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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67446
Recording details: April 2003
Concertgebouw, Bruges, Belgium
Produced by Teije van Geest
Engineered by Teije van Geest
Release date: February 2004
Total duration: 101 minutes 13 seconds

Der Tod Jesu
composer
first performed on 26 March 1755
author of text

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
During his lifetime, Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759), a younger contemporary of Bach’s, was one of the best-known exponents of Italian opera in Germany. He was born in Wahrenbrück, a village in the south of the present state of Brandenburg, attended school in Dresden, where he was originally trained as a choirboy at the famed ‘Kreuzschule’, and went on to study keyboard and composition when his voice broke. He gradually retrained his voice, becoming sufficiently proficient as a tenor to win himself a place in the court chapel of Braunschweig in 1725. There he also achieved a reputation as a skilled composer, rising several years later to the position of vice-Kapellmeister. For the marriage of Princess Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig to the then Prince Frederick of Prussia, a specially composed opera by Graun, Lo specchio della fedeltà, was performed. This work struck a chord with the prince, who subsequently engaged Graun for his own court chapel in Rheinsberg when the Duke of Braunschweig died several years later. Once the prince became King Frederick II, ‘the Great’, he appointed Graun his court Kapellmeister in 1741. In this position he became a leading figure in the renowned Berlin school that developed at Frederick the Great’s court, a school which also included his brother Johann Gottlieb, Kirnberger, Quantz, Benda and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Besides his task as a court composer, Graun was also commissioned to set up an (Italian) opera house in Berlin. This was duly opened a year later with the performance of his Cesare e Cleopatra. He would go on to compose some thirty Italian operas, including Montezuma, on a text by the king, as well as a great deal of instrumental music. However, although it represents only a limited portion of his œuvre, Graun became most famous for his religious music, and above all for his Der Tod Jesu.

Der Tod Jesu forms part of the long Christian tradition of musical settings of the Passion story for the period before Easter. The first suggestions of such a tradition date from as early as the late-Roman period. In the middle of the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great ordained that St Matthew’s account of the Passion story be read on Palm Sunday, with the St John Passion on Good Friday; the St Luke and St Mark versions were later also accorded appointed moments on, respectively, Wednesday and Tuesday of Holy Week. The Bible texts were originally chanted by the celebrant alone; only in the course of the fifteenth century were polyphony and an element of drama introduced into the genre.

There were two basic forms within the genre: the through-composed, fully polyphonic ‘Motet Passion’, and the ‘Chorale Passion’, in which the words of the evangelist were chanted monophonically, while the interventions of the ‘crowd’ (the so-called turba sections) and sometimes the words of Christ were set polyphonically. In the same period, some versions deviated from the standard gospel texts, in works known as summae passionis: texts compiled from the ‘highlights’ of the different gospels. This development towards greater variation and freedom, found initially in the Catholic liturgy, was continued further after the Reformation, although it met with some degree of resistance. For Luther, the suffering of Christ was to be experienced to the full by all believers, and not only in words alone. The musically heightened reading of the Passion story thus received an important place within the liturgy and its telling was spread throughout Lent. In Germany, the Passion thus became an important musical genre in which German translations of the gospel were generally used, as well as the summae passionis on German or Latin texts and shortened versions of the gospels. In musical terms, there was a tendency to hold fast to the simple Chorale Passion, in which only the turba sections were set to music in a simple form of polyphony. The composer actually would only provide music for these sections, as the largest portion of the text was chanted.

Halfway through the seventeenth century, a fundamental revolution in this tradition took place in northern Germany: composers added a continuo part and several solo instruments to accompany the vocal parts. This led to the creation of a new genre: the ‘Oratorio Passion’. There was more to this than simply the addition of instruments; the text of the gospel still formed the basis of the story but other sections were now added to the usual Bible text, including instrumental sinfonias, as well as hymns, parallel Bible passages and general reflections on the events. In the eighteenth century, this evolution developed further as a new form of Oratorio Passion arose which freed itself completely from the gospel text. New texts were written, such as B H Brockes’ Der für die Sünden dieser Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, a text that composers such as Telemann, Handel and Mattheson set to music. The final stage of this evolution began around 1730 in Italy, in the development of the genre of Passion Music. Here not only the Bible text was abandoned but also the dramatic element. The result was a meditation on the Passion story, without dialogues, such as La passione di Gesù Cristo on a text by Metastasio and set to music by a number of composers, including Caldara, Jomelli and Paisiello.

Graun’s Der Tod Jesu may be numbered among these later works. The text is by Carl Wilhelm Ramler, written at the behest of Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, the king’s sister. This text was almost simultaneously set to music by Graun and Telemann, the two works receiving their premieres in March 1755, Graun’s version on March 26 in his opera house in Berlin, Telemann’s a week earlier, on March 19, in Hamburg. The rivalry between the two composers seems to have been a friendly one, however: the two corresponded extensively concerning the technical and aesthetic aspects of setting the text to music and would later perform each other’s work. The stylistic differences between the two works are nonetheless striking. Telemann represents the North-German, late-Baroque tradition, with all its complexity and preference for structure and colour. Graun, influenced by Italian opera, chose the path of lyricism and spontaneous melodies, using the harmonic language that had emerged from Classicism. In Der Tod Jesu there are fugal passages reminiscent of Bach but the horizontal nature of polyphony generally yields to a strong sense of harmonic progression. If a feeling of timelessness, an expression of higher things, is characteristic of Bach’s works, here personal expression gains the upper hand in a freer style. The text includes no dialogues or dramatic personages such as an evangelist-narrator or soloists with assigned roles. The soloists alternate (also exceptionally joining for duets) to present a free version of an episode from the Passion story in a recitative, followed by a poetic reflection on these events in an aria. After one or two of these individual interventions, the choir makes its answer, crowned by a chorale that could be sung by the whole congregation.

The central position of the chorales was an important factor in the success of the work. Graun’s Passion Der Tod Jesu was so well received that it was performed again the following year on Good Friday, a tradition that was then maintained at the Berlin court until 1884. Der Tod Jesu is thus an interesting case study in the continuity of performance practice. The work breathes the lyrical mood of the Italian opera which long enjoyed great favour with audiences. This, in combination with the central role of the chorales that were ideally suited to the Lutheran liturgy, ensured that this work would be one of the first great occasional works to enjoy a performance tradition of more than one hundred years.

We are left only with the question of why Der Tod Jesu disappeared from the repertoire at the end of the nineteenth century, to be replaced by the rediscovered Bach Passions. The answer may perhaps be found in the somewhat light tone of the work. The introverted passages are replaced by a cheerful and festive mood. This accorded with the theological vision of the Enlightenment, in which Jesus was worshipped primarily as a hero and the Passion story was set to a music that reflected the great joy brought to mankind through the effects of his suffering and death. This no longer suited the late-nineteenth-century vision of the Passion story, in which the sorrow at the injustice and suffering undergone by Jesus took the central place, aspects that are much more clearly present in Bach’s Passions. Der Tod Jesu thus disappeared from the repertoire, ripe for rediscovery in the twenty-first century.

from notes by Dirk Moelants © 2004
English: Stratton Bull

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