Musica Sacra

Music of Solace

Featuring John Rutter's Requiem and Heinrich Schütz' Musikalische Exequien

Saturday October 23, 2010 at 8:00 PM

We pair two funeral works that were written three hundred years apart: the sublimely comforting 20th century setting of the Requiem by John Rutter and Musikalische Exequien by the 17th century German composer, Heinrich Schütz, who set texts from the Lutheran Bible that provide particular solace to those wrestling with mortality.

Venue

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Concert Program Notes

The pairing of Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien with John Rutter's Requiem opens a new season for Musica Sacra. Although these two works came into being 350 years apart from each other, they both express the personal views of their creators regarding death and the afterlife. In both versions the composers eschew the suggestion implicit in the Catholic Requiem Mass that, upon our death, we all might as easily be cast into hell as gain admittance into Heaven. Rather, they interpolate Biblical texts that provide comfort to those in mourning for the departed, while assuring them that both they and their lost loved one will find eternal rest.

This year marks the 425th anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Schütz, who lived from 1585-1672, an extremely long life for a person of his time. This fact is all the more surprising when one considers that the area in which he lived and worked was the battleground for a protracted religious war known in modern times as the Thirty Years' War. Schütz not only survived this war, he refused to allow its attendant deprivations to deter him from his vocation as a composer. The Musikalische Exequien of 1636, written to commemorate the death of Heinrich Posthumus, the ruler of Reuss and a friend of the composer, provided a model for Johannes Brahms to emulate over two centuries later; indeed, Brahms used many of the same texts. As with Brahms, Schütz's mother had died a few months earlier, and one can imagine that his feelings for her influenced this composition. Schütz quotes hymns in both music and text and intersperses them with through-composed melodies setting diverse Biblical passages assuring humanity of God's salvation. The texts chosen for the work also appear around the base of the coffin of Posthumus. Scholars know that the count planned his own funeral very carefully; what is not known is whether the choice of texts was a collaborative effort between composer and count, or a decision of Posthumus that Schütz then worked with.

Schütz designed the first section of the Exequien to precede the sermon during Reuss's funeral service and the last two sections to follow it. In Schütz's own words the initial movement took the form of a Kyrie and a Gloria, which comprise the Lutheran mass in its totality. The Kyrie eleison is quite literal, sung in German, as was the Lutheran custom, by the chorus, while choral settings of eight different chorales comprise the Gloria section, rather than the actual liturgy from the mass. Both sections of the movement alternate celebrations of Christ's redemptive love, sung by the chorus as a whole, with commentaries on the fragility of human life without this love, sung by solo singers in groups of one to six. The rhythmic freedom and variety are well worth our admiration in this through-composed piece; Schütz moves easily through duple and triple meters of slower and faster tempi. The penultimate chorale, setting the words Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist, and its antecedent tenor solo, Ich weiss dass mein Erlöser lebt (I know that my redeemer lives), are especially delightful. Their melodies use triplet groupings of eighth, quarter, or half notes in a constantly changing metric kaleidoscope. The triplet groupings create a dance meter which, by alluding to the triune nature of the Christian God, also celebrates the Christian faith.

Throughout the work Schütz employs compositional techniques he learned from his two trips to Venice. On his first stay from 1609 to 1613, he worked with Giovanni Gabrieli, who mastered the use of antiphonal choruses to exploit the vast space of San Marco. The double choruses of the second and third movements of the Exequien attest to Schütz's having added this choral texture to his compositional palette. On his second stay in 1628 and 1629 he studied with Claudio Monteverdi; on this visit he learned the new art of dramatic monody—a solo melody whose musical material expresses the affect of the text. The art with which Schütz uses his music to illuminate the meaning of the text demonstrates his aptitude for learning what Monteverdi had to teach. Listen to his musical depiction of einen kleinen Augenblick; the alto sings this phrase at twice the speed of the prior phrases to give a sense of the shortness of the time of a little blink of the eye. Schütz reinforces this by following the phrase with silence; the two in combination reinforce the time's brevity: the silence takes up the time that would have occurred had the phrase been sung at the normal tempo. Doubtless his personal adversities also influenced his writing. Upon hearing the poignant bass duet expressing that, though life may be long, it is still filled with hardship and toil, one is not surprised to learn that Schütz's life had much suffering. His wife died after only six years of marriage, and, rather than remarry, Schütz gave his two young daughters to his wife's parents to raise, remaining alone for the rest of his long life.

The second movement of the Exequien is a motet for two choruses whose text reiterates that of a tenor solo in the second movement expressing faith in God despite all adversities. As in the prior two movements you can hear a lot of the musical word painting. Thus the music carries the word heaven upward before abruptly dropping to state the word earth, and note values lengthen to describe the languishing of the body and soul.

Schütz resumes the use of two contrasting vocal configurations of soloists and chorus in the last movement of the Exequien; this time, however, they overlap each other and are superimposed rather than alternating as in the first movement. The full chorus sings the text expressed in Luke by the old man Simeon, who has wanted to see the Messiah before his death, upon the occasion of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised. Schütz illustrates the promise of salvation expressed in the Song of Simeon by the presence of a vocal trio singing words from the Book of Revelation, Selig sind die Toten die in dem Herren sterben: Blessed are the dead who die in the name of the Lord. By means of the solo trio, Schütz said, the author wanted to introduce and indicate the joy of the disembodied blessed souls in heaven, in the company of the blessed spirits and the holy angels. The scalar falling lines of the soloists, two treble Seraphim and a blessed spirit as named by Schütz, bestow God's assurance of grace on those who die in the Lord. Schütz even asks that the two vocal elements be physically separated to enhance the image of heavenly voices serenely floating above the earthbound chorus. It is one of the most transcendent moments in all of music.

Like Schütz's Exequien, Rutter's Requiem does not adhere to the Latin Mass for the Dead, which characterizes the Requiem Masses of his predecessors Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Fauré and Duruflé. Nor does he alternate texts of his own choosing with the mass, as Britten did. His version combines parts of the Catholic Requiem Mass with parts of the Anglican Service for the Burial of the Dead. Thus, rather than using the text of the Dies irae, a text eagerly capitalized upon by his predecessors as a showcase for their dramatic writing, Rutter sets Psalm 130, Out of the deep, one of several Psalms suggested to be read during the Anglican service. It is interesting to note that this Psalm is also present in the Catholic liturgy for the dead; the priest intones it over the body of the deceased in his home before it is borne to the church.

Rutter does begin his work with the opening lines from the Catholic Mass, and in so doing he demonstrates brilliantly to the listener his intent to provide solace rather than inspire fear. The opening motif is very dark: a minor tonality and awkwardly dissonant intervals set the stage for the supplicant unison intonation by the chorus of Requiem aeternam. These humble beginnings become more urgent through the increasingly complexly dissonant chords presented by the chorus; imitative lines of rising minor and major seconds supplant these chords to increase the intensity yet more. As the choral lines rise higher and higher, one envisions entreating hands reaching to the sky. As the treble voices reach the apex of their climb, suddenly the tonality becomes major and the chords consonant to express and let eternal light shine upon them. From here one of the most exquisitely beneficent melodies ever written emanates from the major tonality to set again Requiem aeternam. Because of its beauty and the sensation of rocking created by the reiteration of the opening phrase, the listener is assured that, indeed, the departed will have eternal rest.

As did Fauré and composers after him, Rutter devotes a separate movement to the final phrase of the Dies irae: Pie Jesu; also like Fauré, he employs a treble voice as soloist. The high tessitura of the treble, as with the treble voices in the final movement of the Exequien, implies the granting of the request for eternal rest by God in heaven, an implication strengthened by the chorus reiterating the request low in their tessiturae to represent earthly humans. The final line of the soloist, rising by scale to end on a high a, evokes the rising of the dead as promised by Jesus.

Rutter omits the Catholic offertory Domine Jesu Christe and proceeds right to the Sanctus and Agnus Dei of the mass. The Sanctus is appropriately celebratory, especially during the Osanna in excelsis section. During the Agnus Dei, Rutter revisits the same idea used by Schütz in his last movement: the declamation of two different texts simultaneously. In Rutter's case, the Latin Agnus Dei is interrupted by text spoken by the priest in the Anglican rite that is taken from the Book of Job: Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. When the Agnus Dei resumes, Rutter underlies it with the Anglican text recited at the graveside along with another quote from Job: In the midst of life we are in death. Both express a disconsolate human perspective consistent with the text of the Agnus Dei. However, at the end of the Agnus Dei, Rutter modulates from the minor to the major to allow the chorus to express the heavenly consolation: I am the resurrection and the life from the Gospel of John. This text opens the Anglican service, but Rutter moves it here to great dramatic effect; the dark clouds of despair evoked earlier part to reveal the sunbeams of these reassuring words.

Rutter next interpolates a setting of Psalm 23, which is noteworthy in that it appears in both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies for the death of a child. Rutter composed this movement as a freestanding work almost a decade earlier. Like Brahms and Schütz he ends his Requiem with Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; unlike them, he employs a treble soloist once again to bestow this assurance of grace and follows it with Lux aeterna, sung after the Agnus Dei in the Catholic mass.

The version of the Requiem you hear tonight is an ensemble version created by Rutter. Rather than full orchestra, he uses only seven instruments, the predominant one being the organ. This treatment reveals his masterful use of a different instrument to give special character to each of the various movements. In the second movement, Out of the deep, that instrument is the cello, and it employs its full range of tessitura and dynamics to express the struggle of the human spirit in times of distress. During the Sanctus a glockenspiel constantly intones descending scales in parallel fourths reminiscent of change ringing; one hears therein the ebullient peals sounding on that most celebratory day in the Christian year: Easter.

At the end of the Agnus Dei, a flute alternates with the chorus after it has moved to the major tonality. Even though the flute's melody has a minor modality, it represents a benediction of grace because of its high silvery tones, and, more importantly, its quote of one of the oldest chants in the Christian liturgy, Victimae paschali laudes, intoned on Easter day. The twenty third Psalm has a gorgeous oboe solo whose timbre evokes the reeds of the shepherd's pipe to underscore the metaphor of God as shepherd to his people. And, finally, the harp accompanies the Lux aeterna and the final iteration of Requiem aeterna. Its triplet rhythms refer to the Trinity, while Rutter's use of it pays homage to the last movement of Fauré's Requiem while also alluding to the harps associated with Heaven.

How fortunate we are that two composers of such great talent should write such supremely comforting music. How privileged we are to perform both of them side by side for you this evening. Whatever your personal beliefs may be, these pieces provide solace and comfort to those mourning those departed from this life.

© 2010 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.