Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Schütz - Motet For Bass, Trombones And Continuo 'Fili Mi Absalon'

Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672) was an important early German composer. He composed what is thought to be the first German opera that was performed in 1627, but he is most well known for his sacred works.  He was also an organist. He studied in Denmark and in Italy with Monteverdi, the father of opera. Because of his study in Italy he became an important figure in bringing Italian music and its style to Germany. Johann Sebastian Bach studied Schütz's music and brought the Italian influence fostered by Schütz to its culmination.

Although he was considered one of the finest organists in Europe, he left very little music for the instrument, and very little music for instruments alone.  The majority of his surviving music is for voices alone and in combination with  instruments.  He left no secular music of consequence.

One of Schütz's largest collections of music is the three volume set of Symphoniae sacrae, sacred symphonies comprised of music for voice and/or instruments. The first volume of the were printed in Venice in 1629 and consisted of 20 separate pieces. One of the pieces in this first volume is a motet written for bass voice, sackbuts and continuo 'Fili mi Absalon'  ( My Son Absalom).  The trombone is the modern equivalent of the sackbutt, with the older instrument being of a more delicate construction and a lighter, more flexible tone. It was made in four different sizes; alto, tenor, bass, double-bass and since it was a chromatic instrument it was most often used to double voices in choirs.

The words of this motet depict King David's lament over the death of his son Absalom. It is a story from the Bible, and in brief Absalom was the third son of David, King Of The Jews. Absalom staged an uprising against his father and lead his army against David's army in the battle of Ephraim Wood. Absalom was known for his head of long flowing hair, and when the mule he was riding went under a low-lying tree branch Absalom's hair got tangled in the branches and pulled him off the mule. He was discovered still alive and hanging in the tree by his hair by one of David's men who reported the incident back to his commander Joab. Joab went to Absalom and killed him with three spears and a group of swordsmen. When King David is given the news about the death of his son, he weeps openly and cries, "My son, Absalom, Absalom, my son. Oh, that I had died instead of you!"

Schütz opens the work with the instruments alone, the bass voice comes in with the lament in Latin 'Fili mi, Absalom'. The instruments then play another short interlude, then the bass enters in Latin 'Quis mihi tribuat, ut ego moriar pro te!'  The work ends with the bass voice echoing David's sorrowful recognition that what is done is done.

Music that is as old as this does sound different to our ears. Compositional techniques were different, it was in the middle of the Baroque era when music was still 'horizontal' and not so much 'vertical'. Counterpoint was still the norm, with the working out of what was to become modern harmony still a long way into the future.  But Schütz conveys the despondency and sadness of King David in this music written so long ago. It is a beautiful piece and reaches across the centuries to communicate a depth of feeling that is recognizable to the modern ear.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully rendered. Given the lethal state of affairs in Europe in Schuetz's time, with death lurking everywhere, I take the "sacred pathos" of this piece very seriously. It gives sadness and grief a majestic profundity that is unique to the period. To know God is to know the holiness of grief, which is just around the corner.