Christoph DEMANTIUS (1567-1643)
St John Passion - Motets
Steh auf und nimm das Kindlein [2:24]
Und wie Moses in der Wüsten [4:20]
Denn wer sich selbst erhöhet [2:43]
Es ward eine Stille [4:45]
Das ist mir lieb [12:19]
Ich habe euch noch viel zu sagen [2:41]
Passion nach dem Evangelisten Johannes (St John Passion) [18:53]
Weissagung des Leidens und Sterbens Jesu Christi [10:27]
KammerChor Saarbrücken/Georg Grün
rec. 14-16 March 1997, Studio Halberg of Saarland Radio, Saabrücken, Germany. DDD
CHRISTOPHORUS CHE 0149-2 [58:43]

Times of change are often interesting. That is certainly the case with episodes in music history in which aesthetic ideas were changing. One such period was the time around 1600. In Italy the stile concertato was born and gradually broke the dominance of the old polyphonic style. This soon spread around Europe and also reached Germany. Some composers, like Heinrich Schütz, embraced it without ever abandoning counterpoint. Others offered strong resistance and largely held to the dominant church music tradition. One of them was Christoph Demantius.

In the preface to his collection Triades Sioniae of 1619 he stated that music written in the modern style was nothing more than a whim of fashion and wasn't even worth being used as "bags for incense and pepper". Unlike Schütz he hardly ever wrote music with a basso continuo part. In his vocal music he was strongly influenced by Orlandus Lassus, the main composer in Germany in the second half of the 16th century. That is especially reflected in the way Demantius translates texts into music.

As Demantius is one of the lesser-known composers of the early 17th century it is useful to give some biographical information. He was born in Reichenberg in Bohemia - now Liberec in the Czech Republic. He studied at the University of Wittenberg, and then moved to Leipzig. Here his first collection of music was published in the 1590s. In 1597 he was appointed Kantor at Zittau and in 1604 moved to Freiberg where he took a similar position at the cathedral. Here he remained until his death. The fact that he bought his own house and was granted citizenship bears witness to his success and prosperity. He was a versatile composer who wrote sacred and secular vocal music as well as dance music. In addition he published several books, among them the first alphabetical musical dictionary in German.

In his sacred music Demantius preferred a six-part texture, probably reflecting the number of singers he had at his disposal in Freiberg. Although he held firm to the traditional counterpoint there is a much stronger connection between text and music than in most polyphony of the renaissance. Here he showed himself a follower of Lassus, whose music also contains eloquent text expression, among them what is generally called 'madrigalisms'. The six motets which open this disc contain some striking examples of text expression, like Und wie Moses in der Wüsten and Denn wer sich selbst erhöhet. Es ward eine Stille is a masterpiece which begins with an eloquent depiction of the "silence in heaven" and then leads to a vivid description of the battle between the dragon and the archangel Michael. This was written for the Feast of St Michael. In fact, all the motets on this disc were composed for a specific Sunday or feast day of the ecclesiastical year. Unfortunately this is not indicated in the booklet. The texts are all part of the readings of the respective Sundays.

In his motets Demantius also effectively juxtaposes high and low voices. He does the same in his St John Passion which dates from 1631. This is the last example of a motet Passion in history and is set for six voices. Some passages are for high voices, others for the lower, for instance the words of Jesus. There are also short passages for reduced forces, like that about the two thieves crucified at Jesus's left and right. Demantius even goes as far as giving the word "einer" (one - in "one of the soldiers") to a single voice. Like the motets this Passion contains many passages in which the text is vividly illustrated in the music. It begins with an introduction: "Hear the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Gospel of St. John" and ends with a prayer: "We believe, dear Lord, increase our belief. Amen."

To his Passion Demantius added three motets on texts from Chapter 53 of the prophet Isaiah, under the title Weissagung des Leidens und Sterbens Jesu Christi (Prophecy of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ). The first begins with the words "Surely he has borne our griefs", the second with "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted", and the third with "When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin". Parts of these texts were also used by Handel in his oratorio Messiah.

In her programme notes Doris Blaich writes: "Demantius showed in dramatic form in his St John Passion that it was still possible, well after 1600, to compose in an expressive and dramatic way without abandoning the old rules entirely". I fully agree with this judgement, and I would like to extend it to the motets. The way Demantius translates texts into music is most impressive, and in his very own way he is no less expressive than composers who had adopted the modern stile concertato from Italy. The qualities of his music are aptly demonstrated in this recording from 1997 which has now been reissued. As Demantius is rather badly represented on disc this reissue is most welcome. The KammerChor Saarbrücken delivers a completely convincing interpretation of the St John Passion in which every detail of the score is meticulously worked out. Some passages in the Passion are performed with solo voices. I don't know if the score gives any indication about that, and I also don't know how many singers Demantius had at his disposal. But a performance with a choir like this - the booklet doesn't give the number of singers - seems to me justified, at least musically.

This disc is a very interesting and worthwhile addition to the catalogue of discs with Passion music. Demantius is one of the German composers of around 1600 who deserves much more attention. Those who would like to hear more of him should look for a recording of "Vespers for Whitsunday" by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel (Harmonia mundi).

Johan van Veen

Demantius' expressive music in the stile antico is given immaculate performances.