Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Schütz’ second volume of Sacred Symphonies appeared in 1647. In his preface to the work, Schütz wrote that while in Italy in 1629, he had written a number of pieces in Latin in the current Italian style that he had published under the name Symphoniae Sacrae. It did not take long for them to gain popularity in Germany, and many were performed with German text underlay instead of the original Latin. This prompted Schütz to put together a collection of similar works, this time with German texts. He began the project right away, but did not bring it to completion and publication till years later in 1647 after a rather lengthy silence.

Schütz had been hampered in his musical pursuits by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  It is estimated that in rural areas, 40% of the German population died during this period of time and that around a third of the population in the cities was wiped out. In these circumstances, many churches had to scale back their music programs due to conditions of poverty, or in some cases because of the death of the musicians. Therefore, Schütz thought it better to wait to publish the work until the end of the war was in sight, allowing conditions in which the collection might sell a little better. It is also notable that these pieces require relatively few performers so that chapels with little resources could still perform them.
Another important factor delaying the completion and publication of Symphoniae Sacrae II was that Schütz believed that the Italian style of performance he had witnessed in Italy during his 1629 sojourn still remained somewhat obscure in Germany. Not only was the manner of singing the most current Italian music different from what the more conservative German musicians were used to, the music was also written using a newer and still uncomfortable notation system. He points out that music written in this manner is "often very badly performed, and so badly wrecked and mutilated that it would do nothing but arouse disgust in any careful listeners ear." Because the Symphoniae Sacrae were written in this new manner, he feared that releasing them to ignorant performers would only do himself and his music a disservice. After a time however, he realized that some of the music was being performed anyway and worse yet, from faulty manuscript copies so he resolved to publish the music so that people would at least sing from the correct notes.

All of the pieces require significant vocal agility. He makes the same demands from the violins and the voices, treating the voice instrumentally much as in Monteverdi’s music. Another feature of this new style was to preserve as much as possible the rhythm and accentuation of spoken German in the musical setting of the text. He also makes every effort to paint pictures in sound of any evocative word. The musicologist and Reformation scholar Dr. Robin Leaver posits that “To Schütz, music exists only in connection with the text; music without words never did inspire him to any artistic achievement, since such a composition would be deprived of the very foundation of his music.” Schütz’ great concern was to the preserve the unity of word and tone.

©Andrus Madsen, with edits by Ryan Turner

Back to Other Notes & Translations