In a few weeks’ time, we’re going to be performing one of the most important sacred works of the early German Baroque: Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (“Funeral Music”), widely considered to be the first “German Requiem”. Over three tightly constructed movements with about half an hour’s music between them, it presents a radically different attitude towards death and resurrection to the traditional Roman rite, with its message of hope and reassurance shining through even in its brief dark moments.
But is it fair to see it solely as Schütz’s work? Like the majority of contemporary pieces, it was composed for, and tailored to, a specific occasion: in this case, the burial service of Prince Heinrich II Posthumus von Reuss, in February 1636. It was not uncommon for those on their death-beds to select texts and themes for their funeral services, upon which appropriate music could be written. Prince Heinrich, however, had a meticulous plan for every aspect of his memorial, and none more so than on the music to be performed. Understanding the Prince’s influence on the Musikalische Exequien is vital to be able to understand just how intensely personal this piece is.
The Prince and the Composer
Prince Heinrich was, by most accounts, a stand-up example of early modern royalty. Born in Gera in June 1572, he succeeded his father, Heinrich XVI, who had died two months earlier (hence “Posthumus”), as Lord of Gera, Lobenstein, and Oberkranichfeld – a relatively minor title in the Electorate of Saxony. When he came of age he proved a capable and generous governor, transforming an impoverished and neglected demesne into a prosperous, growing economy. He cleared the vast debts the state had inherited, and brought order to the judiciary, the church, the schools, and the transportation system. He was also a popular figure in the German courts, with a lively and gregarious disposition that made him a darling at nearby royal weddings, hunts, tournaments, and balls.
Music was one of the prince’s great loves. An experienced amateur musician himself, he took a keen interest in the music of the court to the extent of being an active participant: he could “sing the bass in many fine motets and anthems”, according to Hans Rudolf Jung, and sometimes acted as a capable Capellmeister in the royal chapels.
Schütz – a native of Köstritz, a small town a few kilometres from Gera – had a long-standing professional relationship with Prince Heinrich, having been first engaged by the Prince in 1617 to reorganise the musical affairs of the court, chapel, and city.
Unfortunately, no written record of their communication exists, the court archive having been destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, but we may infer from Schütz’s introduction to the printed score that the Prince – well-known and well-liked for his gregariousness and musicality – was as close a friend to the composer as contemporary propriety would allow:
“Is it meet that I should tell here how You used to esteem my slight musical endeavours and boorish sounds as peers of the most beautiful things; and what acts of gracious goodness and kindness You oft bestowed on me on account of that my art? Because that hitherto my origins and my birth came about within the province of Your sway, which You considered as an honour to yourself, and loved me for it all the more.”
Their long personal acquaintance was to be of vital importance in the creation of the Musikalische Exequien, as it is, at its heart, a synthesis between the scriptural and theological wishes of Prince Heinrich, and Schütz’s musical language.
Schütz himself was no stranger to grief, and frequently used his music as an outlet for his all-too-common sorrow at the death of a loved one. Most poignantly, he composed the Becker Psalter as a “Trösterin” (angel of comfort) on the death of his young wife, Magdalena, in 1624. He composed several cantional lieder on the deaths of family members, expressing his heartfelt loss in intensely moving lyrics, such as Patiens impatientia, for the death of his daughter Johanna-Susanna
I howl and weep
in my great trouble
I cry and moan,
Where are you now, my God?
Ah that you so hide
The light of your countenance!
Are you not moved by my sorrow?
Where is your fatherly heart?
Schütz, then, would have no doubt felt the loss of his friend and patron as much as anyone, and would have found no more fitting tribute than a musical one. But as the author of much of his own memorial services, Prince Heinrich moved strongly against such outpourings of grief. He wanted his funeral not to fill those left behind with sorrow, but with reassurance.
Prince Heinrich’s Coffin
In accordance with Lutheran tradition, he chose all the key scriptural texts upon which the sermons at both funeral services and the burial service were to be based, the hymns that were to be sung, and so on. He also had an exquisitely ornate coffin built, mostly in secret, at least a year before his actual death. This coffin – its decoration, inscriptions, and layout – was to form the literal and metaphorical centrepiece of the burial service. For a long time it was inaccessible, having been re-interred twice after the original Johanneskirche was destroyed by a fire in 1780, and so scholars had to rely on contemporary woodcuts to get a picture of it. It was re-re-reinterred in 1995, however, and has occasionally been displayed in exhibitions around Germany, allowing us to finally see its full glory.
The sarcophagus is covered, from head to toe, inside and out, in verses from scripture and hymns, which taken as a whole provides a complete guide to Prince Heinrich’s understanding of death, and words of comfort to himself and those he left behind. But it was also meticulously planned in its ordering and layout, as Schütz writes:
“All those quotations from Holy Writ and verses from Christian hymns which His late Grace had had recorded and engraved upon the outside of the lid and along both sides, at the foot and the head of the coffin which he had made in secret during his lifetime, [are] all brought together and set to music in one concerted work, in the form of a German Missa, in the fashion of the Latin Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in excelsis, Et in terra pax etc “
Far more than simply asking for a few verses from Scripture to be set to music, Heinrich laid the foundations for Schütz to compose an entirely new musical form: a German Requiem. For the texts that the Prince chose were not simply direct German translations of the traditional Roman burial service, but a wholly Lutheran conception of the form, rooted in contemporary hymns and exegesis as much as it was in the old rite.
The coffin itself provides the perfect visual metaphor for the rhetorical devices eventually employed in the composition. The text circles the casket, forming antitheses across the sides and from end to end: life/death, heaven / hell, time / eternity. The verses at the head and foot of the coffin form the clearest contrast between eternal life and physical death respectively:
“For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s”
“Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.”
Henning contends that Prince Heinrich’s intention was to portray a general growth in Christian hope and consolation from the foot to the head – the coffin itself forming a lesson in Christian morality. But it is the “Gloria” section of the first movement of the Musikalische Exequien that displays the clearest evidence of Heinrich’s meticulous planning.
The “Quasi-Gloria”: musical and theological symmetry
Its eight chorale verses, interspersed with passages from the Old and New testaments, form a coherent, balanced arc, balanced internally and externally. Two sections of three chorales each (2-4; 5-7) frame a central verse (3, 6) about the misery of our earthly existence, with verses of consolation, salvation and eternal life. The sections are linked by two passages from scripture which form a “bridge” between the two halves of the Gloria. The “chamber” of Isaiah (“Gehe hin, mein Volk, in eine Kammer“), and the safety and security of the Book of Wisdom (“Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand”), can only be understood because of the eternal life gained by Christ over the course of verses 2-4, and the listener is now ready to grasp this eternal life through faith (as explained in verses 5-7) .
This internal structure is then framed by two verses from Luther’s own hymn Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein, both beginning with “er sprach” – “he said”. Where the first verse depicts God speaking to his Son to go forth into the world to redeem it (to which the incipit also refers), the final verse completes the trajectory, with the triumphant Christ replying directly to the believer’s preceding cry, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”, with “Hold fast to me, then shall all good attend you; I give myself abundantly to hold, and defend you.” These verses appear at the right hand side of the right of the lid, and the left hand side at the foot of the case, respectively, completing the musical journey around the casket.
The Authorship of the Musikalische Exequien: a reassessment?
Despite such clear parallels between the coffin and the Musikalische Exequien, and the exceptional coherence of organisation of the text, several writers have sought to dismiss Heinrich’s influence, giving Schütz full credit for the organisation of texts in the final work. Shoenerich, for example only sees the textual symmetry as it pertains to Schütz’s work, whereas Henning treats the symmetry of the coffin as exclusive to the music. A cornerstone of this argument has been the troped “Kyrie” section at the start of the first movement (beginning “Nakket bin ich…”). While the scriptural verses that intersperse the invocations (“Herr…erbam’ dich…” etc.) are present on the lid of the coffin, the “Kyrie” text itself is not.
Yet it seems highly unlikely that, having been tasked with creating a paraphrased “Gloria”, as per the Prince’s express wishes, Schütz would just “happen upon” the two remaining texts on the sarcophagus that would result in a viable Kyrie trope that also balanced the subsequent chorale/scripture based Gloria. For this, again, we surely have Prince Heinrich to thank.
Prince Heinrich’s control over the overall formal structure of the piece, and unique conception of a “German Requiem” – the only one written, so far as we can tell, until the 19th Century – was such that it almost seems unfair for Schütz to have been listed as the sole author of the work, when the Prince’s influence on its composition was so integral to its final form. It would, of course, be equally unfair to look merely at the textual aspects of the piece as the source of its emotive power. Schütz’s strength lay in his ability to take his patron’s meticulous wishes and craft them into the powerful musical work performed at his eventual burial.
Carradus, Anna, “Consolatory Dialogue in Devotional Writings by Men and Women of Early Modern Protestant Germany”, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 93, No. 2 (April 1998), pp. 411-427
Glassock, S. Timothy, “German Requiems Before Brahms: An Examination of Baroque Era Compositions with Textual or Musical Similarities to Johannes Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2009)
Johnston, Gregory S. “Rhetorical Personification of the Dead in 17th-Century German Funeral Music – Schutz’s Musikalische Exequien” (1636) and Three Works by Michael Wiedemann (1693), The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1991) pp. 186-213
Johnston, Gregory S. “Textual symmetries and the origins of Heinrich Schutz’s Musikalische Exequien”, Early Music, Vol. XIX (2), May 1991, pp. 213-226
Rose, Stephen, “Schein’s Occasional Music and the Social Order in 1620s Leipzig” Early Music History, Vol. 23, (2004), pp. 253-284
Stauff, Derek L. “Lutheran Music and Politics in Saxony during the Thirty Years’ War”, PhD Dissertation (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2014)
Tilley, Janette, “Learning from Lazarus: The Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Art of Dying”, Early Music History, Vol. 28 (2009) pp. 139-184
Weibe, George David, “The Musikalische Exequien of Heinrich Schütz: A Conductor’s Analysis for Performance”, PhD Dissertation (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1979)