), that systematic exploration of polyphonic forms, which were championed most notably in Paris and Florence in the centuries leading up to the Renaissance, could be broadly pursued. As a consequence of Renaissance humanism and the invention of the printing press, Europe enjoyed an explosion of such exploration. The result for the Church was the great gift of high-art in musical form, which was produced most significantly from the Renaissance period through the Baroque – art which continues to set the bar of excellence for sacred musical expression even today.

Michael PretoriusIn the generation following the Reformation, Lutherans began emerging as leading composers of sacred works, whose creativity and excellence continue to inspire the world. For example, Michael Praetorius, whose father was a pastor and student of Martin Luther's, was a solid Lutheran composer who is considered to be the greatest organist to have ever lived. His three-volume Syntagma musicum, a treatise on baroque instruments, composition, and performance, is considered definitive even today. If one has ever had the good fortune of listening to Praetorius - Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, however, one will notice at least one peculiar thing: the Gospel lesson (track 9) is not spoken; rather, it is chanted. This was a rather common practice -- perhaps giving us, in our day and age, a more full idea of what it meant that the Lutheran Church was considered "The Singing Church." In a comment to the post C.F.W. Walther: Filching from sectarian worship resources equals "soul murder", C.P. Krauth was quoted regarding the prominent role of music in the Lutheran Church, characterizing it as follows:
    “But especially in sacred song has the Lutheran Church a grand distinctive element of her worship. 'The Lutheran Church,' says Schaff, 'draws the fine arts into the service of religion, and has produced a body of hymns and chorals, which, in richness, power, and unction, surpasses the hymnology of all other churches in the world.' 'In divine worship,' says Goebel, 'we reach glorious features of pre-eminence. The hymns of the Church are the people's confession, and have wrought more than the preaching. In the Lutheran Church alone, German hymnology attained a bloom truly amazing. The words of holy song were heard everywhere, and sometimes, as with a single stroke, won whole cities for the Gospel'” (Krauth, C. (1871). Conservative Reformation and its Theology. Philadelphia: Lippincott. pp. 152-154)
And this musical character extended to the liturgy as well, especially given that, prior to the Enlightenment, congregational singing was generally a cappella (Kretzmann, P. (1921). Christian Art: In the place and in the form of Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. pp. 405-410 – and I urge the reader to find these pages and absorb their content fully). The main task of church musicians was not to apply themselves to the accompaniment of worshipers in the congregation as they sung hymns, but to use instrumental music to accompany the liturgy, and move it forward. One of the main tasks of church composers, therefore, was to compose liturgical music that would accompany the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. We see this in the fairly popular recording of Praetorius - Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, mentioned above, but more so in the various Baroque compositions of Christ's Passion. In these compositions, the Gospel accounts are not spoken, but sung or chanted. In this way, in this musical way, 17th Century Lutheran churchgoers would have the account of Christ's Passion delivered to their ears during Holy Week.

Johann Sebastian BachThroughout this Holy Week, we will be featuring excerpts from recordings of such compositions, written by two Baroque composers who are considered Germany's greatest: Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schütz. Bach perhaps needs little introduction: he was and remains the master of counterpoint and represents the pinnacle of Baroque musical achievement. In addition to his many secular works, as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he composed a full series of Cantatas to accompany the Lutheran liturgy for each week of the Church Calendar, along with many other Sacred works as he was commissioned. The definitive collection of Bach's works, the life's work of maestro Helmuth Rilling (a recognized specialist in the compositions of Bach), contains this entire series of Cantatas in addition to the rest of his body of Sacred and secular works. It is worth noting, however, than in addition to his status as a composer, Johann Sebastian Bach was also fiercely orthodox in his Lutheranism. Being active as a composer during the rise of German Pietism and attempting to ward it off through the Sacred works he was often commissioned to compose, his professional library was proliferate with personally annotated works of Lutheran theology – he had the library of a theologian, and he used it as reference material in the composition of his works.

Unlike Bach, it is likely that Heinrich Schütz, along with Praetorius, is an unfamiliar name. Yet, Schütz is considered to be the greatest German composer second to Johann Sebastian Bach, his works consequently being of significant influence on Bach and others. How can it be that a composer of such stature – second in line to Bach, and one whom Bach himself looked to for inspiration – is generally unknown? Answer: like Praetorius, he composed almost exclusively for the Lutheran Church.Heinrich Schütz, by Rembrandt Heinrich Schütz studied at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice under none other than Giovanni Gabrieli, who, along with his uncle Andrea, was of prime influence in the development of Western music during the Renaissance, particularly that of antiphonal and polychoral music. This was the influence that Schütz brought back to Germany and upper Europe, and which he masterfully wedded with the German language, the purest manifestation of which, for him, was Martin Luther's translation of the the Bible. In other words, it is impossible to substantively confront the compositions of Heinrich Schütz without also being confronted by the message of the Holy Scriptures. This makes him politically incorrect and therefore rather unpopular these days, despite his importance as a composer.

Finally, it might be noticed that the compositions of Schütz seem somewhat "stark." This was neither a factor of style nor indicative of a lack of talent, as his Doppelchörige Motetten, Psalmen Davids, and especially his Geistliche Chormusik fully attest -- but of social and political conditions during most of his career: the period of the Thirty Years' War. The devastation wrought by this extended conflict resulted in a dearth of musicians. So, the musical genius of Heinrich Schütz was applied to the task of creating liturgical compositions for small ensembles of moderate ability.

Here are a couple video excerpts from performances of musical settings of St. Matthew's account of the Passion of Christ, Matthäus Passion, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schütz respectively:

Excerpt from Bach’s Matthäus Passion
I personally enjoy this Mauersberger recording of Bach’s Matthäus Passion.

Excerpt from Schütz’s Matthäus Passion
I personally enjoy this Martin Flämig recording of Schütz’s Matthäus Passion.



Unknown said...

Perhaps we could suggest that Martin Luther College, Luther Prep or Michigan Lutheran Seminary consider doing this Matth äus Passion in their sacred music performances?

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

I'd be all in favor of it, naturally. Of course, Bach's piece is a 3.5 hr long tour du force. You'd need a number of talented musicians and vocalists to pull it off.

Schütz, on the other hand, is a bit more manageable. Remember, he wrote for small ensemble of musicians with moderate ability. I have several of his scores, and have even tried to persuade my own congregation to tackle one of his Passions for Easter. It would still be a challenge -- I estimate that it would take a year of practicing, but I am optimistic that a modest congregation with a few musicians with a few good voices could do it (cheating in a few places, of course). A congregation could recite the Passion Story in song every day of the week during Holy Week -- in the context of worship -- and invite the entire town to hear it with them.

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