Exequien

A programme dominated by funerary music, but that need not make it an unduly miserable occasion!


Bach: Der Geist Hilft
Bach: Komm Jesu Komm
Schütz: Musicalishe Exequien
Rossi: Respice cora
Monteverdi: Ego flos campi
 

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J S Bach motets: Der Geist Hilft and Komm Jesu Komm
Tonight’s programme is dominated by funerary music, but that need not make it an unduly miserable occasion! Four of Bach’s surviving motets are known to have had their origin in memorial services, yet none is an especially gloomy piece. Indeed, it is the very human scope of their expressive range that marks out them out as amongst the most complete manifestations of Bach’s gifts.

Der Geist Hilft, far from opening in solemnity, begins with an exultant, virtuosic paean to the Holy Spirit, characteristically represented in rising semiquavers (even small details of word painting carry a theological significance in Bach’s work). Der Geist Hilft was written in 1729 for the funeral service of a local notable, Johann Heinrich Ernesti, who would have been well known to Bach as rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig – it was at the Thomaskirche that Bach himself had a position. In common with several other of Bach’s motets it uses two equal choirs each of four voices to create an effect that was doubtless intended to be magnificent, and not at all dolorous. In the case of Der Geist Hilft, the two choirs combine for the closing fugue and chorale.

Komm Jesu Komm, written several years earlier, is different in atmosphere (more sombre and contemplative) but similar in design to Der Geist Hilft. Both borrow from the model of the Italian concerto which Bach had studied closely – Komm Jesu Komm even begins with a variant of the Vivaldian three hammer-stroke formula familiar from the Concerti Grossi and Violin concertos. Bach’s contrapuntal mastery however allows for a more freewheeling development of ideas, once established. Both motets performed tonight divide into four clearly defined sections each articulated by a change of metre, and each closes with that least Italianate of forms, the Lutheran Chorale (Bach’s style represents a fusion, never irritation, of existing models).

Both motets will be performed unaccompanied. We know that this was accepted practice in the later eighteenth century, as this was how Mozart heard thein in 1789. Whilst this adds transparency to the often very complex counterpoint, it seems likely that a performance by Bach himself would have included instrumental doubling of the vocal lines; surviving instrumental parts for Der Geist Hilft strongly suggest that this may have been the case for other motets as well.

Heinrich Schütz: Musicalische Exequien
As for Bach, death was an everyday part of life for Heinrich Schütz, and not just in terms of commissions from benefactors. Schütz had the misfortune to live through some of the most troubled years of the seventeenth century, in a Saxony riven by the Thirty Years War and successive epidemics. In unrelated circumstances Schiitz lost a large part of his own family, his young wife, his only brother, his two children and both parents all dying within a few years. So it is perhaps unsurprising that his music seems so acquainted with melancholy and grief. In the 1630’s Schütz was already one of the best-known composers in Germany. The portrait of Schütz by Rembrandt (no less) dates from 1633, and it was just two years after this that the composer was commissioned to write the Requiem Mass (“ein deutshen Begrabnis-Missa“) which we now know as the Musicalische Exequien. The commissioner was a Saxon nobleman, one Heinrich Reuss Posthumus, Prince of Gera, Schleiz and Lohenstein with Plauer, who specified conditions for his funeral in unusual detail, laying down texts both for the sermon and to be inscribed around his coffin. Schütz didn’t have long to wait to hear the fruits of his labours, for Reuss died the following year (1636).

Even more than Bach, Schütz imported Italian models into his music to create a dynamic, flexible fusion between new ideas and traditional, Lutheran traits. Schütz’s links with Venice were particularly strong; he had been a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli, and made several return visits to the city, where his range of contacts included Monteverdi (it is known that they met on Schütz’s visit in 1630, just five years before the Exequien was written). The first motet, Nacket bin ich, is one of the finest of Schütz’s works, written with the example of a Monteverdian vocal concerto clearly in mind. In 27 discrete sections, it is by far the largest component of the Exequien, accounting for more than half the total music. Its text combines elements of both Kyrie and Gloria in a dialectic that contrasts man’s sinfulness and God’s saving mercy; the opening sections recall both the essence of a three-fold Kyrie (the thrice repeated chorus “erbarm dich”) and give a distant premonition of Bach’s narrative power, whilst the closing sections bring the motet round to a feeling of fulfilment and certainty. Only a detailed analysis could do justice to the subtle interlinking of monodic song, chorale, solo concertato and madrigal that comprises this compelling theological argument in music.

The second motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe, continues ideas developed in the sermon, and is a two choir, eight-part, cori spezzari work with a long Venetian lineage. The third, is an ingenious reworking of the Nunc Dimitis, with an added Requiem text to be sung by three soloists. In the original performance context, these were to sing from the vault beside Reuss’ coffin, as an ethereal, angelic counterpoint (“Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener in Frieden fahren selig sind die Toten“, blessed are the dead) to the main body of the choir, situations en masse around the organ singing the ancient Simeon’s plea for release.
MCG

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  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

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    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

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    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener's Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott's organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers' luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

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    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

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