Heinrich Schütz

The German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is credited with an important role in bringing the Italian baroque style to Germany.

Born in Köstritz, Saxony, to prosperous, middle-class parents, Heinrich Schütz learned the rudiments of music in the chapel choir of Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. In 1608 Schütz entered the University of Marburg to study law, but when the landgrave, who recognized his extraordinary musical gift, offered to support him, Schütz was able to leave for Venice in 1609 to study with Giovanni Gabrieli. Schütz returned in 1613 after his teacher's death.

While in Italy, Schütz published his first collection, Il primo libro de madrigali (1611), dedicated to Landgrave Moritz. These 19 chromatic madrigals reveal the close attention Schütz was always to give both the syntax and content of his texts. Even more Italianate are the Psalmen Davids (1619), published after the composer became kapellmeister to Johann Georg, Elector of Saxony, in Dresden. In these 26 works, composed for multiple groups of vocal and instrumental soloists, reinforced by two or more choruses, Schütz brought to northern Europe the colorful, polychoral methods of his beloved master, Gabrieli. The music, of overwhelming grandeur, was written for the enhancement of the Protestant liturgy and the edification of the court.

Schütz's Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi (1623), the Easter Story, was his first oratorio in the Italian style. While the Evangelist performs solos to the accompaniment of four viols, the roles of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are sung as duets over the basso continuo. In his next important work, the Cantiones sacrae (1625), Schütz seemed to return to the older polyphonic style. But their chromaticism, "madrigalisms" illustrating the text, and intensely subjective qualities relate these sacred songs more closely to the madrigals of 1611.

To fulfill his task of transforming church music through the southern concerted style, Schütz made a second pilgrimage to Italy in 1628. Now he studied the techniques of Claudio Monteverdi as he observed them in the vocal and instrumental writing of the great Italian. The first fruits of the visit appeared the following year as part 1 of Schütz's Symphoniae sacrae. Solo singing with obbligato instruments over the continuo—such was the new style exemplified by the masterpiece of this first collection, Fili mi, Absalon.

A short while after Schütz returned to Germany, he found musical activity severely curtailed because of the religious wars raging throughout Saxony. During the 1630s and early 1640s he stayed only intermittently at Dresden, obtaining permission from the elector to work in Copenhagen, Wolfenbüttel, Hanover, and Weimar. Because of limited resources, the master now wrote shorter compositions for one to five parts with continuo. Two such collections were issued in 1636 and 1639 with the title Kleine Geistliche Konzerte.

By 1647 conditions at the Saxon court had improved somewhat, and Schütz released part 2 of his Symphoniae sacrae. Unlike part 1, which had Latin settings for voices and various obbligato instruments, part 2 was set to German words and used only the strings and continuo. In part 3 of the Symphoniae sacrae (1650) Schütz joined the polychoral writing of his early Psalmen Davids with the soloistic style he learned from Monteverdi. The masterpiece Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? is scored for a six-voice ensemble, two four-voice choruses, and two obbligato instrumental parts. In few of his later pieces did he go beyond the resources of these compositions, which are truly cantatas.

Although Schütz was the foremost German protagonist of the new baroque style, he did not foresee that his apparent deemphasis of counterpoint would persuade younger compatriots to abandon it. By 1648 this danger had become so manifest that Schütz was persuaded to publish his Geistliche Chormusik, a collection of 29 motets in the older style, to show young composers "before they proceed to concertizing music to crack this hard nut (wherein the true kernel and the right foundation of good counterpoint is to be sought) and to pass their first tests in this category." Schütz obviously viewed his artistic mission as a union of counterpoint and stile recitativo, a cappella and concertato, rather than as a rejection of the older Flemish style.

In 1665 Schütz completed three Passions according to Luke, John, and Matthew. What first impresses us in these works is their external austerity. Gone are the instrumentally accompanied recitative of the Easter Story and the polychoral writing with instruments in part 3 of the Symphoniae sacrae. Here the Bible narrative is sung a cappella with solo portions chanted in a "Germanized" plainsong.

Even though these works seem archaic, it would be incorrect to believe that Schütz rejected his entire mission of a concerted, soloistic church music. Only a year or two before, he had composed the Historia der Freuden-und Gnaden-reichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi, the Christmas Story, in the richly concerted style he had espoused for over 50 years. In the Passions he abandoned the luxuriant apparatus for pure chant and polyphony, in part as an object lesson to younger composers and in part to demonstrate that his own era could still use the a cappella style of the past.

Schütz passed the last of his 55 years of service to the elector of Saxony in Weissenfels and in Dresden, where he died. Through his efforts German church music took on features we easily recognize as baroque. In the way he put polyphony on an equal footing with the new concerted style, Schütz resembles Monteverdi, who also brought the past into the present and subjected it to a new esthetic.


Further Reading on Heinrich Schütz

Hans J. Moser, Heinrich Schütz: His Life and Work (1936; trans. 1959), is the most complete study of the master. The music of Schütz in relation to his contemporaries is treated in Manfred E. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947), and in Claude V. Palisca, Baroque Music (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Geier, Martin, Music in the service of the church: the funeral sermon for Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1984.

Horton, John, Schütz: October 1585-6 November 1672, London:Novello, 1986.