Music for Easter: A Playlist

This article aims to serve as a follow-up to the Lenten playlist which Catholic World Report ran last month. The same general criteria for selecting works apply here as applied there: no instances of pure plainchant; nothing (be it ever so meritorious) more than 15 minutes long; nothing that could not be included in a Catholic liturgy; and nothing that is habitually heard in the concert hall. That still leaves a great deal of enriching Paschal material all too readily overlooked.

Samuel Scheidt came—as Handel would—from Halle, not far from Leipzig. His dates were 1587 to 1654, and his lifespan therefore preceded Handel’s by almost exactly a century. Historians have shown a singular reluctance to give Scheidt his due. Any German composer born in 1587 needed to dwell in the long-reaching shadow of Heinrich Schütz, born two years beforehand. Scheidt, nonetheless, had specific talents which even his fellow Protestant Schütz lacked, since with his Tablatura Nova he made consistently vital, ingenious contributions to organ music (Schütz left no all-instrumental pieces whatever); and as is obvious from this setting of Surrexit Christus Hodie, he could also manage a dance-like, völkisch charm which Schütz rarely attempted. Here Surrexit Christus Hodie is rendered by musicians from Puy in France’s Auvergne region.

At least this Scheidt piece has attracted several different choirs on record. Not so with a setting of the exact same words by Michael Haydn, Joseph’s junior sibling (born in 1737, five years after Joseph), and one of the saddest figures in the whole of 18th-century music.

Certain competent judges during Michael’s day rated his sacred works above Joseph’s—Joseph himself at times took the same view—and we need only hear Michael’s 1771 Requiem to appreciate what a substantial stylistic debt Mozart’s Requiem owes to it, even if the key-signature (C minor in the younger Haydn’s case) is different. Yet somehow Michael never quite got his act together. Unlike Mozart, he chose to stay in Salzburg. Gossip accused him of being an alcoholic, and CDs of his orchestral works frequently suggest—as, truth be told, an alcoholic’s orchestral works would likely suggest—brilliant ideas somehow out of focus, starting better than they finish, inclined to garrulity, and developed without Joseph’s (or Mozart’s) sense of overriding direction.

Michael is perhaps at his best in short bursts, as with this motet, which proves ingratiating and polished without being banal. Details of the present version’s performers are hard to come by, but they could be the Zürich Boys’ Chorus and the Munich Chamber Orchestra with Christoph Poppen conducting. Undoubtedly those forces did record the piece in the 1990s.

From Surrexit Christus to Surrexit pastor bonus is a step nothing if not logical. Australian music-lovers during the Cold War who wanted to hear Schütz’s sacred music in bulk (isolated instances of it did turn up on multi-composer collections from England) usually had to track down second-hand early-stereo LPs of East German origin, usually with the Dresdner Kreuzchor performing, and often conducted by veteran Rudolf Mauersberger. Those LPs had their severe problems: surface noise which sounded like onions frying, instrumental intonation which could be awkward, and occasionally an amateurish tape-splice which meant that the musical argument would suddenly drop a semitone in mid-section. But hearing this archival stuff in strikingly well-cleaned-up CD formats (with the most obvious flaws minimized when they cannot be removed) confirms precisely how noble and inspiring the relevant performances often were. Above all—despite the shortcomings of DDR engineers and the use of a bigger, more vibrato-inclined vocal ensemble than would be welcomed these days—Mauersberger miraculously ensured, not least via the consistent moderation of his tempi, that you can always understand the sung texts. With far too many gabbled, limp-wristed hipster versions of our own time, you simply cannot. In the beginning was the Word, whether or not the aforementioned hipsters have ever noticed John 1:1’s existence.

After Schütz’s demise in 1672, his music slipped into a neglect not dissipated till the mid-19th century. Which meant that Mendelssohn, dying as he did in 1847, remained unfamiliar with nearly all of Schütz’s oeuvre (well acquainted though he was with other baroque masters, Italian as well as German).

To suggest any stylistic resemblance between Mendelssohn’s own Surrexit Pastor Bonus and Schütz’s treatment of the same words would defy even the most brutishly insensitive postmodernist mountebank. In fact Mendelssohn’s motet—he wrote it in Rome during 1830, aged only 21, his artistic imagination having been fired by the singing of nuns at the church of the Trinità dei Monti—does not sound like anyone else very much. Never was there a composer more original and, at the same time, less aberrant. The more he consciously aimed at paying homage to his great precursors (Handel and Bach above all), the less he sounded like a cheap imitation of them. Frieder Bernius directs members of the Stuttgart Chamber Choir and an unnamed organist (possibly Bernius himself?).

Greatly assisting Mendelssohn’s effectiveness as a champion of Bach was his own expertise in the organ-playing department, at a period when few French organists had attained the mastery of the pedals which Bach’s output presupposes, and when many a British organist was a defiant Little Englander in his invincible ignorance of pedal-playing’s very basics. When Sir George Smart, a bigwig in London’s early-19th-century organ scene, espied a full pedal-board for the first time (on a German instrument displayed at the 1851 Exhibition), he expressed shock at the notion of performing on it: “My dear sir, I have never in my life played on a gridiron.” And whilst the concept of a Bach-avoiding organist might now seem absurd, it seemed nothing of the kind in Smart’s day.

When Bach in his Orgelbüchlein treated the Easter hymn Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag, he characteristically gave the pedals a work-out. The melody itself is of such granitic strength as to have drawn forth the best from several earlier organist-composers, notably Buxtehude and Bach’s own cousin Johann Gottfried Walther. What it occurred to Bach, and apparently none of even his most gifted predecessors, to do with the tune was to give us, as it were, two iterations of it for the price of one. Instead of treating it with conventional fugal devices—as Buxtehude very effectively had managed—Bach staggered the entries of it, but kept the entries in the same key. (Strictly speaking, he kept it in the same mode: the Dorian.) The pedal strides along, after the right hand, never quite catching up. Meanwhile the left hand obsesses over an anapestic rhythm of its own. Many a time Bach took pride in concealing a chorale tune’s lineaments, the better to display his own superlative invention. This time, perceiving the tune’s innate glory, he presents it unadorned by trills, flourishes, or novel harmonies; and the whole thing is over inside a minute. The soloist on this occasion: Wolfgang Zerer

Bach’s Gallic contemporaries included Jean-François Dandrieu, active in Paris from 1705 till his death in 1738. In general Dandrieu tends to be valued more for his harpsichord music (comparable with Couperin’s and Rameau’s in bulk and, sometimes, standard) than for his organ music, and some items in the latter category can seem trivially decorative. But at its finest—and these variations on the beloved 15th-century French tune O Filii et Filiae, played here by Pierre Bardon, show Dandrieu at full stretch—it has great passion and dignity. As with most Gallic organ pieces from before 1800, the instrument’s color schemes are a good part of these variations’ attractiveness. French organist-composers relished the kaleidoscopic elements of different stops much more than their Teutonic counterparts did, and they went to great trouble (as the Buxtehude-Bach school conspicuously did not) to indicate in their scores what stops they wanted.

Happy Easter.

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About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).