‘With peace and joy I go on my way, in accordance with God's will.’ So opens Martin Luther’s German paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis, the canticle sung by the aged Simeon on witnessing the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple. Luther’s setting was published in the first Lutheran hymnal, Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524), and later included in the Christliche Geseng zum Begrebniss (1542), a collection of chants and chorales for Lutheran funerals. Combined with a simple yet haunting melody reminiscent of Gregorian chant, Luther’s words capture the serenity of the believer whose faith in Christ is firm, and for whom death is nothing to be feared. This chorale proved to be profoundly inspiring to subsequent generations of Lutheran composers including Michael Praetorius, Johann Schein, Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach. In this performance, the opening verse of Luther’s plaintive original setting is juxtaposed with Bach’s harmonization of the final verse, which concludes the eighteenth-century composer’s cantata Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BWV 125). An example of the so-called ‘chorale cantata’, the entire six-movement work is in fact based on Luther’s chorale.
One of the seminal features of the Lutheran Reformation was its abandonment of purgatory—the middle estate between heaven and hell. Luther taught that human life was akin to a pilgrimage, and that good works did not guarantee entry to heaven; man could only attain salvation through faith alone. Luther’s doctrine exerted some significant influence on Anglican theology from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, with both churches upholding the importance of their followers living lives grounded in faith, in order to be resurrected with Christ on the day of judgement. Thus, in the early modern Protestant mindset, death was considered of equal importance to birth, as the point at which man discovered his fate. The strength of this belief is articulated by the texts chosen for settings of seventeenth-century funeral music, which provoked profound artistic responses from German and English composers alike.
Heinrich Schütz—Musicalische Exequien
Heinrich Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien was commissioned for the funeral of prince Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. Under Reuss’s jurisdiction, the town of Gera had been virtually sheltered from almost all conflict during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and continued its calm existence. Reuss was also considered to be a skilled diplomat and his advice was frequently sought by others. A deeply religious man of letters, he planned every detail of his own funeral, including how his coffin should be constructed, the eulogy and the choice of texts to be read. He had ordered a coffin made of copper, the surfaces of which to be painted and covered with the texts he had chosen. This sarcophagus was rediscovered in Gera in 1995. Schütz and Reuss had known each other for many years, with the nobleman having employed the musician to conduct an audit of his chapel’s musical institutions in 1617. Reuss died on 3 December 1635. As was customary, he was embalmed and his funeral rites were celebrated on 4 February 1636. Schütz was therefore likely to have had very little time in which to compose this score, unless we assume that the prince had already commissioned the work before his death.
The composition was intended for an ensemble of six to eight voices plus ripieno singers, with basso continuo accompaniment provided by the organ and a ‘violone’. However, two pieces of information provided by Schütz in his preface supply further information regarding the realisation of the basso continuo: 'Bassus continuus vor die Orgel / Bassus continuus vor den Dirigenten oder Violon.' (‘Violon should here be read as Violone’). This indication occurs frequently and implies a bass string instrument that does not necessarily play one octave lower than written. Schütz’s work is divided into three parts that correspond to the three sections of the liturgy. We nonetheless know that the funeral procession was accompanied at the start of the office by the chorale Mit Fried und Freud, this being sung by all present.
The word ‘concert’ was much employed by Schütz and his contemporaries and was clearly derived from the term ‘concerto’ employed by seventeenth-century Italian composers (above all by Monteverdi in his Vespers and other works) to describe sacred compositions for solo voices accompanied by basso continuo. Schütz developed this style of composition in his two volumes of Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and in other works during the years of economic difficulty during and in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. The composer here uses a systematic alternation of sections intended for solo voices (ranging between one and six) with sections for six-part Capella (i.e. chorus), recommending that at certain points the voices are doubled.
This first section is by far the longest of the three, and is made up of two sections that Schütz (following Reuss) would have associated with two sections of the Deutsche Messe: the Kyrie and the Gloria. The texts used here are not those of the Mass as used by Lutherans, but a series of scriptural texts that are thematically related. The two sections are easily recognisable, each one being introduced with a plainsong incipit. It is not possible to mistake the origins of the Kyrie: the verses sung by the Capella are closely related to those of the Kyrie proper, with invocations to the three members of the Holy Trinity. ‘Lord God the Father who art in heaven, have mercy on us / Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us / Lord God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.’ This triple invocation by the Capella is also linked to the Latin Kyrie, in that the same music is used for the first and also for the third invocation.
The relationship of the Gloria with the original Mass text is less straightforward: here Schütz sets a succession of texts that are not only intended to glorify God, but also present a call for hope and redemption for the deceased. The settings of the verses for the solo voices are highly active in character, making frequent use of imitation between the vocal parts. This contrasts with the settings of the verses intended for the Capella, which are largely homophonic (i.e. comprised of block chords), although in the Gloria Schütz provides music for verses sung by the larger ensemble that are much more varied in style, also employing imitation and setting passages antiphonally between the upper and lower voices. Amongst the texts chosen by von Reuss is one of the verses of the chorale Mit Fried und Freud; Schütz employs Luther’s chorale melody in imitative basis. In contrast to his contemporaries and colleagues Schein, Scheidt and Praetorius, such a practice is extremely rare in Schütz’s work.
Henry Purcell—Funeral Sentences and Full Anthems
Whilst Schütz was at the forefront of German music in the seventeenth century, Henry Purcell’s output marks the high-point of the Anglican tradition following the English Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. As one of the organists of the Chapel Royal, Purcell contributed music for several royal funerals. According to recent musicological research, however, it now seems clear that the Funeral Sentences composed by Purcell—long been assumed to have formed part of the funeral music for Queen Mary—were actually composed for another occasion, although the reason for their composition remains unclear. Purcell set three of the Anglican funeral sentences: Man that is born of a woman, In the midst of life and Thou knowest, Lord—the three texts spoken or sung at the graveside. Purcell’s funeral music is therefore incomplete, and Purcell does not seem to have produced any other settings of the remaining sentences.
These three pieces and the anthems (Hear my prayer for eight voices and Remember not, Lord, our offences for five voices) included in this programme are thought to date from the same period. Two main types of anthem had been in use in England from the beginning of the seventeenth century: the so-called ‘full anthem’ and the verse anthem. The full anthem was for vocal ensemble, with organ, (and sometimes wind instruments or viols) doubling the vocal lines and, by Purcell’s time, providing basso continuo. By contrast, the verse anthem alternated polyphonic passages with sections for one or more solo voices accompanied by the organ or instruments. Following the Restoration, and the increasing influence of French music on the Chapel Royal composers, this accompaniment was performed by violins and violas,
supported by the basso continuo. As an inheritor of the great English polyphonic tradition, Purcell brought together the two styles in a perfect synthesis, with his unique talent for using chromatic harmonies to render the intensity of emotion in the texts.
Thomas Morley—Music for the Funeral of Queen Elizabeth
Much of the literature and music composed during the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) makes reference to melancholia—one of the four humours that had been believed to regulate the human body by the Ancient Greeks. Thought to have corresponded with the levels of black bile in the body, melancholy was associated with the season of Autumn. It found expression in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the poetry of John Donne and, of course, in music. For the Elizabethans, musing on death and grief was seen as one of the marks of a profound and sincere artist.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, departing from this life 'mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree', according to a contemporary diarist, England entered a period of intense mourning. Thomas Morley's setting of the Funeral Sentences was sung at her funeral (although Morley had in fact died the previous year). The three ‘Dirge Anthems’ set the words appointed in the Book of Common Prayer to be read at the burial service. In its austere beauty, the language of this liturgy has since passed into quasi-immortality. Morley's setting was to prove popular, being performed at many subsequent state funerals, and used as a model for future settings by composers notably including William Croft.
The first anthem was intended to be sung at the entrance to the churchyard, before the procession moved into the church or towards the grave. The second was to be sung at the graveside, and the third as the earth was cast onto the coffin. Morley’s music beautifully conveys the sense of grief at the inevitability of death mingled with the hope of the resurrection—the very apposition of light and shadow.
Henry Purcell—O Dive Custos
Despite the circumstances surrounding Purcell’s funeral sentences remaining unclear, we know that Purcell did, in fact, compose at least one tribute in memory of Queen Mary. In May 1695, Henry Playford published Three Elegies upon the Much Lamented Loss of our Late Most Gracious Queen Mary. The texts were by a ‘Mr. Herbert’, and the print included settings by both Purcell and his teacher John Blow. Taken from the collection, Purcell’s ‘O dive custos’ is a florid, Italianate duet, invoking the rivers of both Oxford and Cambridge in grief for Mary.
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Thus, despite coming from different doctrinal backgrounds and being professionally active at opposite ends of the seventeenth century, Schütz, Morley and Purcell are united by a number of common features. Each of them demonstrates intensely focused attention to their texts, and displays a unique ability for capturing and distilling the affects latent in the scriptural and liturgical texts. Together, they exemplify the increasing power music acquired from the Renaissance into the Baroque, which allowed it to function as a means of connection between individual human subjects, and to provide a means for personal meditation on the powerful emotions associated with grief and loss.
Jérôme Lejeune & David Lee