Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

The appointed psalm for the Third Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary is Psalm 116. This gigantic setting of Psalm 116 dates from five years past Schütz's "graduation exam", the stupendous Italian Madrigals. This work can be comfortably compared to the greatest Italian madrigals of Monteverdi and Marenzio - an extraordinary achievement for a 'student.' our Psalm setting certainly gains from the experience of writing madrigals. This is especially heard in the text painting in the genuflective gesture of a descending scale on the text “Daß er sein’ Ohre zu mir neiget” (that he bends his ear to me), and the quasi antiphonal dialogue among all voice parts in “Darum will ich ihn mein Leben lang anrufen” (Therefore I will call unto him through my whole life). Sections like "Ich kam in Jammer und Not" are in the best madrigal manner. The very next phrase of text, "O Herr, errette meine Seele," is in a quasi-monodic style. All manners of composition of which Schütz was a master are folded in this piece.

The commission of this work is a curious story. A city official in Jena, Burckhard Grossman, after recovering from an illness in 1616, commissioned sixteen composers to set Psalm 116. The volume of the sixteen pieces is a virtual compendium of styles current at the time. While Schütz's setting is by far the most ambitious, severl other major figures, most notably Melchoir Ranck and Johann Hermann Schein, contributed significant works.

It would be a mistake, however, to considers Schütz's work merely on stylistic grounds. This is a large-scale masterpiece, a watershed in Schütz's career. the cumulative impact of the six sections building to its last section, a heavenly transcendent setting of the nineteenth verse of the Psalm, is overwhelming.

©Craig Smith, with edits and additions by Ryan Turner

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