In 1660 the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden heard a piece of musical history – the music performed at the court’s Christmas Vespers was composed for the occasion by the Elector’s Kappellmeister Heinrich Schütz. Schütz who had studied music with Gabrielli and had travelled to Venice to hear the new music of Monteverdi was responsible for introducing to Germany a new and very exciting form of music, a form of music that would be brought to dizzying heights of accomplishment by such musicians as Bach, Handel, and Haydn.
Schütz’s Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) which was described in the Elector of Saxony’s court diary for Christmas of 1660 as ‘the birth of Christ in recitative style’, is the first known setting of the nativity story in which the Evangelist’s words are sung in recitative rather than as unaccompanied chant. Despite being such an important (and influential) event the work was almost completely unknown to audiences for almost 250 years after it was first performed. In 1664 Schütz published the Evangelist’s part alone. Times were hard and publishing expensive so states that the the music for the choruses and intermedii was available in manuscript on application to the composer. And there the matter would have rested had it not been for the work of Arnold Schering who in 1908 discovered an almost complete set of manuscripts in the library of Uppsala University.
It’s a lovely piece of music in which the bulk of the work is done by the Evangelist who, Schütz instructed, should have ‘a good light tenor voice’. Schütz eschewed a florid Italianate style for a marvellously understated stated style. There’s a gentle harmonic line to this piece which serves to highlight Schütz’s gift for painting musical pictures. We can hear Rachel’s anguish as she bewails the slaughter of her children. We can hear that Herod is shaking with rage and fright as it dawns upon him that he’s been tricked. We can hear the musical flourishes as Jesus is named and the Magi present their gifts. We can hear the triumphalism of the growing Child Jesus. And we can certainly hear the joy in the final chorus. Schütz is in fact a very good musical storyteller certainly the best there was before Bach and I rather suspect that he’d have given Bach a run for his money.
The performers in this set of music videos fully live up to Schütz’s demands. The Monteverdichor Würzburg is composed mostly of students attending University of Würzburg and the Würzburg Academy of Music and a philharmonic orchestra consisting of cadre of experienced and young professional musicians from all over Germany who come together in different configurations depending on the needs of the piece being performed. Their repertoire ranges from Schütz to Janáček to Honnegger under the young conductor Matthias Beckert (born 1976) who as well as conducting the Monteverdichor Würzburg conducts the Vokalensemble Cantabile Regensburg. The soloists in this performance are Martin Hummel – Evangelist. Hummel does indeed have ‘a good light tenor voice’ while Anna Nesyba’s performance as the Angel is a joy. Light clear and very expressive. But I’ve gone on enough, you’ll find two versions of the playlist below the first is a standard YouTube playlist which depending on how your browser is set up should play all the music videos automatically. The second playlist is the Saturday Chorale standard playlist with clickable thumbnails that allow you to choose which video to play. I’ve also put together a PDF file with the text both in German and English for you to download if you want to follow along. It’s seven pages long – mostly because I used a good size font for easy reading. You can get it by:
Following this text link (opens in a new tab/window).
Clicking the download icon to the left (opens in a new tab/window).
Playlist: Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story)
How to use the playlist: The playlist consists of a set of thumbnails and text links. Clicking any one of the thumbnails or the text links will load that performance in the large player on top which works exactly the same as YouTube’s player.
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