The vocal music which was written in Germany in the second half of the 17th century has long been neglected. One has the impression that hardly anything valuable was composed between, say, Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. The best-known composer of this period was Dietrich Buxtehude, and even his sacred output has only been discovered fairly recently. Around 2000 Robert King devoted a series of discs to three composers who were the precedessors of Bach as Thomaskantor
in Leipzig: Sebastian Knüpfer (1633-1676), Johann Schelle (1648-1701) and Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722).
Schelle spent his formative years in the electoral chapel in Dresden, which was then under the direction of Heinrich Schütz. At the age of 16 he entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and he continued his studies in music with the then Thomaskantor
Sebastian Knüpfer. Just 22 years old he was appointed Kantor
in Eilenburg and in 1676 was elected to succeed Knüpfer as Thomaskantor
. The Leipzig town council had made an excellent choice as Schelle's reputation soon spread throughout central Germany. "One contemporary witness reports that listeners 'flew in like bees' for the 'sweet honey' of Schelle's church music", Peter Wollny writes in his liner-notes. He connects it with Schelle's style of composing. "What was presented to the audience was a new style - a sweet and delightful sound, combined with carefully-chosen texts and performed with a well-developed sense for big effects and refinement".
The programme which Robert King has chosen for this disc represents various aspects of church music of the late 17th century. It is true that melody plays an important role in Schelle's music but that doesn't mean that he breaks away from the German tradition of counterpoint. The funeral motet Christus ist des Gesetzes Ende
is an impressive example of Schelle's mastery of counterpoint. A motet like this fits well into the tradition of motet-writing by German composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, but in this piece it is enriched by a more up-to-date expressive language. Another tradition is the use of hymns in various ways. In the early 17th century Michael Praetorius composed small-scale and large-scale pieces about the hymns which had been written under the inspiration of Martin Luther. A piece like Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar
, with its scoring for one vocal and three instrumental choirs is strongly reminiscent of Praetorius' large-scale chorale arrangements. Christus der ist mein Leben
is also based on a hymn, but here the melody is treated in a quite different way.
In Herr, lehre uns bedenken
various elements of 17th century German sacred music come together. It begins with a dictum
, a literal quotation from the Bible. This is followed by a free poetic text in four stanzas, reflecting on mortality. Every stanza is followed by a ritornello in which the violin or the viola da gamba play a chorale often associated with death and used as funeral music. Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist
(When my hour has come) and Herzlich tut mich verlangen
(Very sincerely am I yearning for a blessed end) are examples. Speaking of death, one of the most moving pieces is Komm, Jesu, komm
, on a text which Johann Sebastian Bach also used for one of his motets. Like Bach’s motet, Schelle's setting from 1684 - for five voices, here performed with full choir and organ - was composed for a funeral.
The two first pieces reflect different practices of sacred music writing in Germany. Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
is for forces comprising 25 vocalists and instrumental musicians with an alternation of tutti and solo sections. This kind of music was strongly inspired by the style practised in Venice, and is present in the oeuvre of Schütz and later Rosenmüller. It is followed by a sacred concerto for solo voice and instruments, Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet
. The scoring for solo voice allows an evocative setting of the text, with sometimes detailed depiction of single words. Schelle's interest in melody comes especially to the fore in Gott, sende dein Licht
, where he manages to keep the texture of four voices and five instruments transparent, for instance through parallel motion of various parts.
It is very likely that a considerable part of Schelle's oeuvre has been lost. Later generations of musicians in Leipzig treated his music with scant respect or care. It is a matter of good fortune that due to Schelle's great reputation his music was disseminated through central Germany and that about 60 cantatas from his pen have been preserved.
It was a great idea of Robert King to record this selection of sacred works by Johann Schelle. Not only is he an historically interesting and significant composer, his music is also of high quality and is versatile in character. The performances do full justice to Schelle's oeuvre. It seems that King has a good feeling for the character of this repertoire. The rhythmic pulse - which is quite important in this music - is well exposed. The splendour of the large-scale compositions comes off perfectly thanks to the brilliant playing of the strings and wind. The vocalists deliver fine performances too, and their voices blend very well in the tutti sections. Their phrasing and articulation in the solo sections is quite good. It is also noticeable that the pronunciation of some singers is less than perfect. That is also the case with Robin Blaze, who gives an expressive reading of Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet
It is great that this disc has been reissued in the Helios series, like the other discs in this project, with music by Knüpfer and Kuhnau. If you didn’t purchase this recording when it was first released, this is your chance to make up for lost time. Don't miss it.
For those who want to hear more from Schelle I refer to these recordings:-
Schelle: Sacred Concertos and Cantatas - La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (CPO)
Schelle: Actus auf Weyh-Nachten, Christmas Music - La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata/Roland Wilson (deutsche harmonia mundi)
Thomaskantoren vor Bach (Knüpfer, Schelle, Kuhnau) - Cantus Cölln (Harmonia mundi)
Johan van Veen