The 'Geistliche Chormusik' today belongs to the most performed
choral music. Not only professional choirs, but also amateur ensembles
like to perform motets from this collection. Historically it is
a most remarkable work as it is out of step with the time in which
the Italian concertato style, whose features were a theatral treatment
of the text and the use of the basso continuo, was dominant. Schütz
himself also made use of that style as in his Symphoniae Sacrae,
the second part of which he had published only one year earlier.
Schütz had a specific reason for composing his Geistliche Chormusik in
the old-fashioned motet-style characterised by use of counterpoint.
In his preface he did not criticise the increased popularity
of the concertato style, but instead emphasised that for every
composer it is essential to master the classical polyphonic
style of composing before turning to the concertato style. He
wanted "to remind Germany's budding composers that, before
proceding to the concertante style, they should bite on this
hard nut [the motet style] (in which the true heart and foundation
of good counterpoint will be found) and pass their first test
in this way". This doesn't mean that Schütz returns to
the style of the renaissance: he makes use of contemporary means
of expressing the text in the music, without ever exaggerating,
and he avoids anything too theatrical.
The collection comprises 29 motets, ordered according to the number of
parts, going from five to seven. Most motets are based on texts
from the Bible, especially the New Testament. Exceptions are
the motet pair 'Verleih uns Frieden' - 'Gib unsern Fürsten'
(based on texts by Martin Luther and Johann Walter respectively)
and 'O lieber Herre Gott' (again on a text by Luther). In addition
Schütz uses chorales twice: 'Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr'
(Martin Schalling, 1569) and 'Was mein Gott will, das gscheh
allzeit' (Albrecht von Preußen, 1554). Only in the latter does
he keep the chorale melody connected with the text. In the former
he uses the strophic form, but there are no reminiscences to
the original melody. This is no surprise as in his oeuvre Schütz
seldom uses the then common chorale melodies.
Schütz was generally called 'musicus poeticus', referring to his attention
to the text. According to the musicologist Siegfried Schmalzriedt
Schütz mostly uses the so-called 'stylus luxurians communis',
which "occupies a moderate, intermediate position between
those styles which, prior to 1600, had been known as the 'motet-style'
and the 'madrigal-style'. In practical terms this means that
in the majority of the motets in the Geistliche Chormusik
Schütz strives to achieve an expressive setting of the text
while still maintaining the autonomy of the music".
In several motets Schütz uses musical means to emphasize the contrast
between passages, as between "leben" (live) and "sterben"
(die) (Unser keiner lebet ihm selber), "die mit Tränen
säen - werden mit Freuden ernten" (who in sorrow plant
seed - shall gather in rejoicing) (Die mit Tränen säen) or "sie
ruhen von ihrer Arbeit - und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach"
(they rest now from all their labours - and all their works
do follow after them) (Selig sind die Toten). A specific way
to express a contrast in the text is the opposition of polyphony
and homophony, as in 'Tröstet, tröstet mein Volk': "all
the crooked paths then shall be straightened, and the rockiest
place shall be plain then". Homophony is used here to illustrate
the straight and the plain. In the same motet Schütz writes
a unisono figure on "ebene Bahn" (even path). Other
examples of how single words are illustrated: in 'Viel werden
kommen' "Heulen" (wailing) is set to long-held notes,
"Zähnklappern" (gnashing of teeth) on a sequence of
short notes, whereas "ausgestoßen in die Finsternis"
(banished to the darkness) is set to a descending figure. Emphasizing
key elements in the text is also achieved by setting them for
all voices or by repetition of motifs.
In his preface Schütz also indicates how his motets should be performed.
He explicitly refers to the use of both voices and instruments
which can be used in two ways: either the instruments support
the voices (playing 'colla parte') or they replace (one or more
of) them. At the request of his publisher Schütz added a basso
continuo part, but emphasises that this part is not necessary.
There is little to say with any certainty about the number of
performers to be used. The collection was dedicated to the Thomanerchor
and the authorities of Leipzig, and therefore a performance
with a (small) choir is certainly one of the options. In this
performance most motets are performed by the choir, whereas
a handful of pieces are sung by soloists from the choir. Whereas
in most five- and six-part motets the organ (sometimes the theorbo)
supports the choir, the instrumental ensemble is used in the
seven-part motets. The instruments used are violin, three dulcians,
three trombones, viola da gamba, two violones, theorbo and two
organs. In a way it is a bit disappointing that the instruments
have not been used in other motets as well. Also a consort of
viols would certainly have been appropriate in this repertoire.
But the choir gives excellent performances: the sound is crisp and clear,
also thanks to the lack of vibrato. Diction, articulation and
phrasing are immaculate. There are also impressive deliveries
by soloists from the choir. The altos David Erler and Alexander
Schneider give a particularly moving performance of 'Auf dem
A couple of critical remarks: There were times when I would have liked
to have heard a stronger contrast, as in the opening phrases
of 'Die mit Tränen säen' or the passage in 'Selig sind die Toten'
referred to above. In 'Was mein Gott will' two parts are sung
by the altos and the tenors of the choir: I wonder why these
parts are not sung by solo voices, which seems to me a more
logical option. The same can be said of the last item on this
recording, 'Du Schalksknecht', where the tenor part is sung
These remarks take nothing away from my great appreciation of this recording,
which brings the qualities of Schütz's music to the fore.
The booklet contains all texts with a reference to their source and an
Johan van Veen