Schütz’s Angels and the Other Christmas Oratorio

A painting of a person holding a babyDescription automatically generated

Matthias Grünewald, Nativity Scene from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Unterlinden Museum, c. 1515.

Forget the Christmas tree and Saint Nic’s suit, it is music that marks Germany’s greatest contributions to the holiday. Aside from any number of carols, there is the ubiquitous Messiah, like Handel himself, to be thought of as a Teutonic export. Long since migrated from its original Springtime calendar setting, the overdone oratorio is a Christmas interloper now overshadowing all other classical yuletide offerings, even Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

If you’ve had your fill of these classical chestnuts this holiday season, turn your listening attention to Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story (Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi). This revered master of the German baroque was born exactly a century before Bach and Handel and lived almost long enough to overlap with their births. Schütz’s influence on Lutheran music and education was pervasive and felt in innumerable ways by both Bach and Handel. Standard music histories often claim that Schütz’s music “culminates” in the works of Bach and Handel. But this progressive view of history is obliterated by the breadth and profundity of Schütz’s creations. They are their own zenith.

Whereas the oratorios by Bach and Handel both last a good two hours, Schütz’s Christmas Story comes in at around forty minutes. That duration speaks to the economy with which Schütz’s music sets its familiar text. His Christmas tale is packed with vibrant vocal and instrumental sonorities and literally star-studded, images. It radiates warmth and wonder like a Nativity scene by the greatest German colorist painter of the early sixteenth century, Matthias Grünewald.

Painter not in pigments but in tones, Schütz’s kaleidoscopic oratorio depicts a hovering angel in three of the eight movements that the composer interleaves between the narrative delivered by a tenor in recitatives. This lighter-than-air soprano voice is joined by a pair of ethereal, often jubilant violins—a 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 ever to let fade into silence. A fourth angelic movement introduces the entire choir of angels undergirded by the buzzy snarl of the dulcian, that girthsome ancestor of the bassoon. Singing the German Gloria (“Glory be to God on High”), Schütz’s angels rejoice with and in a music that seems to spiral through itself as individual voices emerge from the rapture. These incorporeal beings dance as they fly.

Schütz delineates this group and the story’s other characters through his ingenious instrumental accompaniments. 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 suggest that they are proceeding for a time in single file. 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. The ideas of musical evocation and emotion are endless, constantly sparking the listener’s imagination. Even non-believers see what they hear.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 oversized lute known as the theorbo. Always fluent and clear, the narrator’s music is also capable of profound expression, as in the shattering 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 altarpiece.

Like the story itself, this music is full life, born again with each performance. Yet it is the work of an old man of more than sixty chafing against the conditions of his employment under the rulers of Saxony, 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, when 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, a leading European musical figure of his time. Given these southern sojourns, Schütz’s music is itself 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.

There are many recordings that pay homage to Schütz’s Christmas masterpiece. One of the most imaginative, ambitious, and compelling of these was made in 1999 by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort. It takes 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.

For some four decades, 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 others.

In their re-creation of the Dresden Christmas Vespers, McCreesh and his Consort dispense with a few incidental liturgical numbers, not to mention the sermon, epic hour-long orations come from an age before the seventy-five-minute CD and the radically constriction of attention spans. (If you want to indulge in Lutheran homiletics, a massively truncated ten-minute pulpit address made up of Martin Luther’s words can be heard on the just-mentioned two-CD set dedicated to a Leipzig Epiphany service from Bach’s day.)

No slave time-consuming exercises in authenticity even if these efforts are buttressed by impressive musicological research, McCreesh frees up enough CD minutes for the organ prelude and postlude, congregational hymns, and sacred concertos that together provide the sumptuous surroundings 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 short periods 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 the concerted music, from the radiant concertos to the spare recitatives. The church’s architecture, organ and people play an indispensable role in this sonic re-imagining.

The long, high, and narrow Roskilde Cathedral is studded with balconies tucked beneath its ceiling. These allow for the dramatic spatial separations in the various units of the larger musical ensemble, a divide-and-conquer sonic strategy Schütz had learned from Gabrieli in the many choir lofts of San Marco in Venice. In Roskilde’s cavernous physical setting the singing—both choral and solo—and the instrumental playing full of improvised flourishes awe with their expansiveness even as they enchant with startling intimacy. The effect is as vivid and uplifting now as it was 350 years ago in a Dresden chapel free of loudspeakers, poinsettias, Christmas trees, and iPhones in hands and pockets.

Heard in this ancient space, Schütz’s Christmas music proves both that it is gloriously of its time, yet miraculously capable of escaping to yours—and beyond.

(A live performance of Schütz’s Christmas Story by the wonderful Ensemble Polyharmonique from last December in Basel enthralls from the first chord ot the last, even without English subtitle.)


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at