Amidst the avalanche of Amazon boxes and the mountains of plastic junk, it might seem irrelevant to point out that the most lasting symbols of the Christmas season are of German origins—from St. Nicholas’s long white flowing beard to the evergreen tree hung with ornaments and hymned with O Tannenbaum.
Although the Christmas tree continues to expand its inexorable dominion over the globe, it is music that marks the German tradition’s greatest contributions to the holiday. In the realm of art music there is the unavoidable Messiah, like Handel himself to be thought of as a German export: dislodged from its original Springtime calendar setting, the overdone oratorio is a Christmas interloper now overshadowing all other classical yuletide offerings, even J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Marooned in a (for the time being) United Kingdom darkened of sunlight and political common sense, my thoughts drift inevitably towards the warmth of desert islands, preferably one kitted out with excellent speakers so as to give a point to the party game of picking the discs you’ll rescue when your holiday cruise ships hits a reef and you’ve got to swim for shore. LPS and CDs will survive the water; smart phones won’t.
However uplifting Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio may be, even after all the recordings and annual performances, I’d grab for Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story (Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi) even if it meant consigning to the deep the cherished masterpieces of Bach and Handel, both born just thirteen years after Schütz’s death.
Whereas these oratorios by Bach and Handel both last a good two hours, Schütz’s Christmas Story comes in under forty minutes. That duration speaks to the invigorating economy with which Schütz’s music delivers the text. This temporal frame is packed with vibrant vocal and instrumental sonorities and dynamic, literally star-studded, scenes—like a Christmas canvas by the greatest of German colorists, Matthias Grünewald. Himself a painter in tones, Schütz’s kaleidoscopic oratorio depicts a hovering angel in three of the eight movements the composer interleaves between the narrative delivered by a tenor in recitatives. This lighter-than-air soprano voice is joined by a pair of jubilantly ethereal violins—also favorite instruments of the heavens, as Grünewald, among many others, well knew. The soprano and strings swirl and echo around one another in expectant ecstasy: “I bring you good tidings of great joy”—the word joy (Freude) resounding repeatedly from above, as if it is a feeling too intoxicating to renounce and let fade into silence. A fourth angelic movement introduces the entire choir of angels undergirded by the buzzy snarl of that dulcian, that girthsome ancestor of the bassoon. Singing the German Gloria—”Glory be to God on High”—Schütz’s angels rejoice with a music that seems to spiral through itself with individual voices emerging from the joint rapture: these incorporeal beings dance as they fly.
Schütz delineates this group and the story’s other characters through his ingenious use of range and instrumental accompaniment. The Shepherds are three high tenors heartened by pastoral recorders and the bleat of the dulcian. Schütz sets the three Wise Men a notch deeper as low tenors. They hurry to the manger in a succession of vocal entries that suggests single file; but at the close of the number, a unified, grandly ceremonial cadence marks their awed, simultaneous arrival at the natal stall. Most striking of all are the stentorian pronouncements of the High Priests and Scribes, portrayed by four basses darkly cloaked in the sound of two portentous sackbuts. Introduced by regal cornettos, nefarious King Herod’s upward slashing lines dispatch his security service to track down the newborn child. Schütz’s instrumental and vocal groupings, melodic gestures, harmonic pacing, and contrapuntal inventions make each scene and character come alive with perfectly judged theatrical energy: this is music so full of ideas, so well-formed and developed that it constantly sparks the listener’s visual and aural imagination, whether that listener be a believer or not.
These characters are depicted in the eight Intermedia that continually enliven the narrator’s tale. Before the Christmas Story this narration had always been chanted in rather somber, static manner; Schütz’s innovation was to set the Evangelist’s text in the lively, modern Italian recitative style with continuo underpinning—blocks of text delivered in melodically expressive sentences accompanied by chords played by the organ, harpsichord, and plucked string instruments like the theorbo. Always fluent and clear, the narrator’s music is also capable of profound expression, as in the shattering foreshortened lament that evokes Rachel’s grief at the murder of the innocents. Schütz frames his Christmas Story with two magisterial choral movements drawing on the entire ensemble of voices and instruments; these choruses stand like two elaborate pilasters to either side of an imposing, yet colorful altarpiece.
Like the story itself, this music is full life—born again, even. Yet it is the work of an old man of more than sixty chafing against the conditions of his employment by the rulers of Saxon, the dissensions of court life and the inbuilt rivalries of the musical establishment in opulent Dresden riven by animosity between indigenous Germans and expatriate Italians. Years before, in his twenties, Schütz had studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, organist at San Marco; in his early forties Schütz returned to La Serenissima to work with the basilica’s director of music, Claudio Monteverdi, the leading European musical figure of his time. Given these southern sojourns, Schütz’s music is a kind of import. In later years, however, the composer showed an increasing predilection for his Germanic contrapuntal roots. He is therefore often portrayed in his old age as a curmudgeonly conservative unwilling to accommodate himself to musical modernity. On the contrary, the Christmas Story proves that the great man could effect a moving synthesis of old and new, neither averse to risk nor scornful of history.
Fittingly, there are many recordings that pay homage to Schütz’s Christmas masterpiece. One of the most imaginative, ambitious, and compelling of these was made twenty years ago in 1999 conductor Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and comes in the form of a partial reconstruction of a Vespers service, as it would have been heard in the Dresden court chapel on Christmas Day of 1664, the year the Evangelist’s part of the Christmas Story was published.
Beginning a quarter century ago, McCreesh has presided over a series of projects intent on putting individual works back in their broader musical and cultural contexts, undertakings akin to removing altarpieces from museums and restoring them to the churches from which they were extracted. McCreesh’s initiatives range from the 1595 coronation of the Doge in Venice to an Epiphany Mass from Bach’s Leipzig, among many others. (McCreesh re-recorded that classic 1990 Doge disc originally from Archiv last and re-issued in 2012 on his own label on both CD and LP, the latter medium showing that early music can on occasion tap into a hipster vibe. Early music, it seems, has begung reenacting its own reenactments.
In their re-creation of the Dresden Christmas Vespers, McCreesh and his Consort dispenseswith a few incidental musical numbers, not to mention the sermon: such epic orations come from an age before the seventy-five minute CD and the radically constriction of attention mspans. (You can indulge your interest in Lutheran homiletics with a severely truncated ten-minute pulpit address made up of Martin Luther’s words on the just-mentioned two-CD set dedicated to a Leipzig Epiphany service from Bach’s day.)
Shed of these time-consuming exercises in authenticity, McCreesh frees up enough CD minutes in which to assemble the organ prelude and postlude, congregational hymns, and sacred concertos that together provide the sumptuous context for Schütz’s luminous musical pageant. The re-enactment takes place in the magnificent cathedral of Roskilde in Denmark. Housing the crypt of the Danish monarchs, the cathedral was also a place where Schütz himself made music for a short period during the Thirty Years’ War when he had fled embattled Dresden. The church’s stunning seventeenth-century organ survives from Schütz’s day and lends brilliance and fire to the hymns (sung by parishioners) and to Schütz’s concerted music, from the radiant concertos to the spare recitatives. The cathedral—its architecture, organ and people—plays an indispensable role in this sonic re-imagining.
The long, high, and relatively narrow Roskilde Cathedral is thick with balconies tucked beneath its ceiling; these allow for the dramatic spatial separations Schütz had learned from Gabrieli in the multiple choir lofts of San Marco. Even in Roskild’s cavernous physical setting the singing—both choral and solo, and the instrumental playing full of improvised flourishes—awes with its expansiveness even as it enchants with its striking intimacy. The effect is as vivid and uplifting now as it was 350 years ago in a Dresden chapel free of loudspeakers, Christmas trees, and iPhones in the pockets. Even that nave’s lavish interior was less crucial to the joy of Schütz’s fabulous Christmas Story than the shared belief that filled it with sound—the notion that the best music was not only gloriously of its time, but also miraculously capable of escaping it.