November 2010

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Baroque music from Germany

Eccard When to the temple Mary went
Telemann Laudate Jehovam
J.S. Bach Jesu meine Freude
Schütz Deutsches Magnificat
Buxtehude Magnificat

Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) was a pupil of Lassus in Munich.  His works are exclusively vocal and centre on the Lutheran chorale.  He was one of the principal protestant composers of chorale-motets, realising the full implications of the text in terms of close word-note relationships, appropriately-varied textures and a deeply religious feeling; he was much admired by Brahms.  In the 19th century Eccard’s music was seen as the epitome of the Protestant a capella ideal, in quiet contrast to the rich polyphony of Palestrina.  Maria wallt zum Heiligtum is better known in Troutbeck’s moving translation, which is the version heard tonight.

Georg Philip Telemann (1681-1767) was among the most prolific and most well-known composers of his generation. A self-taught composer, he was educated in law at the University of Leipzig, where he founded the University Collegium Musicum.  He held important positions in Leipzig, Eisenach and Frankfurt before moving to Hamburg, where he remained until his death.  In his long career Telemann wrote a great deal of music of all kinds in a style that extends the late Baroque into the age of Haydn.  Psalm 117, Laudate Jehovam, omnes gentes, a cantata for Epiphany, dates from his Frankfurt period and is a short setting in three continuous movements; it contains some lively word-painting, especially with the first tutti entry on ‘omnes gentes’.  The middle section is a relatively slow-moving depiction of ‘merciful kindness’; it is followed by a rousing Alleluia.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity.  He enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, and an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation.  His works are revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty and he is now generally regarded not only as one of the main composers of the Baroque style, but also as one of the greatest composers of all time.  Jesu, meine Freude is the longest and most elaborate of the composer’s funeral motets and is written for five voices, the extra soprano line providing added depth and richness.  It is based on a chorale melody by Crüger with a text from the Epistle to the Romans.  There are stark contrasts between images of heaven and hell, often within a single section; Bach’s vivid setting of the text heightens these contrasts, resulting in a motet with an unusually wide dramatic range.  There are eleven movements, beginning and ending with an identical chorale setting and with balanced musical symmetry around a double fugue.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is generally regarded as the most important German composer before J.S. Bach and often considered to be one of the most important of the 17th century.  A pupil of Gabrieli, whose influence can be seen in Schütz’s resplendent polychoral style, his extensive compositional output consists almost entirely of sacred choral and vocal music. The Deutsches Magnificat is one of his later works – written only three years before his death, it exemplifies the Venetian cori spezzati (divided choir) style.  It is relatively simple, almost austere in style, and reflects a move away from the larger-style Venetian works as a result of post-Thirty Years War austerity in Germany.  It is nonetheless a magnificent piece.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is one of the most important German composers of the mid-baroque.  He was organist at Lübeck – the twenty-year-old J.S. Bach famously walked 250 miles to hear his music – and his organ works represent a central part of the standard organ repertoire.  He composed in a wide variety of vocal and instrumental idioms, and his style strongly influenced many composers, including Bach.  The charming Magnificat is attributed to the composer although it does not resemble any other of his known works.  Its lilting triple-time melodies, frequent hemiolas and simple harmony largely in thirds make for a delightful melodic appeal and enduring simplicity.