I love to use appropriate selections for various religious holidays, when such music is available. Happily, there is quite a bit of music written for the Easter, notably that written for Passion Week. Passion observances are a tradition that goes all the way back to the 4th century, and we believe that they began to be “intoned” (sung) as early as the 8th century. Source material dating back as far as the 9th century indicate “litterae significativae” (interpretive chant), and at some point after this chanters began to write down which notes to sing. So one can say that Passion music is a key part of the history of written and organized music. For me, given my interest in history, musical and otherwise, stuff like that is hard to ignore, and impossible to resist. Given this, it has been a long-standing tradition of mine to find appropriate (and creative) Easter compositions, when I can get them.
We start tonight’s show with a lovely recitation of the Passion story, in German, that was composed by Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672) in 1666. Schütz was one of the most significant North German composers of the early Baroque era, and is credited in helping initiate a German compositional tradition that eventually resulted in J.S. Bach. In a time when many composers were divided between asserting their musical creativity and cleaving to ecclesiastically-preferred tradition (thick choral counterpoint was quite a point of controversy in the Church at the time), his St. Matthew Passion manages to find the sweet spot between musicality and tradition: cleanly-sung solo a capella lines, with duets and brief choral passages interwoven throughout, emphasizing specific lines in such a manner that, when the chorus comes in, it is simultaneously startling, exhilarating, and touching. Schütz, whose entire surviving catalog is comprised of vocal works (he was also a noted organist), gave an excellent display of his choral compositional ability in this work, while at the same time writing some compelling a capella lines for Jesus (bass, sung by John Ostendorf) and The Evangelist (tenor, sung by Grayson Hirst). Tonight’s recording is from the Amor Artis Chorale, and was recorded in 1988.
When one is looking for Easter music, it is hard to avoid some of the numerous Easter-time compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially as he wrote two of the most significant Passion works. But he did not limit himself to the Passion works, which is only natural, given the fact that he completed four complete cycles of cantatas (a cycle is a full year’s worth of music, one composition for each week of the year, something that Bach did four times). Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und laufet – “Come, hasten and run”), BWV 249, was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725. Its composition is a substantial departure from the form taken by his numerous cantatas, and in parts is a parody (in other words, a recycle) of a secular cantata that Bach had written a few months earlier. But Bach’s practice of recycling music was far simpler than a cut and paste job – in many instances, music was rearranged to fit the libretto, instrumentation changed, parts added or removed. Tonight’s recording is a rather striking rendition by the Bach Collegium Japan from 2005, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. Soloists were Yukari Nonoshita (soprano), Patrick van Goethem (counter-tenor), Jan Kobow (tenor), and Chiyuki Urano (bass).
While Heinrich Schütz serves as an excellent representative of musical development in the North German region, Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706) was one of the leading organists and composers of the South German region. While he is most well-known today for his Canon in D, he wrote a wide array of music, both instrumental and vocal, and is considered an important link in the Baroque era timeline. Tonight we heard one of his several Easter works, Christ ist erstanden (trans: Christ has risen), a work for solo voice with violin and continuo. He uses a compositional technique that was common around central and southern Germany around 1700, wherein he did away with the canctus firmus (a pre-existing melody that was used to form the basis of a contrapuntal composition; Bach’s compositions are ripe with canctus firmi, especially in the chorale sections wherein one can hear the underlying Lutheran hymn), and arranges the voice in a rather free-flowing manner, similar to what one might have done with a keyboard. Tonight’s performance comes from a 2004 recording by La Capella Ducale, directed by Ronald Wilson, with Monika Mauch singing the solo vocal role.