Vocal Music by Schütz and Christopher Fox: A Telling and Thought-Provoking Combination

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schütz and Fox: EXAUDI [Juliet Fraser, Rebecca Lea (sopranos), Tom Williams (countertenor), Ben Alden, Jonathan Bungard (tenor), Simon Whiteley, Jimmy Holliday (bass), Stephen Farr (organ), James Weeks (conductor)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 20.12.2015. (MB)

Schütz Ein Kind ist uns geboren, SWV 384; Das Wort ward Fleisch, SWV 385; O lieber Herre Gott, SWV 381; Ich bin jung gewesen und bin alt worden, SWV 320; Die mit Tränen säen, SWV 378; Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock, SWV 389; Herr, auf dich treue ich, SWV 377; So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ, SWV 379; Ich liege und schlafe, SWV 310; Unser keener lebet ihm selber, SWV 391; Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt, SWV 393

Interspersed with: Christopher FoxTrostlieder (in Widerwärtigkeit des Kriegs), world premiere

This was a decidedly superior, somewhat yet not excessively oblique, Advent/Christmas concert. Motets from Schütz’s 1648 Geistliche Chor-Musik, supplemented by a duet and an aria from the earlier (1639) Kleine Geistliche Konzerte II, framed the four parts of Christopher Fox’s Trostlieder (in Widerwärtigkeit des Kriegs), receiving its world premiere. Fox’s work is a cappella, whereas the Schütz pieces all have organ continuo; other than that, the forces are similar, Schütz writing for slightly different forces throughout his collection. The Schütz pieces offered some ‘seasonal’ quality, in perhaps a similar measure to Handel’s Messiah doing so. The connection with Fox’s new work, a response to James Weeks’s invitation to compose a companion work to some of Schütz’s motets, began yet did not end with 1648, a date burned onto the German and indeed the European conscience and memory, as the end of the Thirty Years’ War and its attendant, almost incredible devastation. Fox had come to know Schütz’s music in the early 1980s and ‘remembered from that time that Schütz makes a brief appearance in Günter Grass’s 1979 novel, Das Treffen in Telgte’. In his novel, Grass has a number of German writers meeting in the aftermath of the war, and, as an appendix, offers an anthology from those writers, including the first part of Martin Opitz’s Trost-Gedichte in Widwärtigkeit des Kriegs (‘Poems of Comfort in the Dreadfulness of War’), written earlier during the conflict. It may, or may not, be coincidental that Opitz was also the librettist for Schütz’s Dafne, the first German opera, whose music has, alas, been lost.

At any rate, Fox has understandably felt parallels with both his own family’s history – the Red Army’s occupation of Pomerania echoing the destruction of three centuries earlier – and the plight of Syria today. They do not appear explicitly, or at least unmistakeably, in this work; we may have other, personal and/or societal, parallels to draw. The omnipresence of war, of state-sanctioned violence, and of the dislocation that refugees – from the Holy Family onwards, and indeed long before that – are unlikely, however, to leave our minds completely; they certainly did not mine. Toing and froing from 1648 (and a little earlier) to 2015 unsurprisingly shone light upon both similarity and difference; what was perhaps surprising was how much the former tended to prevail over the latter.

The nature of the Geistliche Chor-Musik as a collection has musical parallels of its own; perhaps inevitably, I thought both of Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale and the later practice, in so many genres, of Bach. Thinking of Schütz as the transalpine stepping-stone – I suppose ‘Pass’ might be better, given the terrain – between the glories of Venice and the absolute summit of Western music is ingrained upon our musico-historical consciousness, and with good reason. Had he not been Gabrieli’s pupil, we might have had to invent the fact. The opening Ein Kind ist uns geboren sounded poised between madrigalian sacred piece and the prima pratica, between homophony and counterpoint: both as work and as performance from EXAUDI under Weeks. Darkness and yet luminosity were the Advent hallmarks of Das Wort ward Fleisch, the celebrated opening of St John’s Gospel made musical flesh. And even if the sense of music travelling north from Venice to the German lands might sometimes be a little too fanciful, a little too convenient, here again it sounded in the setting of Luther’s translation of an Advent collect, O Lieber Herre Gott: mediated not only by the Reformation but by the shadow of war.

The first of the four parts of Fox’s Trostlieder then followed. The composer’s own description of this lengthy section of text reads: ‘“May my tongue burn with passion; let me not stumble on this barren path.” The war-torn landscape is described: farms abandoned, the land pillaged, homes on fire. “The sickle and plough have been sharpened into swords.”’ The harmonic language is, of course, quite different from that of Schütz; so are many other things. There sounded nevertheless a strong element of kinship, not least in the sorts of writing, such as outlined above, one might hear, whether more straightforwardly echoing those distinctions in Schütz’s music or reimagining them. It also struck me – and this may simply be my own personal resonance – that the way in which particular vocal lines would sometimes take a different turn from what one might have expected, without in the least sense sounding arbitrary, offered kinship with a composer who, rightly, or wrongly, has often been seen as marking the end of that tradition inaugurated by Schütz: Arnold Schoenberg. Cries of horror – ‘Ey, ey’ – proved especially, dramatically memorable. The quasi-muttering of some of the final section and the open musical and verbal question of the final line – ‘Wer fragt, ob Kriegeskunst List, oder Tugend sey?’ left one wanting more: both of Schütz and of Fox. Excellent performances throughout were, of course, part and parcel of that; it was perhaps more than usually difficult to separate works from their performance here.

Schütz’s Ich bin jung gewesen und bin alt worden was sung by Simon Whiteley and Jimmy Holliday with disarming clarity and sincerity, resounding as a touching profession of faith, not least in its closing Allelujas. There followed the second part of Fox’s work: ‘A series of images of cyclical change in the natural world: the passage of sun and moon, night following day, changes in the weather. “This is the way of the world, one falls, another rises, one rises, another falls.”’ The varying textures and ‘solo’ spots somehow always sounded ‘right’, without my necessarily being able to tell you why. A case in point would be the placing of the countertenor on top in the third stanza ‘Zu Zeiten ligt die See gantz stille, glatt und eben, …’. Relative flatness – I speak not in terms of pitch, but of register: foothills, if you like, rather than peaks – in much, although not all, of this seemed to convey or at least to suggest a fatalism in the face of cyclical change, and perhaps also in the face of less natural transformations. And yet, I felt tempted to think, for ‘them’ and for ‘us’, things moved. After that, the precious sadness, interspersed with knowing, certainly not naïve, joy in what we might call salvation, sounded in Schütz’s Die mit Tränen säen. Restrained jubilation was also to be heard in Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock, that restraint partly a matter of what had gone before: historically, musically, and musico-historically.

There seemed to be a little more overt passion in Schütz’s Herr, auf dich traue ich, whilst the hymnal quality of the ensuing So fah rich hin zu Jesus Christ, its simplicity and its complexity, pointed towards the future of German music. The third part of Trostlieder sounded perhaps more overtly strange in harmonic context, at least in its opening, repeated yet transformed, invocation. To quote Fox again, ‘Two different sets of text. Groups of two, then three, then four singers gradually introduce these words, an invocation against pride: … Between these sections the singers sing together, each singing their own passage of text.’ Such was what we heard, the singers making it sound so much easier than it can possibly have been, without that musical ease obscuring the musical dialectic.

Holliday sang, again quite disarmingly, the solo aria, Ich liege und schlafe, reminding us once again of the more operatic elements of Schütz’s writing. Coming to the final part of Fox’s work, I reflected on what seemed to me to be the gratefulness of his vocal writing; that was certainly how EXAUDI made it sound. ‘“We are on our way again”: images of travel, the wind propelling our ship to shore. There is comfort in hope. “Life is like a house-guest, to be encouraged to stay,”, yet “life goes in only one direction”, to death.’ The interplay between cries of ‘O nein!’ and ‘Die Hoffnung,’ the hope to which Fox alludes, seems at the heart of this part to be both a verbal and a musico-structural concern. Much of the rest of the writing, leading us to death, participates in Schütz-like restraint, the homophony unmistakeable.

And then: quiet, even radiant certainty in the three final Schütz motets, Unser keener lebet ihm selber, Selig sind die Toten, and Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt. That said, there was difference here too in similarity: the quietness, the radiance different in quality on each occasion. The final musical flowering, again for us inevitably evoking Messiah (‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’) sounded properly, softly German, whilst acknowledging the Italianate roots from which it had clearly sprung.

Mark Berry

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