Heinrich Schütz composed his three Passion settings in his eighties;
they constitute his musical valedictory, testaments to his devotion
to truthful and imaginative text-setting.
In our time we are more accustomed to artistic productivity extending into old age, but the music of Schütz’s ninth decade was a rarity in the seventeenth century. He was in uncharted territory.
Passion settings in Dresden were traditionally for voices only. The practice of adding non-Biblical texts had not yet developed. Schütz’ musical style had reached a high level of economy and simplicity by the 1660s. The twenty-first century listener is in for a very unusual experience in encountering his St. Matthew Passion.
The music often sounds like subtly inflected Gregorian chant. But it is not entirely meditative. It is capable of bursting out vigorously at certain dramatic flash points, and the solo vocal lines reveal scene and character through the most precise melodic details. It exerts a hypnotic power, for book listeners and performers. The longer we live in its austere, fervent voice, the more its eloquence will remain in memory.
In 1961, in Berlin, I was privileged to sing in the chorus for a performance of the Schütz St. Matthew Passion, the only live performance I’ve had a chance to witness to this day. The event has never faded. Candidates for, and adherents of this piece are not numerous, but they are intense. The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtay recently made striking four-hand piano transcriptions of many of the Turbae (crowd scenes) just to have a more sustained contact with the music.
We are fortunate at Emmanuel to be able to present such a rare work as this, in its proper context, drawing on our longtime devotion to its composer and the great sacred music tradition he so masterfully represents.