Komm, Jesu, komm [5'42]
Continuing the series 'Bach's Contemporaries', this volume concentrates on the wonderful music of Johann Schelle—a cousin of Kuhnau (another composer featured in this series).
This immensely striking sacred music by Schelle (one of Bach's predecessors in the post of Kantor in Leipzig's famous Thomas Church) brings together a top-flight group of soloists and a large and colourful assembly of instrumentalists, and presents remarkable and splendidly varied music which not only stands up proudly in its own musical right, but also greatly enhances our understanding of Bach's own sacred writing.
In the learned and very eloquent obituary for his predecessor and cousin Johann Schelle, the Leipzig Thomaskantor Johann Kuhnau writes that the former rarely ‘brought forth a church composition or any other piece’ which did not meet with general appreciation. For this reason, Kuhnau writes, Schelle’s works would ‘be kept for a long time as documents and certificates of his wonderful gifts in the understanding of composition’ and let ‘the laudable sound of his glory never leave our ears’. As touching and confident as these prophecies are, they only partly came true. In July 1712 the Leipzig town council bought the musical legacy from Schelle’s widow for the choir of the Thomaskirche; however, already in the inventory of the Thomasschule (which was drawn up once a year) of 1723, it is stated that these manuscripts ‘have been damaged by their use and have become nearly unusable’. From 1731 the entry ‘Schelle’s Musical Things’ is missing completely; they had become wastepaper and nobody had thought it necessary to preserve the compositions by copying them.
The destruction of old music corresponded to the changeable music taste of the time, which was in accordance with the newest compositions. Johann Sebastian Bach’s rather disparaging remark about his predecessors’ music performances also fits into this context; in his eyes ‘the present status musices is very different than that of former days’ and ‘art has risen considerably’; ‘the gusto has changed astonishingly’, which is why ‘the former kind of music will not please our ears anymore.’ Luckily, Schelle’s compositions were widely spread in all of Middle and Northern Germany; not everywhere were the old scores just thrown away as a result of faded interest in music from the late seventeenth century. About sixty of Schelle’s cantatas have survived to the present day—a stock which allows us to comprehend the enthusiastic judgements of his contemporaries.
Schelle’s fruitful musical career was encouraged by the early discovery of his extraordinary gifts and a careful education. Born in 1648 in the village of Geising in the Erzgebirge as a son of a Kantor, he entered the electoral chapel in Dresden—then directed by Heinrich Schütz—at the age of only seven. When his voice broke, the sixteen-year-old changed to the alumnate of the Thomasschule with a reference from Schütz, before he was able to register at the Leipzig University three years later. His main interest, however, remained in music, which he studied diligently under the Thomaskantor at that time, Sebastian Knüpfer. He soon began to earn his living as a music teacher to aristocratic families. The growing reputation of the young musician led him to be entrusted with the post of Kantor in the nearby Eilenburg in 1670, at the age of twenty-two. After the death of his teacher Knüpfer in 1676 he applied for the succession of his post and was chosen out of a sizeable group of applicants by the Leipzig town council. He occupied this position—esteemed in every respect as a composer, organiser and teacher—for nearly a quarter of a century until his death on 10 March 1701.
Schelle’s cantata performances on Sundays in the two main churches of Leipzig, St Thomas and St Nicolai, were widely known. During the last two decades of the seventeenth century hardly any visitor to Leipzig who was interested in music would have missed these performances. One contemporary witness reports that listeners ‘flew in like bees’ for the ‘sweet honey’ of Schelle’s church music. What was presented to the audience was a new style—a sweet and delightful sound, combined with carefully chosen texts and performed with a well-developed sense for big effects and refinement. Schelle knew how to compel the attention of laymen as well as experts, and the fascination that his compositions had then is still alive today.
The success of Schelle’s compositions came from his turning away from the strict polyphony of his predecessors and approaching the light and agile style which was cultivated at the Dresden court by the two Kapellmeister Vicenzo Albrici and Marco Peranda, and which increasingly gained influence towards the end of the seventeenth century in Middle Germany. In his works, Schelle emphasizes melodic qualities and simple and easily comprehensible structures that can be perceived even in large-scale and multiple-part compositions.
This becomes evident in the imposing twenty-five-part setting of the first five verses of Psalm 103, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (‘Praise the Lord, my soul’). The glory of the musical setting indicates a special occasion. As the work is already mentioned in a music inventory from 1688, it was probably composed in the first decade of Schelle’s tenure as Thomaskantor. One event during this time was the thanksgiving on 16 September 1683, for victory over the Turkish army, which had besieged the imperial capital of Vienna for nine weeks. The Saxon electoral prince Johann Georg III had been involved in the liberation and had ordered a national celebration for his return to Dresden. One Leipzig chronicle reports that during the celebratory service in St Thomas, after the solemn official sermon, ‘a beautiful music’ was played—maybe this setting of the Psalm by Schelle. The alternating tutti and solo sections display a similarity with the Venetian Psalm settings of Johann Rosenmüller. Towards the end of the piece the first verse is repeated textually and musically, thereby creating a formal rounding off before the work closes with a concise Alleluia-fugue.
A very different facet of Schelle’s art appears in the Psalm setting Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet (‘He shall be blessed who fears God’). The work, which is scored for one voice and five-part instrumental ensemble, stands in the tradition of solo Psalm arrangements which had been established by Schelle’s teacher Heinrich Schütz and cultivated in Leipzig amongst others by Rosenmüller and Johann Theile. This work appears to be a very early composition of Schelle’s, also borne out by the many sections of the piece and the entry of—which later are far less drastic—‘madrigalistic’ text interpretations, for example at the word ‘Finsternis’ (‘darkness’), ‘barmherzig’ (‘merciful’) and ‘den Armen’ (‘the poor’).
The text of Aus der Tiefen (‘Out of the deep’) is based on the words of Psalm 130. However, Schelle did not use the whole text in its original version; instead it only appears in the three tutti sections at the beginning, middle and end of the work. For the other parts the composer used a rhymed paraphrase, which allowed him to set these verses as stanzaic arias followed by ritornelli, giving the work the appearance of a cantata.
In his cantatas Schelle paid particular attention to excellent text models. He set to music at least twice a collection of cantata texts for one year (by David Elias Heidenreich, the Halle court poet), which was very famous in its time and used by many composers—one setting was in the form of a small-scale solo-cantata with only one voice and an instrumental accompaniment consisting of merely two violins and basso continuo; the other was a cycle of larger-scored works with three to six voices and a full instrumental ensemble. There are good reasons to assume that the small-scale set was composed during the Eilenburg period, and the large-scale one during the early Leipzig years. The two cantatas Herr, lehre uns bedenken and Gott, sende dein Licht originate from the Leipzig cycle. Following Italian models, Heidenreich’s libretti consist of a biblical quotation, which is played by the full forces at the beginning and end of the composition, and a poem of several stanzas, which is placed in the centre of the work and which comments poetically on the framing text. The musical form that developed from this type of libretto is called concerto-aria-cantata.
The cantata Herr, lehre uns bedenken (‘Lord, teach us to remember’) was written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity; its text alludes to the part of the gospel which tells the story of the young man of Nain who was raised from the dead, and links this to reflections about the writer’s own death. Schelle’s musical setting of this libretto possesses an extraordinary charm. By using only three voices and three instruments the work gains a chamber-music-like intimacy whose distinctive sound is created by the scordatura of the string instruments tuned in E flat major. To the two levels of the cantata text (bible quotation and free verse) Schelle adds another layer: he quotes chorale stanzas in the instrumental ritornelli. In the first ritornello after the introductory tutti, the violin plays the chorale ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’ (‘Christ is my life’), whereas the gamba begins the song ‘Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist’ (‘When my hour has come’) after the first and fourth aria-stanza. After the second and third aria-stanza the violin and viola play the melodies of ‘Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr’ (‘Very dearly do I love you, O Lord’) and ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen, nach einem sel’gen End’ (‘Very sincerely am I yearning for a blessed end’).
The cantata Gott, sende dein Licht (‘God, send your light’) is intended for Epiphany; Heidenreich’s aria verse alludes many times to the biblical story (for example in the metaphor of the star whose light leads the right way). With four voices and five instruments the work possesses a relatively rich scoring; nevertheless the composer succeeds in keeping the musical material transparent. This is created on the one hand through the repeated reduction of the parts, and on the other hand by keeping voices and instruments parallel throughout. The musical motifs chosen by Schelle fit the rhythm of the text perfectly and evoke the impression of a completely natural simplicity. These details show that he was an early advocate of aesthetic principles, which did not become common knowledge in musical practice until long after his death.
The five part motet Komm, Jesu, komm (‘Come, Jesus, come’) was written for the funeral of the Leipzig University professor and headmaster of the Thomasschule Jakob Thomasius; it was performed in the Paulinerkirche ‘at the highly respectfully maintained corps-ceremonies on 14 September 1684’. The Leipzig poet Paul Thymich, who can be found several times as Schelle’s librettist, wrote the text. The simple stanzaic verse was set to music in the form of a simple, touching choir aria, which must have impressed Johann Sebastian Bach around 1730 so much that he used the text for his motet of the same name, BWV229, and borrowed some of Schelle’s melodic expressions.
Another mourning motet by Schelle is the large-scale double-choir setting of Christus ist des Gesetzes Ende (‘Christ is the law’s end’). The work was written for the funeral of the Leipzig citizen Gottfried Egger on 13 July 1684. The composition stands in the tradition of the Middle German motet as it was cultivated, amongst others, by Schelle’s teacher Heinrich Schütz and his predecessors Hermann Schein and Tobias Michael.
The two large chorale cantatas Christus, der ist mein Leben and Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar originate from a set for a year composed in 1688/89, which exclusively consisted of Hymn adaptations of this type. This was stimulated by the Pastor of the Thomaskirche, Johann Benedikt Carpzow. In his sermons he had, as he reports himself, ‘always explained a good, beautiful, old, Protestant and Lutheran Hymn, and also made the order for the congregation to sing this Hymn straight after the sermon has ended’. Schelle had agreed to ‘bring every Hymn into a gracious music, and let it be heard before the sermon’.
The cantata Christus, der ist mein Leben (‘Christ is my life’) was probably composed for the feast of Mary’s Purification (2 February). With four violins and four violas as well as five voices the work is scored extraordinarily festively. All eight stanzas of the Hymn on which the cantata is based appear in two versions, first as changing combinations of the solo parts without reference to a cantus firmus, then with the melody accompanied by free figuration in the four violins. This creates a rondo-like structure, which repeatedly moves the simple Hymn into the centre.
Similarly structured is the Christmas cantata Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar (‘From heaven came a throng of angels’), which opposes three instrumental choirs (trumpets and timpani, cornets and trombones, strings) to a five-part vocal choir. All six sections of this work develop the melody of the famous Lutheran Hymn with changing techniques. By shaping verses I and VI, and II and V almost identically, Schelle achieves a symmetrical framework, at whose centre, with verses III and IV, an elated, danceable version of the chorale appears, as well as a monumental cantus firmus arrangement. Corresponding with his artistic ambitions for this piece, Schelle employs elaborate composing techniques so that, again, this work not only appears easily comprehensible, but at the same time displays great glory and naturalness.
Peter Wollny © 2001