Those who followed my Examiner.com national site probably know that I have been following a major project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz since I first became aware of it in 2013. The project is the brainchild of German choral conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann, who is currently the Director of the Dresdner Kammerchor (Dresden chamber choir); and the recordings are being released by Stuttgart-based Carus-Verlag in coproduction with Deutschlandradio Kultur. (Carus-Verlag also has a parallel project to publish performing editions of Schütz’ complete works.) At the very least Rademann and his ensemble are “geographically suited” for this project, since Schütz was based, for the most part, in Dresden between 1615 and his death in 1672 after which he was buried in the old Dresden Frauenkirche. (His tomb was destroyed in 1727 when the church was torn down to build a new one.)
Nevertheless, Schütz time in Dresden was interrupted for a variety of reasons. The most notable of these was the Thirty Years War. Fortunately, he had previously traveled to Venice to study with Claudio Monteverdi in 1628; and, as a result, Venice served as a place of refuge when that war was at its worst. One result of these circumstances is that Schütz’ music tends to have a close kinship with the music of Monteverdi, both sacred and secular, as well as his other distinguished Venetian teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli. A corollary result is that the texts for Schütz’ vocal music cover not only good Lutheran German but also both Latin and Italian, reflecting the sacred and secular aspects of his influences. Thus, the first nineteen entries in the Schütz-Werke-Verzeichnis (SWV) catalog are five-voice Italian madrigals, published in Venice in 1611 as Schütz’ Opus 1.
At little over a week ago, Carus released the fourteenth volume in their Schütz project, the first of the three volumes that Schütz entitled Symphoniae sacrae (sacred symphonies). Schütz probably appropriated this title from Gabrieli, who used it for two of his own collections of liturgical music published in 1597 and in 1615 (after his death). Schütz published his own first volume in Venice in 1629, presumably for services held at St. Mark’s Basilica; and, as a result, all of the texts are in Latin. (The other two volumes were published in Dresden in 1647 and 1650, respectively; and they are all settings of liturgical texts in German.)
The noun “symphony” constitutes a major departure from current semantics. Basically, it entails the “concord of sound” (taken from the word’s Greek origins) arising when many parts, both vocal and instrumental, sound together with a sense of overall consonance. This particular collection involves vocal solos, duets, and trios performing with different collections of string and wind instruments, along with the consistent use of a keyboard continuum provided by an organ (performed by Ludger Rémy). As the booklet notes by Oliver Geisler (translated by David Kosviner) observe, Schütz was as specific in identifying instruments as he was in designating vocal ranges; and those instruments included cornets, recorders, trombones, violins, bassoons (or dulcians), gambas, and “fiffari.” (Scare quotes indicate that Geisler acknowledged that the denotation of that noun is uncertain; but it is like to be some cross-blown version of a flute or pipe.)
It would probably be fair to say that Schütz expected his listeners to be as moved by his “concords of sound” as by the denotations (and connotations) of the sacred texts he chose to set. For example, his use of four trombones (Sebastian Krause, Julian Nagel, Masafumi Sakamoto, and Fernando Günther) to accompany a solo bass voice (Felix Schwandtke) in a setting of David mourning the death of his son Absalom is as moving in its tragedy as it is ravishing in its sonorities. Furthermore, there is a crystalline clarity to the delivery of all of the vocalists on this album, which means that those with even a smattering of knowledge of Latin are likely to pick up on the semantic implications of each of the texts that Schütz set in this collection.
With fourteen volumes in this project released and another one scheduled for next month, it is unclear how to advise those who wish to establish a “first contact” with Schütz. However, those familiar with the Roman Catholic ritual can probably draw upon that familiarity to provide a frame of reference for this particular collection, since it represents so well Schütz’ productivity in the sacred music that he wrote while in Venice. Between the familiarity with the texts and the delightful instrumental diversity, it should not be difficult for such listeners to get quickly “hooked” on this composer, who definitely rose to the heights of his two major teachers, Gabrieli and Monteverdi.