Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Musical reconstruction by Roland Wilson
Magdalene Harer (soprano) Cupid/a nymph
Magdalena Podkoscielna (soprano) Venus/a nymph
Marie Luise Werneburg (soprano) Dafne
David Erler (alto) a shepherd
Tobias Hunger (tenor) Apollo
Georg Poplutz (tenor) Ovidus/a shepherd
Joachim Höchbauer (bass) a shepherd
La Capella Ducale/Roland Wilson
rec. 2021, Kirche ‘Zür frohen Botschaft’ Berlin - Karlshorst
CPO 555494-2 
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wrote music for the pastoral tragic-comedy, Dafne, which is based on one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Venus and Cupid punish Apollo’s boastful love for the nymph Daphne by turning her into a laurel.
But that music is lost. There is no extant opera by Schütz called Dafne.
Roland Wilson (born in 1956 in Leeds) is a trumpet and cornett player who now lives in Germany. In 1976 he founded Musica Fiata, which specialises in baroque wind music. He has very speculatively reconstructed the opera by using a dozen of the composer’s other works; by adapting music by Marco da Gagliano (1582-1643), Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), Biagio Marini (1594-1663), Alessandro Grandi (1590-1630); and by using Schütz’s own German adaptation of Claudio Monteverdi’s canzonetta ‘Chiome d’oro’.
These are successfully wrapped around the spine of a libretto for the early opera, which has survived: that by the highly thought-of German poet Martin Opitz, 1597-1639 - a German adaptation of the original opera by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621).
Schütz’s original - presumably in its entirety - was first performed in April 1627 to celebrate the wedding between Sophie Eleonore, the daughter of the Elector of Saxony, and Georg II, the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Now, only a single galliard, by Carlo Farina (ca. 1600-1639), of what we know for sure was part of that original music for Dafne survives. Its existence may go some way towards supporting the contention of the musicologist Wolfram Steude that Dafne, and/or the occasion of its performance constituted a medley of music and dance for which Schütz was but one composer who contributed to a collection, or pastiche.
Other specialists in the field both refute this contention… Elisabeth Rothmund, for instance, uses the fact that (as far as we know) members of the Hofkapelle - rather than actors - performed Dafne. So for her it was more of a musical-theatrical event than a(n incidental) ‘show’ to accentuate the spectacle and import of the wedding celebrations.
Michael Heinemann emphasises Schütz’s relative inexperience at the time. Assuming that Dafne was performed reasonably soon after its composition, the composer would have been barely into his 40s. Surely that must be weighed in assessing the musical components of an elaborate and very public work.
It should also be remembered that ‘borrowing’ musical themes, ideas and even original material from other composers was common and widely accepted at this time. Schütz had already been to Venice at least once and studied with Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554 or 1557-1612). Indeed he was there again a year after the wedding for which Dafne was written and performed. What’s more, these years were exciting ones for the development of opera - especially in Italy.
This all makes helps to legitimise any overview which emphasises cross-fertilisation as a permissible fillip to dramatic music, innovation and excitement at the possibilities of experimentation - rather than tempting to regret that Dafne isn’t, may never have been, certainly hasn’t survived as a self-contained dramatic edifice by the great Schütz.
The composer did write other ‘ceremonial’ music: Wohl dem, der ein tugendsam Weib hat (SWV 20) and Haus und Güter erbet man von Eltern (SWV 21) were written in 1618 for weddings. Wie wenn der Adler sich aus seiner Klippe schwingt (SWV 434) and Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener (SWV 432,3) for an engagement in 1651 and funeral in 1657 respectively. But Dafne is his only opera as such and we should be grateful for Wilson’s work in ‘rescuing’ it and providing us with a performance as full of integrity and musical delights as this.
This reconstruction consists of seven numbers: a brief Intrada and Vorredner (prologue) lasting a total of under ten minutes; these are an instrumental introduction and a narrative setting of the scene by Ovid. Then come five acts of between just over six and nearly 18 minutes each. Fortunately - and to Wilson’s credit - a unity and compelling sense of impetus is achieved, perhaps contrary to what might be expected given the diverse sources from which the whole is taken.
So how well does the reconstruction work? Does putative faithfulness to the original matter? Has it been achieved? Is this a recording which illuminates our appreciation of arguably Germany’s leading composer of his generation? In all cases, is the resulting music (the only Schütz Dafne to exist) worthy of our attention?
By and large the answer is Yes. Above all, the ’story’ as adapted from Ovid makes sense in its own terms. The balance of aria, ensemble, chorus and exposition plays a large part in ensuring that.
Thanks to the libretto as much as anything the unfolding of the myth can be followed; it engages us. The music and treatments suit the idea of Daphne’s fate. Not once does Wilson’s realisation introduce spurious or extraneous distractions. Yet the music - for all its diverse roots - supports the whole as Opitz surely intended.
Where dramatic ‘reinforcement’ is required - towards the close of the third act as criticism of Apollo grows to become unstoppable [tr.5], for instance - Wilson brings in just the right amount of volume and accentuation of musical force. When tenderness or reflection are more appropriate (as at the start of the fifth act [tr.7]), in contrast, there is lightness of touch to convey Apollo and Daphne’s reflection and sorrow.
The singers and instrumentalists are all well in step with the idiom. Enunciation is clear. They achieve just the right balance between the dramatically expressive and the functional… narrative, recitative, summation. Notable is the dynamic range which the various soloists and members of the instrumental ensemble achieve: variety and contrast are their hallmarks.
Perhaps a touch more ‘zip’ could have been introduced into their attack at times, given that the music which they are performing has claims to be the first German opera. It is certainly a product of a genre which is barely a generation old. But the balance achieved between instrument families and voices is clean and effective in moving the story along.
Wilson’s approach pulls out those aspects of Daphne’s fate which we relate to - even without much knowledge of Ovid’s treatment: loss, compromises, consequences. Wilson has used his expertise in music of the early Baroque and the musicological challenges of reconstruction to great effect. He is in no doubt about what he called the ‘foolhardy venture’ of conjuring up an opera from what would at first sight appear to be next to nothing. But he’s made it work.
His process is a combination of intelligent adaptation of Schütz’s music written on other occasions; others’ music which works because of its sympathy with the libretto; Schütz’s other works which fit in terms of tone, mood and build - though lacking in purpose. There are even a few occasions when Schütz appears to have (already?) written music encompassing or alluding to parallel, redolent or at best even similar emotions and situations. For example, the Güldne Haare, gleich Aurore (SWV 440) suits Apollo’s ‘golden locks’ very well and so may perhaps have needed little adaptation for Apollo’s first aria [tr.3]. Similarly, the composer’s lament, O du kleine nackter Schutz (SWV 501) on the death of his wife was written only a year or so before Dafne and so seemed like an obvious choice for Daphne’s having to lose her father.
There are no major, impressive set pieces in Dafne as we are familiar with in much of Monteverdi’s music - which Dafne understandably often resembles. But then there is a uniformity and gentle calm to the music which is persuasive as one grows used to the pace at which it is taken by Wilson. Indeed, so obvious and compelling is the sense of empathy in the music that one might almost be tempted to wonder how well the tensions and transformations of Ovid’s myth suited what was presumably the happy occasion of the wedding at all.
The acoustic of the ‘Zür frohen Botschaft’ church in Berlin’s Karlshorst district is close, not too resonant but allows the essence of the music to come forward as we listen. Of note, for instance, are the immediacy yet gentility of the harmonies achieved by the ensemble singers.
The booklet that comes with this single CD contains brief bios with photos of Wilson, Musica Fiata and soloists; the full text in German and English; but only a few pages on the background to Dafne and its reconstruction. More - maybe an even closer set of parallels detailing exactly how each of the seven numbers of Dafne was arrived at - would have been welcome.
That is a small point, though. Lovers of Schütz’s music have known of the existence of Dafne all along. Yet it has been a blank in the catalogues. The elegance and absence of effusiveness in a production which never deprives the listener of colour and emotion probably means that we are unlikely to be offered another such realisation in the near future.
Anyone collecting the music of this still underrated composer who is nevertheless rightly regarded as the most important German composer before Bach should not hesitate to add Dafne on cpo to their collection.
Published: November 4, 2022