Schütz, Heinrich (1585–1672)

Heinrich Schutz

Heinrich Schütz.

Schutz's birthplace in Bad Kostritz, Germany. The building is now a museum devoted to the composer.

Schütz's birthplace in Bad Köstritz, Germany. The building is now a museum devoted to the composer.

The achievements of J. S. Bach would not have been possible without the ground-breaking work of his illustrious predecessor, Heinrich Schütz. Born into a middle-class family of innkeepers in Saxony, Schütz became the most esteemed German composer of the 17th century. During two prolonged visits to Italy the first, made while he was still a law student, enabling him to study in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli – Schütz absorbed the Italian style, which he then amalgamated with the very different musical tradition of his native Germany.


Dresden Kapellmeister

On his return from Italy in 1613 after Gabrieli's death, Schütz became organist and then Kapellmeister at the electoral court in Dresden, the most important musical center in Protestant Germany. He published his first important compositions in 1619. These were a collection of settings for voices (some with instrumental interludes in the Venetian style) of the Psalms of David, described as "various motets and concertos". In the same year he married Magdalena Wildeck, daughter of a court official. Their happy union, which produced two daughters, was tragically brief: Magdalena died in 1625, and the grief-stricken composer never remarried. He outlived both his children: the elder died at the age of 16, and the younger in 1655, aged 31.


Schütz's court duties included writing music for official events, such as weddings and funerals. For the wedding of the elector's daughter to the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt in 1627, he wrote the first German opera, setting the same libretto (Dafne) which the Italian composer Jacopo Peri had set 30 years earlier. Unfortunately the music has not survived.


In 1628 Schütz paid a second visit to Italy, where he met Monteverdi. This contact with recent musical developments bore fruit in a second published collection of vocal and instrumental music, Symphoniae sacrae. But there were troubles at home: Germany had entered theThirty Years War, and the Elector of Dresden found himself unable to pay his employees. Schütz escaped for two years to the court of the Crown Prince of Denmark, for whose wedding festivities he provided elaborate musical entertainments. But despite constant financial problems, he remained in the service of the Dresden court (apart from two more visits to Denmark) until 1657, when he was pensioned off. After his retirement he continued to write works for the electoral chapel until his death at the age of 87.


Schütz's music

Although Schütz was an enormously prolific composer, many of his manuscripts were destroyed by fire or the ravages of war. Even so, some 500 works survive. Die Geburt unsers Herren Jesu Christi (The History of the Birth of Jesus Christ), performed at Christmas Vespers at the Dresden court in 1660, is the earliest known German setting of the Nativity story in which the words of the Evangelist or Narrator – are sung in recitative, rather than chanted as in earlier settings. His settings of the four Passions, together with innumerable psalm and motet settings and Italianate madrigals, influenced later composers such as Bach. Although Schütz's music fell out of fashion fairly rapidly, it was rediscovered in the 20th century, and championed by performers such as Roger Norrington in Britain, who founde first the amateur Heinrich Schütz Choir in 1962, and then the professional Schütz Choir of London.