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Hyperion Records

CDH55310 - Schütz: The Christmas Story; Gabrieli: Christmas Motets
The Journey of the Magi by Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta (?1392-?1450)
CDH55310
(Originally issued on CDA66398)

Recording details: December 1989
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 2007
DISCID: 3A0D5D17
Total duration: 56 minutes 53 seconds

'Ravishing … the sheer beauty of the sound, immeasurably enhanced by a warm, sonorous recording, sweeps us into the narration of the familiar story' (BBC Music Magazine)

The Christmas Story; Gabrieli: Christmas Motets
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
‘It was never the will of my late parents that I should make a profession of music … I set out … for the University of Marburg, in order to continue there my studies, already begun elsewhere to some degree, in things other than music’.

But within a year of matriculating (in 1608), Schütz was given a generous grant by the Landgrave of Moritz to study with Giovanni Gabrieli, a ‘widely famed but rather old musician and composer’. Schütz remarked that he should ‘not miss the chance to hear him and learn something from him’ and, much against the will of his parents, he made the journey to Venice. There he received three years of rigorous training from Gabrieli, forming a close friendship and great admiration for his distinguished teacher. After Gabrieli’s death in 1612 Schütz returned to Germany, resolving to ‘keep to myself the good foundations that I had now laid in music … until I had refined them further still’. After some political wrangling between Moritz and the Elector of Saxony Schütz was appointed Kappellmeister at the Elector’s court in Dresden, and he abandoned his planned career as a lawyer, though he noted ‘repeated and incessant admonition’ from his family.

Schütz could hardly have visited Venice at a more exciting time, for musical developments there were setting the trend for the whole of Europe. He was able to take in both the new and the old styles. The old polychoral tradition, exemplified in the massive cori spezzati motets of Gabrieli, was beginning to be superceded by the new, more intimate concertato style which involved smaller ensembles of voices and instruments. At the same time, the rise of opera was seeing constant refinements and developments in the field of recitativo. Schütz took all these styles, some still in their infancy, back with him to Germany. His five hundred compositions and his teaching over the next decades proved him to be the greatest German composer of the seventeenth century and the springboard for the German musical achievements of the next two hundred years.

In 1628 Schütz returned to Venice, with the journey precipitated by the deteriorating economic conditions that the Thirty Years War was bringing to Saxony. When he arrived there he noted that ‘everything has changed, and the music in princely banquets, comedies, ballets and other such productions has markedly improved’. He absorbed these new developments, and enjoyed the aid of ‘the noble Monteverdi’, who ‘guided him with joy and happily showed him the long-sought path’. Monteverdi’s aid may have been in the field of dramatic monody, for Schütz recalled that ‘I engaged myself in a singular manner, namely how a comedy of diverse voices can be translated into declamatory style and be brought to the stage and enacted in song—things that to the best of my knowledge … are still completely unknown in Germany’. The introduction of recitativo to Germany was particularly important, and during the process of transmission from north to south the form took on a less exuberant, more contemplative quality.

By 1645 Schütz, almost sixty years of age, and after thirty years of service to the Saxon court, wrote in a letter his wish that ‘since the electoral Kapelle has gone completely to ruin in these parlous times, and I in the meantime have grown old, it is my only wish that I might henceforth live free from all regular obligations’. For twelve years his requests for retirement were largely disregarded, and it was eventually only in 1657, with a new Elector, that he was released from most of his duties. So, hard though it may be to believe this when listening to the work, it was as an old and tired man that in 1660 he composed his ‘Historia der … Geburth … Jesu Christi’ (SWV435).

The Court diary describes the music at Christmas Vespers of 1660 as ‘the birth of Christ in recitative style’, which can hardly refer to anything else but Schütz’s composition. This was the earliest known setting of the nativity story to have the Evangelist’s words sung in recitative instead of the traditional unaccompanied chant. The work was almost completely lost to modern audiences, for all that Schütz published (in 1664) was the Evangelist’s part, stating that the music for the choruses and intermedii were available in manuscript. These latter parts were unknown until 1908 when Arnold Schering unearthed them at Uppsala University, and even now they are not complete. The most serious omission is that nothing, except a cued figured bass, remains of the opening chorus, requiring editorial reconstruction.

The major narrative of the work is recited by the Evangelist who, we are instructed, should possess ‘a good light tenor voice’ and is to be accompanied by a small organ and string bass. Schütz writes the recitative, for the most part, in a wonderfully restrained, almost understated style, full of subtleties of melodic line and harmonic language. But the drama is delicately controlled, and there are fine examples of word-painting, in particular the anguished chromaticism as Rachel wails for her slaughtered children, the shaking fury of Herod as he realizes he has been tricked, the flourish as Jesus is named, the presentation of the Wise Men’s gifts and their returning another way, and the final triumphant vocal flourish as the child grows, almost in front of our eyes, and we move into the joyful final chorus. Everywhere the pacing of the story is carefully calculated: this is one of the finest examples of an Evangelist’s narrative before Bach. We are told that ornamentation at cadences, both in the voice and the organ, is expected: bearing in mind the overall restrained style this instruction has been followed.

In between the Evangelist’s sections come eight colourfully scored Intermedii, reminiscent in their orchestration of the brilliant style of Italian Renaissance court entertainment, but filled with all the latest compositional devices. The ‘heavenly host’ is a six-part choir with violins, three ‘shepherds in the field’ are accompanied by the pastoral combination of recorders and dulcian, three footsore but splendidly urgent wise men by violins and dulcian, and four pompous high priests by two trombones. Herod, blustering and distinctly irritable, is accompanied by two cornetti (Schütz gives the choice of trumpets or cornetts), and the angel’s three Intermedii (all thematically linked by the use of a two-note ground bass) have important parts for the distinctive sound of two violettas (small violas). At the start comes the gentle Eingang, reconstructed here for choir, recorders and strings, and the work ends with the Beschluss, scored for the complete colourful ensemble and full of joyful syncopation and dancing rhythms. Pitch at the time the work would first have been performed was higher than our modern pitch, and Robert King’s performing edition transposes the work upwards to take account of this.

Giovanni Gabrieli Christmas Motets
Thomas Coryate, writing in his Crudities hastily gobbled up in five Moneth’s Travels was transported almost beyond all words by his discovery at the Venetian Church of San Rocco in 1608 of

‘… the best musicke that ever I did in all my life both in the morning and the afternoone, so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to hear the like … this feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I knew not: for mine own part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven …’

Of the singers too he was equally enthused, for ‘there were three or foure so excellent that I think few or none in Christendome do excell them, especially one, who had such a peerelesse and (as I might in a manner say) such a supernaturall voice for sweetnesses, that I think there was never a better singer in all the world …’

We do not know for sure whose music it was that received such praise, but it could easily have been that of Giovanni Gabrieli. He was the most influential Venetian musical figure of his time, famed both as a composer and as a teacher of a number of distinguished pupils, including Heinrich Schütz, and his music was circulated widely through the publication of major collections of works in 1597 and posthumously in 1615. From 1585 to his death Gabrieli was organist at both the religious confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and at St Mark’s, Venice (where he was responsible not only for the music but also for procuring extra instrumentalists and singers for the more important festivals and feast days). In addition, after his uncle Andrea’s death in 1586 he took over the role as principal composer at St Mark’s.

Music in Venice was inextricably bound up with civic life, for state processions, civic ceremonies and some forty main religious festivals each year demanded music to match the splendour of the occasion. The Feast of Christmas demanded some of the grandest and most spectacular music of all. In 1607 Jean-Baptiste Duval of the French Embassy reported that at St Mark’s there were more than one thousand candles, sixty huge torches and silver lamps, together with eight choirs of voices and instruments ‘filling the church with a grand harmony’. Even allowing for enthusiastic exaggeration, it must have been a spectacular occasion. Little wonder that some of Gabrieli’s most magnificent music was composed for Christmas in St Mark’s.

Most of Gabrieli’s motets were printed in two large collections, one published posthumously. Many are settings of texts sung on the major Venetian state festivals and are for two or more choirs in the tradition of cori spezzati. Although it is hard to date works exactly, there is a clear change of style in his later works, confirmed by the type of music that his pupils were writing. In all his works, but especially in those for more than two choirs, Gabrieli’s flair for sonorities is particularly evident, showing the ultimate development of the old motet style.

Quem vidistis pastores is one of Gabrieli’s finest works. Scored in sixteen parts it comes from the posthumous volume Sacrae symphoniae … liber secundus of 1615. After the opening orchestral sinfonia, scored for two choirs of instruments and showing Gabrieli’s love of lower sonorities, the work shows elements of the later chamber style as the six singers introduce themselves one by one, accompanied by the newly introduced basso continuo. This small-scale texture continues until the full ensemble unites with awestruck majesty at ‘O magnum mysterium’. Here there are marvellous sonorities and a whole variety of textures, with grand flourishes for the word ‘iacentem’, a cutting down of the texture for ‘in praesepio’, magnificent block chords at ‘et admirabile’ and a sumptuous ending.

Audite principes, too, dates from the later collection, and is scored for two five-part choirs, one six-part choir and continuo. From the opening declamatory statement, heard three times as an introduction to each choir, to the colossal block of sound as all seventeen parts unite at the midpoint before launching into the dancing triple-time ‘gaudeamus’, here is music of considerable complexity and great splendour. The final ‘Alleluia’, back in duple metre after another dance-like section, ends the work with due solemnity.

O magnum mysterium comes from an earlier source, the 1587 collection Concerti per voci e stromenti musicali, and has a mood of subdued reverence, fitting for its subject matter, until syncopation breaks out for the closing ‘Alleluia’. In keeping with the relatively simple setting, the first choir is scored here for four voices and organ, and the second choir for solo alto and three sackbuts. Perhaps it was this latter combination (and particularly the falsettist or castrato’s ‘supernaturall voice … never a better singer in all the world’) that so transported Coryate, for it is a magical combination of sounds.

With Salvator noster we return to the 1615 collection, and a magnificent setting for three five-part choirs and an independent continuo line. The wide variety of textures and moods contained within the motet shows Gabrieli’s responsiveness to the text, and the high instrumental lines at the top of choirs one and two, furnished with lively flourishes, and the dancing rhythms give the motet a celebratory mood. The closing ‘Alleluia’ travels through a series of sections before the motet ends in a blaze of sound. Little wonder that Coryate was so transported by these rich mediterranean sounds: here indeed is music that is ‘superexcellent’!

Robert King © 1990

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