doesn’t happen that often that a totally unknown work turns out
to be a real treasure. But in my view that is exactly the case
here. The St John Passion by the German composer Georg Gebel the
Younger is a splendid work to listen to. It is also a remarkable
work from a historical point of view.
Gebel was the son of Georg Gebel the Elder (1685 – c1750), who
was organist at St Christophori in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland).
He was responsible for the musical education of his son. Later
an anonymous biographer of Georg Gebel the Younger (published
by Marpurg in 1754) criticised his educational methods. He seems
to have pushed his son a lot. At the age of 6, Georg junior had
quite a reputation as a player of harpsichord and organ and as
first important post was that of music director of the court ensemble
of Duke Karl Friedrich von Württemberg-Oels in Breslau. Although
the orchestra wasn't very large, it contained many virtuoso players.
Gebel started to compose a large number of works. Many of them
have disappeared, a process which already began during Gebel's
lifetime, as people who asked him for compositions never gave
them back, obviously holding these in high esteem. The effect
has been that Gebel and his works are almost completely forgotten
in our times.
next important stage was Dresden, where in 1735 he became the
harpsichordist of the private ensemble of Count Heinrich von Brühl,
prime minister of the Prince Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
Here again he was highly valued by his colleagues, and he composed
many works, not only instrumental pieces for all kinds of instruments,
but also vocal works.
Dresden he married Maria Susanna Göbel, who had a great influence
on his life. She was from an artistic family: her father was a
copper engraver, and both her brother and aunt were painters,
like herself. His brother-in-law encouraged Gebel to start painting
himself, and he seems to have had a considerable talent in that
department as well.
1746 he moved to Rudolstadt, where he became concertmaster in
the orchestra of the Schwarzburg Residence. In 1750, he succeeded
Johann Graf as music director here. And again, his music became
favourite to both his employer and the orchestra. In order to
prove himself he started to compose like mad. The enormous workload
took its toll, mentally and physically. All measures taken to
cure him failed, and he died on September 24, 1753.
St John Passion recorded here is known to have been performed
in Rudolstadt in 1748. It consists of 6 ‘Actus’ to be performed
as a kind of ‘meditations’ during the evening services held from
Monday to Saturday during Holy Week. But the first version probably
dates from Gebel’s time in Dresden. The remark in the manuscript
at the end of ‘Actus 3’ - 'Conclusion Before the Sermon' – suggests
that this version was in two parts, the first of which to be performed
before, the second after the sermon. This is a practice we know
from Leipzig when Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Passions.
more than one respect this Passion belongs to two worlds, both
textually and musically. On the one hand there are some aspects
which are old-fashioned, and are rooted in the world of J.S. Bach.
On the other hand there are traces of the ‘new’ style which became
fashionable from the 1730s onwards.
a time when many composers turned to the libretto by Barthold
Heinrich Brockes, 'Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte
und sterbende Jesus', Gebel – by choice or because he was asked
to do so – composed a ‘traditional’ oratorio passion, in which
the text of the Gospel – St John, Chapters 18 and 19 – is the
backbone. Like Bach he added arias on free texts – the author
of which is unknown yet – and a number of chorales.
only in structure there are similarities to Bach’s Passions. For
example, the content and even the text of the aria "Ja, ja,
ich will mich auch bequemen, den Kelch von Gottes Hand zu nehmen"
reminds one of the aria in Bach’s St Matthew Passion "Gerne
will ich mich bequemen, Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen". The
opening choruses share the same content: compare "Komm mit
Jesu Seel und Sinn ... geh mit ihm nach Salem hin!" (Come
with him, heart and mind ... go with him to Salem) with the opening
chorus of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. And the closing chorus shows
similarities with the endings of both of Bach’s Passions: "Now
sleep at last, tired limbs, after the agony endured! Here my cares
and worries lie down, this shall be my resting place ('meine Ruhstatt').
On the third day my sun will return again".
an attempt to make his work as dramatic as possible, the arias
are kept relatively short, mostly consisting of just two lines
of poetry. And the chorales are slight and simple.
is the quotation from Isaiah (Ch 53, vs 3: "Er ist um unser
Missetat willen verwundet und um unser Sünde willen zerschlagen"),
composed in motet-style, which starts the fourt ‘Actus’. This
is very uncommon in Passions of the 18th century, which – in addition
to the text of the Gospel – only contain poetry.
in many ways the free poetic texts can be connected to the German
Enlightenment. In Bach’s Passions the arias are a direct reflection
upon the events taking place and the meaning of them for the congregation,
personified by the ‘daughter of Zion’ (soli) and ‘the faithful’
(chorus). This reflects the orthodox Lutheran view on the function
of the Passion in the liturgy: the congregation should relive,
as it were, the passion of Christ, and that way be reminded once
again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and
death. But here the majority of the arias take the events as an
opportunity to make general statements, like the aria "Herz,
willt du bei der Welt": "Heart, if you stand with the
world and its fire, then, faith’s ardor and love will soon be
put out". This follows the moment when the evangelist tells
that Peter is standing with the servants and warming himself.
The literal meaning of the event is used in a metaphorical way
in the aria. Other arias address the world (of sins and evil)
("Willt du mich, Welt, ergreifen oder binden"), mankind
("Mensch! Willt du dich so freventlich von deinem Jesu trennen?")
and the heathens ("Ihr Heiden sollt durch diesen Heiland
leben"). Instead of ‘reliving the passion’ Gebel’s Passion
concentrates on drawing moral conclusions from the events as told
in the Gospel.
Gebel’s Passion reflects two different styles as well. The recitatives
of the evangelist and the ‘soliloquentes’ are very expressive,
realised first and foremost by the distinctive use of harmonic
means – a characteristic ‘baroque’ approach. Gebel is at his most
expressive in the choruses, the ‘turbae’. And here there are strong
reminiscences of Johann Sebastian Bach too. Gebel usually sets
these choruses in polyphonic style, just like Bach. Some ‘turbae’
are especially striking because of the expressive use of harmony
– for example "Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter".
In his liner notes Manfred Fechner rightly states that from a
dramatic point of view these choruses are not inferior to those
the same time Gebel’s Passion makes use of a ‘post-baroque’ musical
language. This is reflected in particular by the role of the instruments.
Gebel uses them to enhance the dramatic character of the story.
Whereas most recitatives are accompanied by basso continuo only
(‘secco’ recitatives), sometimes Gebel uses accompanied recitatives
(with strings) to underline very dramatic moments, for example
when the evangelist tells that Jesus is handed over, led away
and is crucified. In some ‘turbae’ the strings are used to a strong
dramatic effect, like in the chorus "Nicht diesen, sondern
Barabam". And in the arias Gebel creates special effects
by asking instruments like the violins, but also the violone,
to play ‘pizzicato’. In this respect the duet "Noch wird
sich ein Johannes finden" deserves to be mentioned: the cello
gets a solo role with ‘violini pizzicati unisoni’ and ‘violono
pizzicato’. Surprising are the solo parts for the viola da gamba
and the theorbo in some arias, considering the fact that these
instruments were already getting out of fashion in Gebel’s time.
performance does this work full justice. Jan Kobow is excellent
in the role of the Evangelist, with very precise articulation
and diction, realising the most dramatic moments very well. The
passage – already mentioned – about the handing over of Jesus
to be crucified is deeply moving. The other roles are also well
sung. And the performance of the arias very convincing, not only
by the singers – among which Dorothee Mields and Klaus Mertens
stand out - , but also by the instrumentalists. The ‘turbae’ are
quite demanding, but the choir masters them very well.
have two reservations. First of all, although the choir expresses
the text in the chorales quite well, otherwise they sing a little
too much legato. The chorales should have been a little more ‘spoken’
than sung, with some stronger accents on particular words. And
the realisation of the recitatives is open for debate as far as
the tempo is concerned. I have the feeling that generally they
are somewhat slow. But it is difficult to be outspoken on this
as I haven’t seen the score. Maybe the score gives reason to stretch
some notes in the recitatives the way it is done here, even though
it sounds a little unnatural to me. A bit more speed could have
enhanced the dramatic development of the Passion.
I said before, this work is very interesting from a historical
point of view. I hasten to add, though, that the music is excellent.
In fact, of all the Passions from 18th-century Germany I have
heard over the years, this St John Passion by Georg Gebel is one
of the most interesting, enthralling – both musically and spiritually
– and expressive. I rate it higher than the Passions of, for instance,
sum up: another excellent and highly interesting production by
CPO, which has – as usual – a very informative booklet, which
gives all the information one needs to put this work into the
proper historical context. Needless to say that the lyrics are
printed, both in the original German and in English translation.