Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Music for Holy Week, Part 3 – Johannes Passion

The Four Evangelists, by Peter Paul RubensThroughout this Holy Week, we will be featuring excerpts from recordings of liturgical compositions which deliver to their hearer the very words of Christ's Passion according to the Gospel writers, in song. And not just any old compositions, either, but those written by Lutherans who aspired to excellence in their craft for the sake of Jesus Christ, Lutherans who stand today among the most important composers in Western history: Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schütz. We provided a brief biography of these composers on Monday, including the importance of their compositions and the nature and purpose of liturgical music, in Part 1 of this Music for Holy Week series, and we invite the reader to (re)visit that post for more information about them.

So far this week we have sampled recordings from their compositions of Christ's Passion according to St. Matthew (Part 1), and according to St. Mark (Part 2). Today we listen to a full recording of Heinrich Schütz's composition of Christ's Passion according to St. John: Johannes Passion. This is a delightfully old scratchy recording from the early 1950's, demonstrating a technique which one rarely hears in modern recordings or performances (at least not to the extent heard in this recording): a full-bodied choral vibrato. For sure, it adds to the nostalgia of the recording, as this sort of vocal effect seems to have been widespread at that time. No one is quite sure, it seems, how or why that sort of intense choral vibrato became popular through the first half of the 20th Century or so, but at least two influences are responsible for its relative decline since then. First, beginning in the late 1940's, strong interest in the art of the chorale was renewed, principally with the emergence of a young choir director named Robert Shaw, whose career as a conductor renewed the choral repertoire and returned excellence to choral performance. Part of this excellence required that the modern choir be finely intonated, maintaining pitch with precision. Excessive choral vibrato, of the sort that had grown popular by the mid-20th Century, distorted pitch. So, under the influence of Robert Shaw, choral vibrato was subdued quite a bit, for the sake of tonal precision.

A second influence contributing to the decline of choral vibrato has been the rise of interest in "period correct" performances. Such "authentic" performances means using period instruments and vocal techniques according to the principles that were generally followed when the compositions were written. In the case of compositions from the Mediæval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, this meant that many of the instruments were not capable of easily producing a significant vibrato; and it also meant that vibrato, in principle, was considered a vocal or instrumental device to be used for the purpose of emphasis or affect, not a technique that was to be continually used throughout the performance of a given piece. In the case of sacred works from these periods, there was an added factor contributing to an elimination of vibrato: women were not members of the church choir. Only boys and men (usually young men) were members of the choir – and boys have no natural vibrato. Thus, to produce "period correct" performances, vibrato has been nearly eliminated from more modern recordings of sacred works from these periods.

Here is a video reproduction of an old recording of St. John's account of the Passion of Christ, Johannes Passion, composed by Heinrich Schütz:

Recording of Schütz’s Johannes Passion
I personally enjoy this Martin Flämig recording of Schütz’s Johannes Passion.


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