During his lifetime, Carl Heinrich Graun, a younger contemporary of Bach’s, was one of the best-known exponents of Italian opera in Germany. He achieved a reputation as a skilled composer, rising to the position of vice-Kapellmeister in Braunschweig. In time, King Frederick II, ‘The Great’, appointed Graun his court Kapellmeister. Graun 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 Emmanuel Bach. 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 text, compiled from the Gospels by Carl Wilhelm Ramler, was almost simultaneously set to music by Graun and Telemann, the two works receiving their premieres in March 1755. The stylistic differences of the two works are 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 we find fugal passages reminiscent of Bach; 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. Rather, 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. 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. We are left only to wonder why Der Tod Jesu disappeared from the repertoire at the end of the nineteenth century. The appeal of the rediscovered Bach Passions perhaps proved impossible to counter.