Heinrich Schütz: The Cultural Background

Schütz was born fifteen years before the end of the sixteenth century. He therefore came into the world at the height of what we call the Renaissance, that is to say, at the zenith of the great wave of humanism that, with its influx of classical Greek and Latin literature, effected the transition from late medieval to modern times. Time and time again such waves of 'southern' culture have overflowed into native 'nordic' culture, as in the time of Charlemagne, Otto III, Friedrich von Staufen, and Charles V, and more notably in the age of Erasmus in Rotterdam and Ulrich in Hutten. Although the influence of 'southern' culture on native German art did at times assume alarming dimensions, Germany proved strong enough to assimilate what was good and reject what was superfluous.

What it certainly brought about was a more flexible concept of artistic form in Germany, as is demonstrated by the development of Albrecht Dürer and Altdorfer. This flexibility in turn brought with it a specifically 'German Renaissance', which we can still admire in many places today in the homely ornamentation of small gables, doorways and balconies.

For Germany the period between the war of Schmalkalden and the Thirty Years' War was a time of peace and bourgeois prosperity under the Emperors Maximilian II, Rudolf II and Matthias. People discovered a relish for life that had something of Horace's carpe diem about it, The coarse tomfoolery in the inns and on the streets, which had characterized life in the heyday of the hired soldier, now yielded to the way of life of the scholars and patricians. Spanish dress was worn; Elizabethan poets were held in esteem--Shakespeare especially; and for lack of anything better people read the works of the German poet Fischart, though the contemporary neo-classical versifiers enjoyed far greater prestige. This all contributed to the great change that took place during the course of Schütz's long life: the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque era. One tidal wave after another swept northwards from Italy and German scholasticism, already almost completely under foreign influence, was stimulated into a feverish ferment of activity. The last wave, however, no longer brought the pagan art of ancient Greece and Rome with it, but that of Catholic Italy and the Counter-reformation. The source of inspiration was no longer the Italy of the Borgias and the Medicis but the Italy of the Council of Trent and the Jesuits: an Italy that was itself the frequent subject of criticism.

At the beginning of this century most people saw nothing in Baroque art but the Renaissance run riot, a tasteless lack of proportion, and rampant bombasticism. Today, however, we are in a position to see that the wave of agitated, florid art and artificial pastoral poetry known as 'Marinism' after the poet Marino and teeming with allusions to ancient mythology, unleashed vivid powers of expression in the North. These permeated the dormant impulses of Gothic art, giving it new shape and prominence. Art experts still dispute whether the North or the South was the more dominant influence. But on one issue they are all agreed: a tremendous sense of excitement, drama, awareness of the spacious contrasts of light and shade, pleasure and pain, and the nearness and remoteness of existence came to the surface, throwing the lucid logic and snug intimacy of the late Renaissance in Germany into confusion.

It became a time of widespread conflict. The sincere, open approach of Gryphius and Grimmelshausen was counterbalanced by the courtly pretentiousness of Lohenstein and Brockes. The 'we' of a social order in which the scholar reigned supreme was now superseded by the 'I' of the individual, torn apart and fighting on his own for a foothold in the world. The answer was to be found not only in the reinstatement of Roman Catholicism in Austria through the Jesuit envoys of the Habsburgs, but also in a religious regeneration of the protestant areas that led to a degree of asceticism. not far removed from the English puritanism.

This throws some fight on the state of religion within the new denomination during Schütz's lifetime. The great blow that had been dealt by Luther brought with it an unresolved stalemate of basic religious principles. The hair-splitting conflict between the orthodox Flacians (named after their leader Flacius Myricus) and the followers of Melanchton (known as Philippists) over theological niceties could do little to conceal the inner vacuum. This unfortunate state of affairs was further aggravated by the impasse with the 'Reformed' worship of the followers of Zwingli and Calvin, who were denounced by irate Lutheran clergy as being worse than Turks and heathens. In this respect Schütz's friend Hoe von Hoenegg, who was senior chaplain to the court in Dresden, was singularly hypocritical. Originally a Roman Catholic from Styria, he was accepting bribes from the Jesuits.

As a counterbalance to this lack of sensitivity people soon turned to the mysticism of the 'pansophic' (we would probably say today 'anthroposophical') Rosenkreuzer1 and to a form of theosophy as practised by the Görlitz cobbler, Jakob Böhme, or by the more orthodox churchman Johann Arnd with his Four Books of the True Christianity. These were the germ-cells of 'Pietism' and there was probably more genuine religion here than in the phraseology of the concordat with which the Electorate of Saxony sought to safeguard itself against the heresy that it feared amongst its own protestant ranks.

Perhaps nothing shows the change taking place in the protestant world from the Renaissance to the early Baroque era better than the title of Michael Praetorius's largest collection of hymn-settings. It is called Musae Sioniae.The muses are a remnant of Renaissance thought, but the Parnassus of the Greeks is now replaced by Mount Sion of the Old Testament, demonstrating the influence of Christianity in the Baroque era.

With the end of the long war a definitely hostile attitude towards life emerges. The apparently disgruntled concept of the world as a 'vale of woe', and preoccupation with death and the transitoriness of life derive from this period, and we have evidence of all this in the elaborate preparations, Schütz made for his own funeral. This very emphasis on the proximity of death fired people in the Baroque era to an unbridled affirmation of life. At the same time there is a significant change in the literary picture; Opitz disparaged the traditional German doggerel and started turning out smooth alexandrines. German students wanting to study abroad no longer thronged to the Italian universities but to Haarlem, Amsterdam, Leyden, and later to Paris. France, as the land of Louis XIV, the roi soleil, set out to assume the leading role and began to determine taste in Europe.

This general cultural development had a marked effect on the position of music in Germany. The leading figures in the musical world in which the young Schütz found himself in 1600 were the first and second generation of pupils of Orlando di Lasso, the great Netherlands composer resident in Munich. They included such composers as Lechner, Eccard, and Hassler--all of whom, however, showed an upbringing more Italian than Dutch. Their favorite musical forms were the villanella a la Regnart and the canzona a la Gastoldi: in other words purely homophonic strophic songs, short intimate, gay--like contemporary German architecture. Then followed the Venetian art of the motet for double choir, exemplified above all by the two Gabrielis. This form was assimilated in Hamburg by Hieronymus Praetorius, in Prague by Jakob Gallus, in Magdeburg by Friedrich Weissensee, and in Wolfenbüttel by Michael Praetorius. The emphasis was on the splendid and the florid; the music manages to be mystical and rhetorical at one and the same time.

But in the case of the canzonas of Hans Leo Hassler in Nuremberg, although they were written for several voices, they no longer express the feelings of a community as the polyphonic works of the Netherlanders did: the seemingly polyphonic settings are basically homophonic in intent giving subjective expression to individual, personal feelings. This is even truer of the court speciality, the madrigal, which in form is something between the song and the motet.

This shift from a sense of belonging to a community to a newfound self-awareness and a sense of isolation becomes even more apparent in the course of the seventeenth century with its new emphasis on monody and works for solo voices. In Northern Italy Caccini and Viadana were demonstrating the new style in secular and sacred cantatas and anthems for one or more solo voices. They were soon to be emulated in Germany by such composers as Isaac Posch in Klagenfurt, Aichinger in Ingolstadt and J. H. Schein in Leipzig. The instrumental sonata likewise found its way from Italy to Germany. Biagio Marini in Düsseldorf and Carlo Farina in Schütz's Dresden were the harbingers of this particular form of subjectivism. The figured bass with its harmonic shorthand became the necessary technical device to ensure that the harmony was not impaired by the absence of written inner parts but was in fact made richer and more exciting. From the sketchwork of the remaining outer parts grew the skill of ornamentation and individual virtuosity.

The increased need for self-expression experienced by composers in the Baroque era resulted in a fantastic decoration of the musical line-while their new feeling for space taught them how best to employ the contrast of solo group and full choir, of near and distant ensembles, and the widest possible range of instrumental resources. We encounter all this in the works of Schütz. As early as 1619, in the Psalms of David, we meet elements of medieval psalmody and late medieval polyphony together with declamatory homophonic chorales and florid madrigal-like writing accentuating the text-in short, the latest developments in baroque monody and instrumental virtuosity. This by no means implies uncertainty or a downright lack of stylistic feeling, but typifies the vital energy, not to say 'violence', of the baroque individual who looked on the use of all devices of all periods and places as justifiable in so far as they allowed him to express such extremes as presented themselves to him in the words of a text that he was trying to depict down to the last detail. Thus Schütz composed some works for massive choral resources and required a very modest-sized group of performers in others. And yet he remained true to himself at all times.

Heinrich Schütz was born on October 8, 1585 in Reuss-Köstritz.2 His father was the inn-keeper of the 'Golden Crane' (Zum goldenen Kranich) which still stands today in all its elegance. Whether he was a descendant of Christoph or his brother Albrecht (as was assumed in his funeral oration and has been asserted again recently despite the amount of evidence to the contrary) is not really of overriding importance. Either way he stems from the same family of important merchants and civil servants that originally came from Nuremberg; on several occasions Schütz claimed endowments from these relatives for his daughters.

While the paternal side of the family tree gives no indication of artistic talent, the musical inheritance from his mother's side would seem to be indisputable. His mother, Euphrosyne Bieger (or Piegert), was the daughter of a mayor of Gera and had a sister called Justina who was the mother of the excellent songwriter, Heinrich Albert, of Lobenstein. Their relationship resembles that of the Lämmerhirt cousins in Erfurt, one of whom was the mother of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the other of Johann Gottfried Walther. Whereas, however, Bach's famous paternal lineage left no doubt as to his choice of music as a profession, with Schütz the conflict between the commercial and the artistic circles in which he moved resulted in a long period of indecision before he became convinced of his true calling. Even much later in life he would still stress the fact that he had been a highly talented student of law.

Schütz died in Dresden on November 6, 1672, so that he lived, as the obituary confirms, exactly eighty-seven years and twenty-nine days. His first thirty-three years were spent in times of peace, the next thirty were dominated by the Thirty Years' War, and the last twenty-four saw the process of recovery of the German world after its terrible destruction. A further, and no less significant pattern in his life, is provided by his thirty-four years of bachelorhood, followed by a mere six years of conjugal bliss, and then forty-seven years as a widower whose sad lot it was to survive even his daughters. Some consolation is to e found when one compares his musical achievements with his age. Schütz was nearly twenty-seven when his late Op. 1, the Italian Madrigals, appeared; he was thirty-four when the polychoral settings of the Psalms were published, forty when the Cantiones Sacrae, and forty-four when the first collection of Symphoniae Sacrae appeared; he had turned fifty when his Kleine geistliche Konzerte were published.

The Geistliche Chormusik was published when he was sixty-three; he had entered his eighties when he composed the Passions, and he completed the Deutsches Magnificat when he was eighty-six. Schütz, then, was fortunate enough to be able to carry on composing until the end of his life. As with other great composers with a long span of life (Gluck, Haydn, Verdi), his hesitant start conforms to the law of a sure but steady growth and well-grounded development.

In order to see Schütz in the true light of his historical environment, it is worth while looking briefly at his cultural and political background. He was born twenty-one years after Shakespeare and Hans Leo Hassler, and as many years before Rembrandt, whom he survived by three years. Paul Gerhardt3 died four years after him; Schütz was fifty-three at the birth of Louis XIV; Bach and Handel were born exactly a century after him--a mere thirteen years separating his death from their birth.

VIA: Heinrich Schütz


1. Rosenkreuzer-a kind of masonic lodge. It is possible that in the first place it never really existed save in the imagination of the poet J. V. Andrea. Return to Text

2.  Reuss was a small county south-west of Saxony; Köstritz, a town 'a league away from Gera.Return to Text

3.  Paul Gerhardt was the German pastor and lyric poet who wrote 'O Sacred Head sore wounded'

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