Why Art? Music, History, and Faith through the Eyes of Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz by Christoph Spetner
Heinrich Schütz by Christoph Spetner

In Concordia University Irvine’s Enduring Questions and Ideas (Q&I) curriculum, students take coursework that seeks to engage with big questions: What is Truth? What Does It Mean to be Human? How Shall I Live? As a member of the music faculty, I am frequently called to engage with the question of Why Art?

In the spirit of this question, this essay examines a setting of Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100) by the seventeenth-century Lutheran composer Heinrich Schütz, which was composed and published in the midst of the near-apocalyptic warfare and social upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War. The perspectives of historical, musical, and theological inquiry provide a glimpse into the circumstances that Schütz faced while composing this piece, and offer many parallels to modern day experiences and anxieties. At a broader level, I use Schütz’s Jubilate Deo as a case study to argue for the value of a multidisciplinary approach to the study of music history, and I will discuss how this strategy interfaces with liberal arts education in the Q&I program at Concordia University.

Before you continue, I encourage you to listen to the embedded recording and to follow along with the Latin text and translation given below.

Psalm 100

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra;

     servite Domino in laetitia. Introite in conspectu ejus in exultatione.

Scitote quoniam Dominus ipse est Deus; ipse fecit nos, et non ipsi nos:

     populus ejus, et oves pascuae ejus.

Introite portas ejus in confessione; atria ejus in hymnis:

     confitemini illi. Laudate nomen ejus,

quoniam suavis est Dominus: in aeternum misericordia ejus,

     et usque in generationem et generationem veritas ejus.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.

     Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;

     We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise:

     Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;

     And his truth endureth to all generations. (trans. KJV)

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is regarded as the most important German musician before Johann Sebastian Bach. Schütz’s works have remained popular with generations of performers and listeners, and are frequently performed to this day. As a composer, he is celebrated for his melodic and harmonic fluency, sensitive text setting, and command of both the conservative polyphonic style of the Renaissance (stile antico) and the opera-like monodic style (stile moderno) that appeared in the early seventeenth century and informed much of the musical repertoire of the Baroque era. A staunch Lutheran, Schütz’s surviving compositions consist almost entirely of sacred vocal works—a testament to his commitment to the church.

Schütz displayed an early aptitude for music. As a teenager, his talent as a singer attracted the attention of a local noble, the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, who brought Schütz to Kassel to continue his formal education while studying music with Georg Otto, the court music director (Kapellmeister). With the encouragement and financial backing of the Landgrave, Schütz traveled to Venice in 1609 to study with the famed composer Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/7-1612), who would prove to be a singular influence on the young Schütz. Following Gabrieli’s death, Schütz returned to Germany and was appointed to the musical service of the Elector of Saxony in 1615. As the acting Kapellmeister at the Elector’s court in Dresden, Schütz was entrusted with the leadership of one of the largest and most influential musical establishments in Europe. At the age of thirty, Schütz had reached the apex of German musical life.

The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 led to significant personal and professional challenges for Schütz. Although Saxony did not experience open warfare for almost a decade after the opening of hostilities, political and economic instability prompted a dramatic reduction in the resources devoted to the court arts programs in Dresden. As late as 1632, the Dresden ensemble boasted a roster of 39 professional singers and instrumentalists. However, by the late 1630s, this number had dwindled to a mere ten musicians, most of whom had not received a paycheck in years.

Despite these discouragements, Schütz continued to compose and publish new works during this period. Jubilate Deo was published in 1639 in Schütz’s second volume of Kleine geistliches Konzerte (“Little sacred concertos”). The term “little” is fairly applied here. Although the quality of Schütz’s writing is extremely high, these pieces require only a handful of musicians and do not make any great technical demands on the performers—a nod to the impact of the Thirty Years’ War on musical life in Germany. Schütz himself addressed this situation in his preface to the first volume of Kleine geistliches Konzerte. Writing in 1636, he states:

Everyone can see how, as the result of the still continuing, dangerous vicissitudes of war in our dear fatherland of German nationality, the laudable art of music, among the other liberal arts, has not only greatly declined but at some places has even been completely abandoned, succumbing to the general ruination and disorder which unhappy war is wont to bring in its train. I myself am experiencing this situation with regard to a number of my musical compositions. Publication has had to be abandoned until such time as perhaps the Almighty may graciously grant better days. Meanwhile . . . I have composed and published to the honor of God as heralds of my larger musical works some small concerti. (Trans. Gina Spagnoli, 1993)

This preface offers a crucial insight into Schütz’s situation in the late 1630s, and it is worth the digression to unpack three aspects of this statement. First, Schütz acknowledges the debilitating effect that the war has had on society. With a reference to “the liberal arts”—the ubiquitous trivium and quadrivium of seventeenth-century humanities education—he recognizes the decline of artistic and intellectual life in the wake of the conflict. Second, he obliquely acknowledges the impossibility of performing or publishing his large-scale musical works; hence his interest in composing and publishing these “small concerti.” Finally, he makes two references to Christianity: a profession of hope in God’s faithfulness to deliver him from hopeless circumstances, and a determination to publish the Kleine geistliches Konzerte “to the honor of God.”

Given the historical context, the joyful mood of Jubilate Deo may catch some listeners off guard. Listening to this piece, a modern listener could be forgiven for assuming that Schütz is responding only to the exuberant mood (Affect) of the psalm text. However, a close musical reading of certain passages and an understanding of the historical condition in which this piece was composed suggests that Schütz sought to connect the themes of this text with the conflict in Germany.

An example of occurs at the text quoniam suavis est Dominus in aeternum misericordia ejus (“For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting”). The word suavis is often translated as “good,” but “sweet” is another possible rendering of the original Latin; the astute reader will recognize suave as an English cognate. Schütz sets this word with two long notes that practically ooze sweetness (3:01” in the YouTube recording). This charming moment is interrupted at 3:09” by the text in aeternam misericordia ejus (“forever merciful he is”), repeated in very fast notes and focused around a single pitch in a high vocal register: a musical shout of alarm. This cry is then taken up successively by the other voices and repeated at some length. This is a surprising way for a composer to set a phrase that centers on gentle words such as “merciful” or “sweet”!

Considering the turmoil that wracked Germany in the 1630s, it is all but certain that Schütz and the citizens of Dresden experienced the horrors of war firsthand. As residents of a walled city in time of war, citizens would have gone about their daily lives knowing that an alarm could be raised at any moment. Schütz’s cry of alarm and the plea for mercy would have been very real for the composer, his performers, and his audience.

Jubilate Deo is a work of art that has withstood the test of time. One reason for this, of course, is the innate beauty that we find here: after a span of nearly four centuries, modern ears still thrill to these melodies and harmonies. However, as with virtually all works of art, there is more here than may first meet the eye. An examination of context both enhances our aesthetic enjoyment and opens avenues of understanding—historical, social, theological—that would otherwise be lost to the modern listener. Understanding this context increases our own aesthetic pleasure while giving us a deeper appreciation for Schütz’s own intentions in composing this piece.

In this essay, I have sought to model an analytical approach that draws from my own disciplines of musicology and church music while creating a contextual framework that draws from the fields of history, theology, economics, politics—even psychology.

The ability to bring disciplines into conversation with each other is at the very heart of liberal arts education. It is this goal that informs the structure and substance of the Q&I Core curriculum at Concordia. Students enroll in paired courses structured so as to address the same basic questions from multiple viewpoints. Sometimes these pairs are intuitive: philosophy and mathematics. Other pairs of disciplines may seem at first glance to be opposed, even diametrically so—biology and theology, for instance. Still other courses are organized according the big questions that they seek to address. Regardless of the structure, the goal remains the same: to help students develop lifelong habits of intellectual curiosity, discipline, and engagement.

Why Art? Like Schütz, we live in troubled times. As I write this essay, my mind turns to the destruction and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which swept through Texas less than a week ago. It often seems that each passing day brings a new woe: political and socioeconomic upheaval, sickness, violence, death. Bu this, too, shall pass.

Paraphrasing a passage from Isaiah, St. Peter writes, “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). As in Schütz’s day, strife will give way to peace and will return again to strife. As Schütz intimates in his preface statement, we can do naught but place our trust in the God’s promise of faithfulness.

Why art? In this case, so that we can reach through the centuries to experience a fallen world through the eyes and ears of Heinrich Schütz while rejoicing with him in the God’s constancy towards us through Jesus Christ. In aeternum misericordia ejus, indeed!

My thanks to the students of MUS 331 Music History I for reading and critiquing an early version of this essay.

Tom Mueller is Assistant Professor of Church Music and University Organist at Concordia University Irvine