Heinrich Schütz: Notes and Commentary

“Heinrich Schütz was Germany’s most significant composer before the age of Bach and Handel. He represents the transition between not only two epochs but also two cultures.”—David Ewen, The Complete Book of Classical Music

Schütz was a German composer and organist, generally regarded as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach and often considered to be one of the most important composers of the 17th century along with Claudio Monteverdi. He wrote what is traditionally considered to be the first German opera, Dafne, performed at Torgau in 1627, the music of which has since been lost.

Schütz’s compositions show the influence of his teacher Gabrieli (displayed most notably with Schütz’s use of polychoral and concertato styles) and of Monteverdi. Additionally, the influence of the Netherlandish composers of the 16th century is prominent in his work. His best known works are in the field of sacred music, ranging from solo voice with instrumental accompaniment to a cappella choral music. Representative works include his three books of Symphoniae sacrae, the Psalms of David, the Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (the Seven Last Words on the Cross), and his three Passion settings.

Schütz’s music, while starting off in the most progressive styles early in his career, eventually grew into a style that is simple and almost austere, culminating with his late Passion settings.

He was one of the last composers to write in a modal style. His harmonies often result from the contrapuntal alignment of voices rather than from any sense of “harmonic motion”; contrastingly, much of his music shows a strong tonal pull when approaching cadences. His music includes a great deal of imitation, but structured in such a way that the successive voices do not necessarily enter after the same number of beats or at predictable intervallic distances.

Schütz’s writing often includes intense dissonances caused by the contrapuntal motion of voices moving in correct individual linear motion, but resulting in harmonic tension. Above all, his music displays sensitivity to the accents and meaning of the text, which is often conveyed using special technical figures drawn from musica poetica, themselves drawn from or created in analogy to the verbal figures of classical rhetoric.

Beyond the early book of madrigals, almost no secular music by Schütz has survived, save for a few domestic songs (arien) and no purely instrumental music at all (unless one counts the short instrumental movement entitled “sinfonia” that encloses the dialogue of Die sieben Worte), even though he had a reputation as one of the finest organists in Germany.

Schütz was of great importance in bringing new musical ideas to Germany from Italy, and as such had a large influence on the German music which was to follow. The style of the North German organ school derives largely from him. A century later this music was to culminate in the work of J.S. Bach. He lived from October 18, 1585, to November 18, 1672.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

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