Thursday, 23 May 2013

Heinrich Schütz who changed my life

There have been many good musical moments for me, but one stands out above all. Heinrich Schütz, Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Auferstehung unser Herrn Jesus Christus (1623)

Schütz was born one hundred years before J S Bach. He studied with Monteverdi, which probably makes him a link between the Italian and German baroque. Yet he was a Protestant, in an era when people killed each other for religion. He lived through the Thirty Years War, perhaps the most savage conflict Europe experienced before the 20th century. Millions were killed. Entire regions were devastated. Although Schütz worked in relative safety for the Elector of Saxony, the world around him had been in turmoil since the Reformation. For Schütz, comfort was not a given. He writes glorious polyphony, but his beliefs were forged in fire.

Schütz's music is austere and deeply expressive. When you listen to things like Psalmen Davids or Musikalische Exequien you feel like you are totally alone in the darkness, sustained by faith in a power beyond human comprehension. Schütz founded what is now the Staatskapelle Dresden but he didn't have job security. When he fell out of favour at court, he became destitute. His family died young. He lived on alone until the age of 87, which in those days was like being Methuselah.

The first time I heard the Aufersthungshistorie was on a broadcast from the composer's beloved Dresden, it was like a kind of epiphany. I can't explain it, but the music shone out like a blast of light, illuminating everything with a kind of pure spiritual clarity. I don't follow Schütz's religion yet it moved me in a way I've never been able to rationalize. Maybe he connects to something very deep in the human soul penetrating past the trappings of church and society. The piece is written for simple forces, so it can be performed in small, spartan places: opulent palace settings wouldn't work. It's almost entirely a capella, an interplay between the Evangelist and a group of youthful voices, supported by a cache of different violas de gambe and positive organ.

Speaking about Bible-based music, a friend of mine recently said "We all know the story". Yet what makes Schütz's version so powerful is that it feels vivid, fresh, immediate. Until very recently, the Bible had been in Latin, not in German. It must still have felt shocking to hear Jesus depicted by a group of young male voices, their voices weaving like shimmering light. Schütz's Evangelist tells the story in clear, direct terms, as if he's recounting something amazing happening right before his eyes. Even though the story itself is so well known we take it for granted, it IS amazing. A man defies death itself and rises to glory. It IS exciting news.

Schütz's Auferstehungshistorie is so uplifting. In my running days I'd jog along listening to it as I ran. After 40 minutes, I was pretty whacked but then the glorious finale would kick in. Gott sei dank! sing the chorus, in multiple harmonies, while the tenor soars above all Victoria! Victoria!, and the chorus joins in splendidly woven polyphony. No matter how tired I was, when that finale came on, suddenly I'd speed up before collapsing in joyous ecstasy. I can't run now, and I won't live to be 87. But when I'm decrepit and on the point of death, I suspect that "Victoria! Victoria!" will ring in my soul.

The absolute top recommendation is the Berlin Classics recording (get it HERE, with soundclips) originally made during the DDR era when the Communists frowned on religious expression. In Dresden, however, the Schütz tradition was very strong, so no regime could suppress this music. Just as the Iron Curtain collapsed because the Leipzigers used music as protest, the Dresdeners might have realized the significance of music which suggests that men can beat death  The singing is exceptionally inspired, and the ensemble is tight and muscular: as Reformation music probably needed to be. What's more the Evangelist is Peter Schreier. He's practically incandescant with intensity. He was a choirboy in the Dresden Kreuzchor in February 1945, when Dresden's historic city was flattened by a firebomb raid in which tens of thousands were killed. The choirboys were sheltering in a cellar. They were outside the immediate danger zone, but they didn't know that and were terrified. Then, the choirmaster suggested that they join together, singing....

Spooky or not? Schütz seems to follow me around. One day while browsing Benjamin Britten's personal library at the Red House, Aldeburgh, what should be on the shelves ? The original edition of Prof Hans Moser's complete Heinrich Schütz:  His Life and Works. And then I was given a copy for my birthday. 

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