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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672)
Complete Works - Volume 15
Becker-Psalter, Op. 5 (selection)
Dresdner Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Dademann
Margaret Baumgartl (violin), Thomas Friedlaender (cornett), Matthias Müller (violone), Stefan Maass (theorbo), Michaela Hasselt (organ)
rec. 2016, Weinbergkirche 'Zum Heiligen Geist', Dresden-Pilnitz, Germany
Texts included, no translations
CARUS 83.276 [73:15]

One of Martin Luther's main contributions to Christian liturgy is the chorale. His ideal was to have the congregation sing and to that end he encouraged poets to write hymns and composers to set them to music in such a way that they could be sung together by the faithful and were not too hard to memorize. It would take some time before the congregations started to sing them in church. First they had to become acquainted with the melodies and lyrics, which was not that easy, as most people were unable to read. Until the 17th century hymns were mainly taught in schools and sung by school choirs during worship, especially Saturday Vespers.

For Luther the Book of Psalms was a particularly important part of the Bible. He called it “a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended, and compacted into an enchiridion or Manual”. Some of his own hymns are versifications of psalms; the most famous of them is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, based on Psalm 46. Even so, he never aimed at the creation of a complete Psalter, in contrast to his French colleague John Calvin, who gave the first impulse to what would become known as the Huguenot or Genevan Psalter. In the absence of a German equivalent the lawyer and humanist Ambrosius Lobwasser published the Genevan Psalter in a German translation, with the original Genevan melodies. This Psalter was very successful and was widely disseminated across Germany. However, it met strong resistance from Lutheran spiritual leaders. In 1602 Cornelius Becker, professor of theology in Leipzig, came up with an alternative. He published his own rhymed version of the Psalms, which could be sung to pre-existing hymn melodies.

It is not entirely clear what exactly his and other Lutherans’ problems with the Genevan Psalter were. Otto Brodde, in his biography of Heinrich Schütz, writes that the difference was in the valuation of the Psalms and their place in the Bible. According to Calvin, the Psalms were inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore the poets should stay as closely as possible to the original text. Luther, on the other hand, saw the Psalms as ‘Christ’s songs’ and interpreted them from a New Testament angle. This gave the opportunity to include elements that did not appear in the original text. An example is Psalm 2, the second piece in the present recording, where in the first line of the second verse not only God but also Christ is mentioned. The extent to which the content of the Psalters actually differs, can only be determined through a detailed comparison of the texts of the entire Psalter, but that is obviously beyond the scope of this review. It is quite possible that the general antagonism between Lutherans and Calvinists may have played at least as important a role as concrete differences of opinion about the Psalm versifications as such. The Lutherans were certainly afraid of any increase in the influence of Calvinism. Various editions with harmonizations, for instance by Thomaskantor Sethus Calvisius, attest to the popularity of the Becker-Psalter. Even so, it failed to replace the Genevan Psalter in Lobwasser’s translation. The latter was still used in the second half of the 18th century; after that it was gradually replaced by hymns based on free poetry.

The court in Dresden was one of the places where the Becker-Psalter was received with enthusiasm. It was given official status and this explains why Schütz occupied himself with it. In this context, it should be noted that the Lutheran chorale plays a relatively minor role in his oeuvre. He doesn’t seem to have had that much interest in the adaptation of these hymns. Schütz had a great sensitivity towards the relationship between text and music. It brought him the nickname musicus poeticus. The above-mentioned Brodde suggests that exactly here lies the problem: in a hymn with various stanzas the music has to fit the text of each stanza. Because of that, the possibilities to write a melody that depicts the lyrics - which was Schütz’s ideal - are very limited.

Schütz’s settings of the Becker-Psalter were published in 1628; he dedicated them to Hedwig, widow of the Saxon Elector Christian II, brother of his employer Johann Georg. In the foreword he notes that he had already sung psalms from this collection with the choirboys of the court chapel. It is remarkable that he had already provided several psalms with his own melodies for these occasions. He was clearly not satisfied with the connection between the psalms and the hymn melodies on which they should be sung. He aimed for a closer connection between lyrics and melody, as close as the stanza structure allowed. In the writing of his own melodies he was guided by two examples. The first, ironically enough, was the rhythm of the Genevan Psalter, whose French melodies were rejected by Becker as too sensual. In addition, Schütz wanted to find a middle way between the popular song and the more sophisticated music intended for choirs.

Schütz provided only a part of the Becker-Psalter with melodies. Much later, in 1661, they were re-issued in a revised and elaborated version, at the request of Elector Johann Georg II. All settings are for four voices. The first version was intended for a capella performance, but in the revised version Schütz - probably because the market asked for it - added a basso seguente. The present recording is based on the edition of 1661.

How should these Psalms be performed? In the Dresden court chapel they were probably sung with a vocal ensemble of more than one voice per part. Perhaps now and then instruments were added, playing colla voce. But as they were published, there are certainly more options. It is reasonable to assume that these Psalms were sung at home by the faithful, for example with solo voices and a capella, or with the support of a lute or a viola da gamba. It is also perfectly legitimate to use different line-ups within one psalm, for instance various combinations of voices and instruments. All kind of options are included here, which results in much variety.

Whether or not you appreciate these Psalms by Schütz depends on your own taste. If you consider chorales - for instance in Bach's oratorios and cantatas - as boring interruptions of ‘real’ music, you should ignore this disc. Others can enjoy the beautiful lyrics in German (unfortunately the booklet omits English translations), which Schütz has so effectively set to music and harmonized. Obviously, you don’t need to listen to them at a stretch. I did, and I greatly enjoyed them. But then I am someone who thinks that German hymns - and the Genevan Psalter, for that matter - are among the best things that have ever been contributed to Western music. If you don’t like these Psalms, it is certainly not the fault of the singers in this recording. They deliver excellent performances; the text is always in the centre and clearly intelligible.

This disc offers only a selection from the Becker-Psalter. It is to be hoped that the other psalms will also be recorded in the course of this project. After all, this disc is part of what is presented as a “complete recording” of Schütz's oeuvre. Then a mere selection does not suffice.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

Der Herr sprach zu meim Herren (Psalm 110) (SWV 208) [3:20]
Was haben doch die Leut im Sinn (Psalm 2) (SWV 98) [5:08]
Ach Herr, mein Gott, straf mich doch nicht (Psalm 6) (SWV 102) [3:07]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (Psalm 130) (SWV 235) [3:46]
Es ist ein Freud dem Herzen mein (Psalm 122) (SWV 227) [2:44]
Mit Dank wir sollen loben (Psalm 8) (SWV 104) [2:59]
Wer nicht sitzt im Gottlosen Rat (Psalm 1) (SWV 97) [2:17]
Wie sehr lieblich und schöne (Psalm 84) (SWV 181) [4:35]
Wohl dem, der in Gottesfurcht steht (Psalm 128) (SWV 233) [1:53]
Ich heb mein Augen sehnlich auf (Psalm 121) (SWV 226) [3:24]
Danket dem Herren, gebt ihm Ehr (Psalm 136) (SWV 241) [9:03]
Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt (Psalm 23) (SWV 120) [2:30]
Ich will von Herzen danken Gott dem Herren (Psalm 111) (SWV 209) [6:04]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Psalm 98) (SWV 196) [2:13]
Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt (Psalm 100) (SWV 198) [1:25]
An Wasserflüssen Babylon (Psalm 137) (SWV 242) [5:39]
Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren (Psalm 103) (SWV 201) [4:01]
Wenn Gott einmal erlösen wird (Psalm 126) (SWV 231) [2:02]
Nicht uns, nicht uns, Herr, lieber Gott (Psalm 115) (SWV 213) [4:23]
Lobt Gott in seinem Heiligtum (Psalm 150) (SWV 255) & Alles was Odem hat (Responsory) (SWV 256) [2:33]



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