In the 17th century music was part of everyday life. Whether for
weddings, funerals, birthdays or name-days or affairs of state,
music was a natural part of any celebration. In addition music
was required for religious services in churches and court chapels.
Aristocrats liked to pass the time with performances of music
by their court chapel. As a result there was much employment for
performing musicians and composers, especially in Germany with its many aristocratic courts
and largely autonomous cities with their many churches.
This doesn't mean everything was rosy for composers of that time. There
was much employment but also stiff competition between composers;
not all applications were successful. Also they had to face
sometimes unpleasant working conditions and the effects of the
tribulations of courtly life. Sometimes an employer had to make
drastic cutbacks, for instance by disbanding the court chapel.
The employer might die and be succeeded by someone who didn't
care that much about music in general or the music of that Kapellmeister
in particular. There wasn't a lot a composer could do about
it: he moved in aristocratic circles, but wasn't part of them;
when all was said and done he was the plaything of circumstance.
The German composer Christian Geist is a good example of a composer
who didn't have it all his own way. There was nothing wrong
with his musical education. He was born in Güstrow in Mecklenburg, and his first teacher was his father Joachim, who was Kantor at the
cathedral school in Güstrow. He was able to learn from the musicians
active in the city at the time, like the Kapellmeister Daniel
Danielis whose compositions show a mixture of Italian and French
elements, and the vice-Kapellmeister Augustin Pfleger. In 1669
he went to Copenhagen to broaden his horizons, but he
wasn't able to find a job as a musician. In 1670 he went to
Stockholm, where he became a member of the
court chapel under Gustav Düben. But they didn't get along all
that well, and in 1674 Geist tried to succeed Christoph Bernhard
as director of church music in Hamburg.
This was to no avail. In 1679 he became organist of the German
church in Gothenburg. The working conditions were bad: there
was no money for additional musicians, and the organ was hardly
usable. In addition he often didn't get paid. In 1684 he went
again, and succeeded the organist Martin Radeck, marrying his
widow in the process. In 1711 he died of the bubonic plague,
together with his third wife and all his children.
Although he was mainly working as an organist very little organ music
has survived. His almost complete output which has been preserved
consists of sacred vocal music. Most of it dates from the 1670s,
and is part of the so-called Düben collection in the library
of Uppsala University. He uses
various forms which were in vogue in his time.
The pieces written on a Latin text are called 'motetto' in the autographs.
The disc opens with such a motet, written for Easter. The Alleluia
which begins and closes the motet is for five voices; the text
in between is set for soprano solo. The instrumental scoring
is the most common of the time: two violins and bc. The most
striking example of text expression here is the chromaticism
on "mori" (die).
'Beati omnes, qui timent Dominum' is a setting of Psalm 127 for the
common scoring of solo voice (here a bass), two violins and
bc. The next piece is in another frequently used form: the dialogue.
Here it is a dialogue between the angel (soprano) and the shepherds
(two tenors and bass). The closing "Gloria in excelsis"
contains florid passages for the soprano. Another piece for
Christmas is the motet 'Altitudo, quid hic jaces': "Highness,
why do you lie here in such a squalid stable?" The first
line contains a contrast between "altitudo" (an ascending
figure) and "jaces" (at low pitch). The piece consists
of three stanzas which begin with a section for solo voice (soprano
and bass) which is followed by a three-part section. Every stanza
is closed by the refrain, also for the three voices: "O
what miracles you made, Jesus, for mankind? Whom you so ardently
loved was from Paradise exiled". After the first stanza a ritornello with chromatic descending
figures reflects the last line: "why do you shiver in a
A second Psalm setting is 'Dixit Dominus' (Psalm 110), which is divided
among soli and tutti. In the verse "conquassabit capita
in terra multorum" Geist makes use of the 'stile concitato',
reflecting the Italian influence in his oeuvre. This verse is
set for the full ensemble. 'Vater unser' is a chorale fantasia
in which the soprano sings the cantus firmus and the strings
provide the counterpoint. 'Schöpfe Hoffnung, meine Seele' is
a so-called Lied-Kantate, a cantata on a strophic text
of free poetry. Here the strophic form is limited to the text;
the musical material varies from one stanza to the other. The
stanzas are divided over soli and tutti; every stanza is followed
by a ritornello, for one or two violins and bc. The ritornelli
for solo violin contain florid passages.
'Es war aber an der Stätte' is written for Passiontide and tells about
the burial of Jesus. This piece begins with words from the gospel,
and these are followed by a setting of the chorale 'O Traurigkeit!
O Herzeleid!', containing chromatic descending figures. I assume
Geist has set all eight stanzas; here only stanzas 1, 3, 5 and
8 are sung. The piece is set for alto solo with three viole
da gamba and bc, which was a quite usual scoring for a lamento
'Domine ne secundum peccata nostra' is a setting of two verse and response
pairs from a Lenten litany, for four voices, two violins and
bc. The disc ends with a funeral motet 'Die mit Tränen säen'.
This is a co-called concerto-aria cantata, a form
frequently favoured by Geist's colleague Buxtehude. It begins
with verses from Psalm 126: "Those who sow in tears will
reap with cries of joy. The souls of the righteous are in the
hand of God and no torment shall touch them". This is followed
by five stanzas of free poetry written by Geist's brother Samuel.
This work, scored for five voices, three viole da gamba and
bc, was written for the funeral of Anna Margreta Wrangel, wife
of Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel, who was the Lord High Constable
of Sweden and one of the most powerful men in the country. The
fact that Geist composed music for the funeral is evidence of
The music of Christian Geist now and then appears in recordings with
17th-century German sacred music. Considering the quality of
his music it is enjoyable that a whole disc has been devoted
to his output. Searching on MusicWeb I found another
disc exclusively filled with music by Geist. Obviously I
don't know that disc, but it is good fortune that only one piece
appears on both discs (Dixit Dominus). This means that this
new disc is a real addition to the catalogue.
The performances do Geist's music justice. The singers all have very
nice voices and generally blend well; they also understand what
it takes to sing this kind of music in an appropriate manner.
Their German pronunciation is pretty good, although there are
several moments where one can hear they are not German speakers.
The players also perform at a high level and seem to understand
the idiom of German instrumental music.
The booklet contains informative programme notes, and all lyrics are
printed with an English translation. The listing of the artists
taking part in the various items is not quite accurate, though.
Just a couple of critical remarks. Mária Zádori is sometimes a bit
out of step with the ensemble. The florid passages on "Gloria
in excelsis" in 'Pastores dicite' are a bit too operatic,
and sometimes her voice doesn't blend perfectly with the ensemble.
Her colleague Ágnes Pintér has no such problems. I find it odd
that the Latin texts are pronounced in the Italian manner, which
is definitely not historically justifiable. And it is somewhat
disappointing that in the lamento 'Es war aber an der Stätte'
only four of the eight stanzas of the chorale are sung. With
the way Péter Barány sings this piece I wouldn't mind hearing
all of them. Apart from that this chorale has a very expressive
text and melody.
These points of criticism do not diminish my appreciation of this disc
in any way, though. Everyone interested in German music of the
17th century will enjoy this recording.
Johan van Veen