Schütz, Henrich (1585-1672) – court musician

2022: Commemorating the 350th anniversary of Heinrich Schütz’s death (November 6th, 1672), music publisher Bärenreiter (Kassel) decided to pay proper tribute to this “Seculi sui Musicus excellentissimus” (inscription on Schütz’s tomb in the Frauenkirche in Dresden) in publishing the ‘Schütz Handbuch’. Of course in German. However, not every Schütz-adept is germanophone, so a summary and some highlight from this book.

What kind of book is it?

It’s a handbook, i.e., it takes stock of the developments in Schütz research ever since Philipp Spitta – between 1885 and 1894 – first published his music, presenting the ‘most up-to-date’ scholarly views. In doing this, the handbook itself nicely reflects the most recent shift in the outlook on Schütz, his ‘image’. The image on the cover speaks volumes: a copper engraving by August John (pronounce [joːn], 1602–c. 1678?), depicting Henrich Schütz in the prime of his life, dressed in official court attire with roll collar and luxuriously decorated waistcoat. NB: Henrich, not: Heinrich. In his personal writings, Schütz never referred to himself as Heinrich, always as Henrich, Henricus, Henrico. So why don’t we call him by his real name1). This is the ‘Serenissimi Electoris Saxoniae Capellae Magister’ (as Schütz signed his Latin music publications, and his contributions/inscriptions in ‘Friends books’: Henricus Sagittarius), or in the vernacular: the Kapellmeister of the Prince Elector, Duke of Saxony, one of Germany’s most powerful Princes, the ‘swordbearer of the Holy Roman Empire’ (Romani ensifer imperii, as Schütz introduces his ‘Lord’ in the Syncharma musicum of 1621)

August John (ca. 1527) Ratsschulbibliothek Zwickau

John’s engraving has been known for over 40 years, but only recently it has begun to supplant the traditional image of Schütz, associated with an oil painting by Christoph Spetner (c. 1657-1660), showing Schütz in his old age, serene, inward-looking. This portrait established Schütz’s place in history as the father of the German Lutheran Church music. The image shift, from grave-looking “Father of German Church Music” to self-confident “Dresden Court Composer” will come as no surprise to Schütz initiates – in 1985 this shift was one of five topics that “cannot be ignored any longer” formulated by Walter Blankenburg[1] in his introduction to Heinrich Schütz und seine Zeit  – but certainly will take some getting used to for the many casual Schütz listeners.

Christoph Spetner (ca. 1660) Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig

The traditional image is still defining both the context of the performance of his music (churches, choirs) and the listener’s expectation. This handbook documents this paradigm shift in Schütz research. It achieves this in 24 chapters, written by 22 different scholars, all experts in their field. The volume’s editor in chief is Prof. em. Walter Werbeck.

Framework: Schütz ‘imagined’

The composer’s biography and the presentation of his musical works (classically the bulk of a handbook) is framed within a meta-narrative: a diptych. The first part of it is entitled “Schütz-Bilder” (p. 18–32). Here, Walter Werbeck presents and evaluates the most dominant images of Schütz (both literal: portraits, and metaphorical: the way he was perceived). This chapter is both a summary and an announcement of what follows. The second part of the meta-narrative consists of the final section of the book, covering “the reception” of Schütz’s music throughout the centuries (p. 370–419). His profound influence in the seventeenth century is sketched, not focussing on so-called disciples, but on the reception of his music through transmission and compositional appropriation (Peter Wollny). Then Schütz’s music fell into oblivion, until its rediscovery by Carl von Winterfeld. In his seminal study on Giovanni Gabrieli (3 vols., 1834) Winterfeld devoted a chapter to Schütz, Gabrieli’s most talented pupil. Walter Werbeck and Matthias Herrmann relate the story of Schütz’s reception in the 19th and 20th century. Here many interesting anecdotes can be read about the way his music was perceived, probed, tried out. It shows how musicians struggled to find convincing ways to interpret and perform this “unromantic” music, so alien to the then-dominating musical culture and the expectations of the audience. These chapters also contain revealing, at times unsettling, pages about the way Schütz’s person and music were “germanised”, particularly in the 1930s. Even Joseph Goebbels makes a guest appearance (p. 410). Everybody interested in the German “Singbewegung”, the divide between East- and West Germany, vicissitudes of the ‘Schütz Gesellschaft’, and the liturgical appropriation of Schütz by Lutheran musicologists and hymnologists, will appreciate this chapter. It also shows how these historical constellations influenced research, performance practice, and appreciation.

Schütz’s Life: biographical stations

Within this general historical framework, the contours of Schütz’s life are sketched, and his output presented. We know so little about Schütz, that his life cannot be told as a story. One can only sketch the different contexts in which it played out. “Biographische Stationen” (p. 32–125) is the appropriate title of this section, exactly covering the content presented there. The early ‘stations’ in the composer’s life (Köstritz, Weißenfels, Kassel and Marburg) are outlined by Gerhard Aumüller. About Schütz’s two stays in Venice (the first encompassing three – formative – years) almost nothing is known, as Silke Leopold eloquently explains. She respects the vacuity, and focusses on the context, the environment in which Schütz lived: the Venetian Republic, La Serenissima, a city that excelled all other cities in representing itself in music. Perusing the seminal study of Rodolfo Baroncini on Giovanni Gabrieli (2012), she evokes what Schütz must have learned, heard, and practised as a student of Gabrieli: contrapuntal perfection, sonorous and harmonious splendour,  multi-choral compositions, opulence in the use of instruments.. It had a lasting effect on Schütz while developing his own composing style, especially in and around Dresden (articles by Walter Werbeck, 1615–1645, and Mary E. Frandsen, 1645–1672; both very informative about the role music played at Dresden’s court), but also at the Danish court (article by Bjarke Moe), and as a respected musical advisor and organiser elsewhere.

Schütz’s Works

The introduction to and presentation of his compositions form the main part of this book (section “Werke”, p. 174369). After a survey of the transmission of his works (both in print and manuscript) by Beate Agnes Schmidt, and an analysis of the kind of texts Schütz set to music (a very rich chapter by Irmgard Scheitler), Schütz’s main compositions are treated in extenso:The Italian Madrigals (Silke Leopold), published in Venice, but intended for Germany; the Cantiones Sacrae and Geistliche Chormusik (Sven Hiemke), the first being linked to the presence of the Emperor in Dresden, the latter not destined for “large church choirs”, but for small vocal and/or instrumental groups, no liturgical de tempore order present; the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte (Peter Schmitz), the musical cast might be “small”, the music itself is rather demanding; the Symphoniae Sacrae (Barbara Wiermann); and Schütz’s Opus primum: the Psalmen Davids,and similar, unpublished opera (Werner Breig, the Nestor of modern-day Schütz research), showing how difficult it is to ascertain precise occasions for these festive compositions; the Becker-Psalter and the Zwölf geistliche Gesänge, music for liturgical purposes indeed, but side-paths, a donum superadditum of the Dresden Kapellmeister. The Oratoria, Dialogues, Exequien etc. are dealt with succinctly but exhaustively by Gregory S. Johnston; the theatrical works are presented in absentio (Schütz did compose them, but the music is not transmitted). The section closes with an instructive musicological article by Joshua Rifkin. It sketches the way Schütz himself in all likelihood would have performed his own music, and – informed by this historical praxis – suggests how to perform his music today. In short: In this section, anyone who performs Schütz, who is interested in him as a composer, or who has to write a leaflet for a concert or a booklet for a CD, can find all they need or want to know. The information is up to date, accounted for in footnotes, illustrated with well-chosen examples, and completed with a bibliography for further reading.

It’s politics, Schütz the court musician

Yet another section, however, requires our particular attention. It is not the most extensive in terms of number of pages, but contains crucial information to understand Heinrich Schütz as a composer. This is the section entitled “Orte und Bedingungen musikalischen Handelns” (Places and conditions of Schütz’s musical activity, p. 126–173). Here, three heterogeneous essays are brought together. The first deals with “Court and court culture in the first half of the 17th century”. This seminal chapter enables the reader to imagine the context in which Schütz – as a court composer – wrote and performed his major works. The author (Bernhard Jahn) paints a picture of the Dresden Court, and how ‘music’ was used as a means to represent the Prince, enhancing his image, underlining his rank, and strengthening his authority in the German Empire. In a time in which religion and politics were closely connected, sacred works always had also a secular, political character. Any praise of the heavenly ruler also encompassed his earthly representative; any prayer of thanksgiving was as much for God as for the Elector. Sacred music was not intended for church and worship alone. Analysing the different kind of ‘courts’ that existed in the German lands, he defines the Dresden Court as a “Musenhof” (a court that derives its renown mainly from musical, literary and architectonic activities). Also relevant for the interpretation of Schütz’s music is the listing of all places where music would have been performed: not only in the chapel, but also at the table, and even in the “princely chambers”; and – equally important – performing religious or spiritual music was not confined to the chapel/church. When imagining how and where the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte or the Cantiones sacrae were performed and for which audience, this chapter is an invaluable treasure trove.

Martin Werbeck in his introduction about the ‘Schütz-Bilder’ summarizes the consequences of these findings:

“No matter whether in Dresden or outside, no matter whether in the Chapel, at the table or otherwise for the amusement during political high-days: When first-class modern music was required as well as first-class musicians and an attractive dramaturgy of courtly festivities, Schütz’s hour struck.[…]; the splendor of the capella choirs in the Psalms of David reflected the splendor with which the Dresden court and its sovereign sought to impress their subjects as well as foreign guests. […]. From the very beginning, his printed collections of works had their place within the strategies of political, confessional or representative self-portrayal of the court; their distribution even beyond the borders of Dresden and Electoral Saxony made them essential components of the court’s omnipresence in the media.“ [‘medialer höfischer Omnipräsenz’]

(p. 20-21) – my translation.

Compositional theory and praxis

In another essay of this section, “Compositional knowledge: Theory and Praxis”, Bettina Varwig (professor of music history in Cambridge), presents an erudite exegesis of Schütz’s Preface to the “Geistliche Chormusik” (1648). In this preface Schütz enumerates what he deems indispensable for a “Regulirte Composition” (a composition that stands the test of musical criticism), i.e. the mastery of “Dispositiones Modorum; Fugae Simplices, mixtae, inversae; Contrapunctum duplex: Differentia Styli in arte Musica diversi: Modulatio Vocum: Connexio subiectorum, &c.” Varwig places these compositional concepts back in Schütz’s time, linking them to the performance practice of the time, and, en passant, debunking many a musicological misconception. Mandatory reading for musical theorists.

Church composer? No, not really.

The last article of this section is a theological article entitled “Kirche und Liturgie” (Church and Liturgy) by Thomas Illg (a Reformation scholar specializing in early modern devotional literature). The article deals with liturgical issues and their confessional backdrop, comparing Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed theory and practice during Schütz’s lifetime, and linking them to the corresponding periods in Schütz’s biography. Intrinsically an informative historical study, but hardly relevant for this handbook. Schütz was not a church cantor, he was a court musician. He did write religious music, but hardly ever for ordinary liturgical use. A missed opportunity, since a substantial article addressing religious aspects of Schütz’s life and work would have fit in well in this handbook. But then it should not deal with ‘expert religion’ (church doctrine, liturgy), but rather with ‘governed religion’ (religion as construed and instrumentalized by governments and courts) and/or ‘lived religion’ (beliefs, spiritual practices, forms of belonging; intertwined with but not reducible to expert and governed religion), to use the three-fold approach to religion proposed by Elisabeth Shakman Hurd.[2] With regard to Schütz, ‘expert religion’ seems negligible. However, a substantial chapter on ‘governed religion’ in the 17th century would have filled a lacuna in this handbook. Now, this important topic – Schütz is a court composer – is often touched upon throughout the book, but a systematic treatment, required to judiciously evaluate its impact on Schütz’s creative output, is lacking. The same goes for the third perspective, ‘lived religion.’ In the present article, Illg does include a survey of what was then devotional praxis and its literary output (p. 145–147), but doesn’t link these in se valuable insights to texts set to music by Schütz. And if he does so (Cantiones Sacrae, p. 152), he relies on secondary sources.

Crossing confessional boundaries.

A balanced historical presentation and contextual interpretation of this form of ‘lived religion’ would have certainly been welcomed by Schütz scholars attempting to understand why Schütz set to music so many pious Latin texts. Such texts were ubiquitous and widely appreciated in the seventeenth century, freely crossing confessional boundaries (title of a very interesting book by Mary Frandsen2). This would have explained why Schütz so often turns to texts from the Mediationes Divi Augustini (pseudo-Augustine, c.1100), or the (pseudo-)Bernard of Clairvaux’s hymn Jesu dulcis memoria (c.1200), and why texts – both in German and Latin – from the Song of Songs appear time and again in his published and unpublished music (Cantiones sacrae, Symphoniae Sacrae, Kleine geistliche Konzerte etc.).

Schütz stands in a longstanding spiritual tradition (fl. 1100) that has always succesfully defied denominational appropriation. One should not call this ‘transcending confessions’ (that would be anachronistic), but rather refer to a non-dogmatical sensitive/sensible ‘Undercurrent’ in christian spirituality.

These texts were non-denominational, that is, they were read and appreciated in a very similar way in all Christian denominations. Studying these texts in their seventeenth century context would have brought to light a konfessionsübergreifende Innerlichkeit, pin-pointed by Irmgard Scheitler in her study of Latin texts set to music by Heinrich Schütz (p. 198), to which Schütz personally must have felt attracted, as is apparent by his continuous interest shown to these texts. It points to spiritual and cultural circles in which Schütz felt at home, and to which his superiors and peers must have been at least sympathetic. Walter Blankenburg should once more be credited for already singling out this issue in his 1985 list of “topics that cannot be ignored any longer.” [3] One of his last contributions to the Schütz research was an article, elaborating this question.[4] Nowadays, case studies devoted to these texts (Heide Volckmar-Waschk, Ernst Koch) either try to answer cursory questions, like which ‘literary source’ Schütz used, or turn to ‘expert religion’ and confessional issues.

31/12/2023, Dick Wursten (based on my review of this Handbook in CHRC , Volume 103: Issue 3-4 : 420–424)

[1] Introduction p. 13 of: Walter Blankenburg (ed.) Heinrich Schütz und seine Zeit  [Wege der Forschung, Bd. 614]. Darmstadt, 1985. In this book the ‘court-composer’ engraving opens the volume (then a very recent discovery).
[2] These three complementary perspectives of ‘religion’ are heuristic tools developed by Elisabeth Shakman Hurd (Professor of Religious studies and Political Science) in her book Beyond Religious Freedom (Princeton 2016) to explore the multifaceted reality of ‘religion’.
[3] Reference: See note 1. Translation: “Shouldn’t we perhaps – more than has been recognized so far – understand Schütz as a human being, and the nature of his creative impulse (including formal aspects of his work), from that characteristic piety of his time in which the mysticism of the Middle Ages was revived?”
[4] Walter Blankenburg, Zur Bedeutung der Andachtstexte im Werk von Heinrich Schütz, SJB 1984, p. 62–71.

  1. In 1985 Joshua Rifkin also signalled this and tried to correct this germanising error. In vain. Joshua Rifkin, “Towards a New Image of Henrich Schütz” in : Musical Times, Vol. 126, No. 1713 (Nov., 1985), pp. 651-658. Note: in the official publications of his Works during his lifetime, occasionally Heinrich pops up: Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, Becker Psalter
  2. Crossing Confessional Boundaries: The Patronage of Italian Sacred Music in Seventeenth-Century Dresden, OUP, 2012