AN 2 9144 Vallée des Pleurs Schütz Bach Praetorius

The Vale of Tears: Schütz, Bach, Praetorius

They spoke about it

Album information


The Musikalische Exequien (SWV 279-81) by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is perhaps the most striking composition by the most important German composer of the 17th century. The three works comprising these “Musical Obsequies” were composed by the Dresden Kapellmeister for the funeral of Herr Heinrich Posthumus Reuß (b. 1572), a member of the minor nobility in whose dominion Schütz was born and with whom he maintained a respectful friendship throughout his life. We know from surviving documents that the deeply religious Posthumus (thus named because he was born two months after the death of his father), ever mindful of his mortality, designed his own coffin and had it constructed secretly a year before his death on December 3, 1635.

The biblical and chorale texts that adorned the coffin were subsequently set to music by Schütz as the first item of the Exequien, performed at the beginning of the burial service on February 4, 1636. In the preface to the 1636 publication of the work, Schütz writes: “All those passages from Holy Scriptures and verses of Christian hymns which His late Grace had recorded and written on the outside of the lid and on both sides, as well as at the head and foot, of his coffin made in secret during his lifetime, are gathered together and set in a concerto, in the form of a German Missa, after the manner of the Latin Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in excelsis, Et in terra pax, etc.” This provides a remarkable musical structure for the first “movement” of the work, a unique and richly varied sonic representation of the sacred texts in which the deceased had quite literally wrapped himself. Posthumus also selected the theme for his sermon, “Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe” (Ps. 73:25), which psalm text Schu?tz also set to music as a more traditional eight-voice motet performed directly after the sermon.

Few pieces in the repertoire match the profound rhetorical force of the Exequien’s concluding concerto. It opens with the tenor recitation of the Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29), “Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren” (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace), also prescribed by the deceased, and continues with the text in a five-voice setting. Suddenly the dynamic level drops, and likely from a concealed position in the church a second choir for two solo sopranos and a bass enters with a different text (Rev. 14:13): “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben” (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord). Schu?tz described this ensemble as the beata anima cum seraphinis: the sopranos represent the seraphim, and the bass portrays the “blessed spirit”. The congregation knew of Posthumus’ reputation as a fine bass singer, and they heard him now singing eternally in the celestial choir.

As Konzertmeister at the Weimar court, J. S. Bach was expected to compose a new cantata each month for his employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst. The cantata “O heilges Geistund Wasserbad” (BWV 165) was composed by Bach for a performance in the Weimar Schloßkapelle on Trinity Sunday, 16 June 1715. Written in a modest chamber style for four soloists (SATB), a small instrumental ensemble, and a closing chorus, the cantata is based on text from Salomon Franck’s Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer published that same year. It is a lesson on original sin, baptism, faith and salvation – a summary of Christian life in a single work. The music reflects an earlier style for Bach – such as the absence of da capo arias – and one might notice that the chorale text and melody of the concluding chorus – “Sein Wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl” – can likewise be heard in the opening section of Schu?tz’s Musikalische Exequien.

The final pieces in this program are simple harmonizations of the two hymns sung at the conclusion of the burial service for Heinrich Posthumus. The settings for both are taken from the eighth volume of Michael Praetorius’ expansive Musae Sioniae (Wolfenbüttel, 1610). The melody of “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin”, perhaps the most popular funerary chorale in the Lutheran Church, was composed by the Reformer himself, Martin Luther, and set to his German paraphrase of the Canticle of Simeon. Combining assurance and Lutheran admonition, the anonymous “Hört auf mit Weinen und Klagen” that concluded the service adjures the faithful to set aside their grief and to take heart in the promised joys of the hereafter.

© Gregory S. Johnston

Read more


Theatre of Early Music
AN 2 9144 Vallée des Pleurs Schütz Bach Praetorius
AN 2 9144 Vallée des Pleurs Schütz Bach Praetorius
AN 2 9144 Vallée des Pleurs Schütz Bach Praetorius

Start typing and press Enter to search