Seventeenth-century church music written for Lutheran churches in Germany was largely influenced by the highly fashionable music emerging from Italy at the time. In 1620 composers such as Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius experimented with a new Italian style that used small combinations of solo voices and obbligato instruments, allowing solo singers to show off their virtuosity and expressive abilities.
The famous 'Lamento', Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte in meinem Haupte, for alto, violin solo, four-part strings and continuo is attributed to Heinrich Bach, but a lost copy in the Bach family archive (once owned by JS Bach) is ascribed to Johann Christoph Bach, this is more convincing given the highly sophisticated and expressive style of the music which is similar to his other works.
Throughout the seventeenth century, the music written for Lutheran churches in Germany was largely dependent on Italian models. At the beginning of the century Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius had introduced their German colleagues to the extravagant Venetian polychoral style, and polychoral music continued to be cultivated in Germany long after it had fallen out of favour in Italy. However, in the 1620s and ’30s a new Italian style became popular in Germany and began to be cultivated alongside the old. It used small combinations of solo voices and obbligato instruments and increasingly depended for its effect on the virtuosity and expressive abilities of skilled singers. It is normally assumed today that boys would have taken the upper parts of concerted music, as they often do in Germany today, but much of the solo soprano and alto music is comparable in its demands with contemporary Venetian and Roman music, which was sung by falsettists or castrati, and we know that a number of adult soprano and alto singers worked in seventeenth-century Germany, particularly at the more cosmopolitan courts. This recording explores the rich and still little-known repertory of German church music between Schütz and J S Bach, concentrating on music that looks as if it was conceived for an adult alto solo singer.
The first group of pieces comes from Schütz and his circle; Heinrich Schütz was Kapellmeister at the Dresden court, probably the greatest centre for Italian singers and the Italian style in seventeenth-century Germany. We know nothing about why and when Schütz wrote his setting of the chorale Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, though it only survives in late northern sources and is unusual for Schütz in that the setting uses the sixteenth-century chorale melody associated with the text, though modified with Italianate expressive devices.
Christoph Bernhard was Schütz’s favoured pupil and became his assistant at Dresden in 1656. He was a ‘contralto’ singer himself, and may have sung his highly expressive setting of Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele?, familiar lines from Psalm 42. Appropriately, Bernhard accompanies the semicanto or alto voice with two veiled, alto- or tenor-range instruments, a viola and a bass viol, rather than the expected violins.
Violins, of course, are appropriate for Johann Rosenmüller’s much more assertive setting of Christum ducem, qui per crucem, constructed over an eight-bar modulating ground bass and laid out, like some pieces by Monteverdi, so that the violins and voice coincide only in the last few bars. The text is a strange compilation: the last line of each verse is the first line of a hymn in the Roman breviary, and it is not clear what use it would have been in Lutheran Leipzig, where Rosenmüller worked in the 1640s. He was a friend and follower of Schütz but was forced to flee to Venice after a homosexual scandal in 1655. His collection of sonatas was published in Nuremberg in 1682, as he was about to take up a post at the Wolfenbüttel court, his earlier indiscretions forgotten. The Sonata II a 2 in E minor is an example of a type of sonata intended to be accompanied only by continuo instruments without a bass viol or violin, so that all the attention is directed to the passionate, almost operatic duet between the two violins.
The next three pieces come from the Baltic region. Dieterich Buxtehude was born in Hälsingborg in Sweden (then under Danish control) and became organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck in 1668. Much of his music, including the two pieces recorded here, is found today in Uppsala University Library as part of the collection assembled by Gustav Duben for the Swedish court. The rather sentimental chorale Jesu, meine Freud und Lust is set to appropriate music, largely in a lilting triple time and a sweet A major, though with a vigorous duple-time Amen. Jubilate Domino, omnis terra must have been written for notable performers, though we do not know their identity. It is one of Buxtehude’s Italianate works, and essentially consists of a sonata and three arias separated by brief recitative-like passages. Buxtehude presumably chose the bass viol as the obbligato instrument to represent the cithara, the ‘lyre’ mentioned in the psalm.
Christian Geist was a German organist who spent most of his career in Scandinavia, working at the Swedish court until about 1680 and then in Copenhagen. His setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel, consists of a set of three instrumental variations for two violins and bass viol on the chorale melody, with an interspersed sinfonia.
The next group is by three early members of the Arnstadt branch of the Bach family: Heinrich, organist of the Liebfrauenkirche in Arnstadt, and his sons Johann Christoph and Johann Michael, organists respectively at Eisenach and Gehren. The two five-part sonatas by Heinrich Bach recently came to light in a manuscript at Wolfenbüttel, and are typical examples of the sort of instrumental music used by German town musicians at the time. The famous ‘Lamento’, Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte, for alto, violin solo, four-part strings and continuo is attributed to Heinrich Bach in the surviving source at Uppsala, but a lost copy in the Bach family archive (once owned by J S Bach) ascribed it to Johann Christoph Bach, and this is more convincing given the highly sophisticated and expressive style of the music, which is similar to others of his pieces. The same tragic atmosphere infects the sinfonia to Johann Michael Bach’s aria Auf, laßt uns den Herren loben, with its elaborate solo violin writing, though the aria itself is relatively simple. The text refers to war in distant lands, which suggests that it was written in the 1670s when the French were conducting annual campaigns against the Dutch and a shifting series of allies.
Johann Philipp Krieger was born in Nuremberg, and worked there until 1680 when he was appointed Kapellmeister at the Weissenfels court. His delightful Epiphany cantata O Jesu, du mein Leben was written while he was still at Nuremberg and is a typically Italianate through-composed setting of a chorale text, written in a Corelli-like idiom but using the Germanic combination of violin and bass viol instead of two violins.
Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde survives attributed to J S Bach in a manuscript that once belonged to Princess Amalia of Prussia. Bach scholars have long regarded it as doubtful, and in recent years it has been attributed to Melchior Hoffmann, the Leipzig composer who is also thought to have written the cantata Meine Seele rühmt und preist, formerly Bach’s Cantata No 189. It is a simple minuet in the form of a da capo aria, with the funeral text illustrated by a two-note campanella, perhaps provided by a rank of bells on the continuo organ.
Peter Holman © 1999