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Musicalische Exequien - German Funeral Music of the 17th Century
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
Threnus a 6 voci (Ich will schweigen) [5:20]
Andreas GLEICH (1622-1693)
Selig sind die Toten [4:37]
Sebastian KNÜPFER (1633-1676)
Erforsche mich, Gott [4:30]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281) [32:12]
Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701)
Ich weiß, dass mein Erlöser lebet [5:02]
Johann Georg EBELING (1637-1676)
Ein Tag in deinen Vorhöfen [4:25]
Johann KESSEL (17th C)
Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden [4:33]
Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1617-1684)
Was ist es doch? Was ist der Menschen Leben? [5:09]
Voces Suaves/Johannes Strobl
Rec. 2020, Alte Kirche Boswil Künstlerhaus, Boswil, Switzerland
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
ARCANA A483 [65:56]

Death plays an important role in the music of the renaissance and baroque eras. It was a daily experience: wars and disasters made many victims, and so did diseases which have now practically disappeared, like the plague. Moreover, relatively few children survived their first year. In a time in which almost everyone believed in God it was only logical that people turned to their faith and the Church in times of sorrow. That resulted in a large number of compositions which are related to suffering and death. And as music was a part of everyday life, it is only logical that it was also a fixed element of funeral ceremonies of members of the higher echelons of society.

Most of Johann Sebastian Bach's motets were composed for funerals. In the oeuvre of Heinrich Schütz one can also find a number of pieces which were written at the occasion of the death of a particular person or were suited for funerals. The most famous of them is the main work on this disc, the Musicalische Exequien. It was performed in February 1636 during the funeral of Herr Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß, who had died on 3 December of the previous year. He himself had painstakingly outlined every detail of his funeral. He should be buried in a copper coffin which should be adorned with 22 texts he himself had chosen. They were partly taken from the Bible and partly extracts from various hymns. It is often written that Herr von Reuß himself had asked Schütz to set them to music, but the Schütz scholar Werner Breig believes that it is more likely that Schütz received the commission from his widow and sons.

The Musicalische Exequien are divided into three sections. Part 1 contains the quotations from the Bible and from hymns which are set in the form of a German Mass - it says: Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Missa. The quotations from the Bible are set as little sacred concertos, the hymns as 6-part motets. Schütz doesn't use the chorale melodies which were deployed by so many other German composers. Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis), Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace"). Here Schütz has added that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text "Selig sind die Toten" (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

The Musicalische Exequien are available in quite a number of recordings, at it is generally considered one of the great masterworks of Heinrich Schütz, and generally of the 17th century. The nice thing about this disc is that this work is put into a historical context. The performers have added other German music written at the occasion of funerals. Most of these pieces have been prepared specifically for this recording and appear here for the first time on disc.

Cosimo Stawiarski, the author of the liner-notes and a specialist in 17th-century German Protestant church music, points out that although the music on this disc spans a period of about seventy years, it shows a strong stylistic coherence. He concludes that "certain conventions for composing funeral music developed over time, and that they remained impervious to the necessity of keeping up with the general evolution in musical styles, instead preserving the validity of their original form for decades". Among the features of funeral music, including the pieces included on this disc, is the use of the cori spezzati technique. The writing for two choirs, which had been developed in Venice, but which roots in the age-old practice of antiphonal singing in church, had been enthusiastically embraced by German composers of around 1600, such as Michael Praetorius and, after his return from his time as a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli, also Heinrich Schütz. Even in those pieces where the vocal forces are not formally separated into two groups, composers created a kind of polychorality by juxtaposing high and low voices. Other contrasts are between episodes for tutti and for solo voices - as in Schütz's Musicalische Exequien - and between polyphony and homophony.

All but one of the pieces are settings of texts from the Bible. That can easily be explained from the fact that the Bible was considered the foundation of faith in Lutheran thinking. The only exception is Was ist es doch? Was ist der Menschen Leben? by Johann Rosenmüller, whose strophic text was written by Johann Georg Schoch and set homophonically. It dates from 1654 - that is before Rosenmüller moved to Venice - and was written for the funeral of Polycarpus Wirthen. Another notable feature is that most texts are not so much plaintive; they rather express the hope of the faithful that they can leave behind the trials and tribulations of everyday life and can enjoy life everlasting. The text from Revelation 14, 'Blessed are the dead', is not only included in the Musicalische Exequien, but was also set by Andreas Gleich, a composer who had close ties to Schütz: he published his Symphoniae Sacrae II and accompanied Schütz on his third travel to Copenhagen. He worked from 1648 until his death in 1693 as Kantor at the Lateinschule in Gera. This funeral motet was published in Leipzig in 1651. Notable in this piece is the harmonic tension on the words "they may rest from their labours", undoubtedly illustrating the tribulations of daily life.

Johann Georg Ebeling, who worked in Berlin and Stettin, and who is mainly important for his collection of hymn harmonisations, set three verses of Psalm 84, expressing the joy of living near to God: "For a day in thy court is better than a thousand elsewhere", here an expression of the life in the hereafter. In the same vein is Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden, a setting of verses from three letters of St Paul: "I desire to depart and be with Christ". I could not find any information about its composer, Johann Kessel; the liner-notes don't include any biographical data about the composers in the programme.

Apart from hope on life everlasting, funeral pieces could also reflect on human sin and the need of penance. That is expressed in Sebastian Knüpfer's Erforsche mich, Gott, a setting of two verses from Psalm 139: "Search me, O God, and know my heart. (...) See if there be any wicked way in me". Johann Hermann Schein set verses from psalm 39 in his Threnus a 6 voci, which includes the phrase: "Remove thy stroke away from me; I am consumed by the blow of thine hand". This is one of the few pieces which were written for the funeral of someone still known: the Duchess Dorothea Maria of Saxe. Schein served her son, Duke Johann Ernst the Younger, as Kapellmeister in Weimar, before becoming Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The piece opens with the words "I want to be silent and not open my mouth", which is dominated by the low voices.

Schütz was generally recognized as a master of text expression; hence his nickname musicus poeticus. However, he was not the only one who knew how to depict a text in music. This disc includes plenty examples of the great skills of German composers in this department, as they were thoroughly educated in musical rhetorics and the Affektenlehre (the theory of affetti). The nature of the texts they set for funerals gave many opportunities to demonstrate those skills. This disc is an impressive testimony of the quality of German church music in the 17th century.

It is also a testimony of the qualities of the ensemble Voces Suaves, which comprises outstanding singers with voices that are ideally suited for this repertoire. In the solo episodes they show their command of a declamatory way of singing, which is needed in order to communicate the texts, which always need to be in the centre of attention. Together they deliver incisive performances of the pieces selected for this project. My only reservation is that the sopranos are sometimes a bit too loud and too dominant.

Even if you have one or more recordings of Schütz's Musicalische Exequien in your collection, this disc is well worth having, because of the excellent performance of this piece, but certainly also because of the additional pieces, each of which is of high quality.

Johan van Veen

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