Heinrich Schütz - "Christian Singer of Psalms"
The year was 1598. The little town of Weissenfels in Saxony, Germany, was buzzing with excitement ... the Landgrave was coming to town! He was scheduled to stay overnight at the local inn, Zum Schützen. Needless to say, Christoph Schütz, the innkeeper, and his entire family did all they could to make the stay a pleasant one.
As part of the after-dinner entertainment, one of the children was allowed to sing. Heinrich, a courageous thirteen-year-old, got up and performed some of the songs he had learned at the church choir. The Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel was duly impressed and begged the parents to allow him to take young Heinrich to the noble court where he would be reared in "all good arts and commendable virtues."
The parents refused. Father Christoph considered himself quite capable of giving his children a thorough religious and liberal education. The school, town church, Kantor, and organist were more than adequate for the development of Heinrich's abilities. However, the Landgrave chose to disagree. He wrote a series of letters in which he repeated the invitation. It would be a pity to see the "singular inclination to noble music and the ability to sing securely and with particular grace" go to waste. Finally, the parents gave in. Heinrich Schütz left home. In 1599, Father Christoph brought his son to the court at Kassel.
At the court of the Landgrave, Heinrich served as a choirboy. This allowed him to attend the academy along with the children of Hesse nobility. Schütz did well at school. His favorite subjects were Latin, Greek, and French. The Kapellmeister at the Landgrave's court took care of the musical training, but Heinrich's position at the court changed along with his voice. As soon as the clear treble sound of the boy's voice deepened, his place in the choir was no longer his.
Oh well, for Heinrich it meant his departure for the University of Marburg where he enrolled to study law. After all, his parents had never been overly enthusiastic about the prospect of having a professional musician in the family. Being a lawyer was much better, much safer.
1609. The town of Marburg was buzzing with excitement ... the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel was coming. Moritz had not forgotten the talented choirboy, the son of the innkeeper at Weissenfels. He visited Heinrich at the university and offered him a grant of 200 thalers for two years. This would allow him to go to Venice to study with the well-known composer Giovanni Gabrieli.
Despite his parents' wishes, Heinrich Schütz could not resist the offer. In the same year, he left for Venice. Imagine the impressions the young Schütz received in this spiritual capital of the art and music world at that time. Just think of the great St. Mark's Cathedral with its Byzantine domes. The galleries and balconies were put to good use with various choral and instrumental groups, and the spacious interior was ideally suited for the echo-effects which were so fashionable at that time.
Heinrich Schütz soon discovered that his friend and teacher, Gabrieli, was a master at painting glorious images of sound. He also found out that his own musical training was hopelessly inadequate. However, Heinrich was not afraid of hard work! A close friendship developed between the old composer and the young German music student. On his deathbed, Gabrieli left Schütz one of his signet rings, and in turn Schütz acknowledged Gabrieli as his one and only teacher!
Shortly after the death of the Venetian composer, Schütz returned to his native Germany, armed with the tools of the "Grand Italian Style." Schütz realized that he had all the makings of a good composer, but he refused to accept a position just for the sake of having a job. He decided to "keep to myself with the good foundations that I had now laid in music, going into hiding with them as it were, until I had refined them somewhat further still, and was then able to distinguish myself properly by bringing forth a worthy piece of work."
This thought was not shared by the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel who quickly appointed Schütz as second organist at the court chapel. It was in this capacity that Heinrich accompanied the Landgrave on a visit to the Elector at Dresden. Elector Johann George I was so impressed with the young musician that he set his mind on having Schütz at the court in Dresden.
A time of bargaining started, which lasted for years. Landgrave Moritz did not want to let his "Schützling" (= protégé) go, not even for a short period of time. The powerful elector used all the political influence he could muster, and eventually he won his case. He obtained Schütz for the sole use of the Dresden court and denied the attempt of Moritz to find a compromise "if it could not be so arranged that we do indeed surrender Schütz entirely to you, but that he nevertheless remain in our employ and duty so that we might also make use of him now and then as the occasion arises." Schütz himself remained very calm and humble!
Schütz left for Dresden in 1617, and became the Kapellmeister at the electoral court. Yet he did not forget the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, the man who had done so much for him. Schütz continued to send him compositions to be performed in the court chapel.
In Dresden, Schütz had to provide music for all major court ceremonies. He also had the responsibility of keeping the chapel choir and orchestra adequately staffed, of ensuring proper living conditions for the musicians, and of supervising the education of the choirboys.
Schütz had ample opportunity to display his capabilities as composer, director, and organist. A few months after his arrival, the emperor honored the court with a visit. Herr Schütz wrote a ballet for the occasion. In October of the same year, elaborate celebrations were held for the centenary of the Reformation. The court preacher, Hoe von Hoenegg, has left us a description of the program,
On October 30, at noon, the festival was rung in by the bells of all the churches in the city and the suburbs. Vespers were celebrated, and confessions were heard. October 31, the first festival day, was ushered in with the joyful booming of guns at six o'clock in the morning. Other cannonading, as is customary here on high festival occasions, also took place. On the same day, as well as on the first and second of November, sermons were delivered both in the morning and in the afternoon, and with them glorious music was presented. And inasmuch as the music, especially in the court church, was very magnificent, delightful, and imposing, I must not neglect, for the sake of future information and as a lasting memorial, to relate here fully what kind of Masses, concerti and psalms were performed, as well as the manner of their performance.
He then continues to give a detailed description. (It seems somewhat ironic that a celebration of the Reformation begins with the hearing of confessions!) Schütz chose several psalms and presented them in the grand Italian style of his teacher, Gabrieli. Congregation, choirs, drums, trumpets, choir boys, organists, lutenists, and harpsichord players all joined forces. In one important aspect Schütz differed from his teacher: the text is in German rather than Latin. Schütz proved himself to be a true son of the Reformation.
Two years later, in 1619, the psalms were published as a collection. The composer wrote the preface to the Psalmen Davids and postdated it to June 1, 1619 — the day he planned to marry Magdalena Wildeck, daughter of the court accountant. Schütz sent copies of the work along with the invitation to his wedding to church and city councils throughout Saxony. In the accompanying letter he wrote,
Noble, honorable, high and learned, highly esteemed and very kindly disposed sirs: I humbly impart to your Excellencies that, in order to honor God, which is the duty of every man in his profession, I have set to music, and now at the instigation of many devout hearts, have brought out in print some of the psalms of the king and prophet David in the form in which he himself conceived them.
Needless to say, many church councils responded favorably. Gifts in the form of money, golden chains, barrels of wine, and the like, were recorded in minutes of various consistory meetings.
Schütz included a total of twenty-one psalms in his Psalmen Davids. He described the style of these settings as Concertenmanier — concerto-style. From his use of choirs, soloists, and instrumentalists we may surmise that these concerti are not meant for congregational singing. The concerto-psalms are a very important step in the development of the church cantata, a style later used by Bach.
In Psalm 121, Heinrich Schütz makes use of two choirs, soloists, and an instrumental accompaniment consisting of organ and basso continuo (cello, violin, contrabass, or bassoon). The soprano solo begins, "I lift my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come?" Schütz uses a rising melody to paint the pictures of "lift" and "hills." The choir repeats the question, and then the answer is given by the alto solo: "My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth." Again the answer is repeated by the choirs. The distance between heaven and earth is evident in the music, by the use of high and low notes. The tenor solo sings: "He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber." The choir repeats it. "Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" is sung by the bass solo and again repeated by the choirs. Schütz emphasizes the personal and the collective meaning of the text. In the description of the LORD as keeper and shade, the four soloists join forces. The choir once again repeats the phrases. The concluding section of the psalm is almost a doxology, presented in full strength by all participants. Musically, one has the feeling that there is no final ending... "from this time forth and forever more."
It is remarkable that Schütz wrote one other collection of psalm settings. One year after the death of Magdalena Schütz, the Becker Psalter saw its completion. The settings of these psalms were initially meant for the use during morning and evening devotions at the choir school. In his foreword, Schütz wrote,
It pleased God the almighty ... that the sudden death of my late dear wife ... bring to halt such other work as I was engaged in and to put this little psalter in my hands, as it were, so that I could draw greater comfort from it in my sorrow.Dated September 6, 1627 — the second anniversary of Magdalena's death.
Heinrich Schütz himself died in 1672 and was buried in the old Fraunkirche in Dresden. In the hall of the church, a brass tablet is inscribed: "Heinrich Schütz — The Christian Singer of Psalms." Quite fitting for a man who found his joy and comfort in the Psalms of David.