Death and Devotion Cantatas by Tunder, Weckmann, Buxtehude, and Ritter It is a remarkable fact that the most expressive and original vocal church music composed in Northern Germany during the latter half of the seventeenth century was the work not of cantors, but of organists. Some of this is due to the exceptional status which had been achieved by organists in cities like Hamburg and Lbeck in the course of the century; they had become both virtuosi par excellence, and at the same time learned composers. The foundation had been laid by the teachings of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), who had brought an entire generation of North German organists to this exalted level. But at the same time as this generation, typified by Jacob Praetorius, Heinrich Scheidemann, Melchior Schildt, and others, concentrated primarily on the organ as a medium for performance and composition, their students, in turn, took things a step further. They assembled a group (usually a small one) of singers and instrumentalists around the organ for the performance of refined, erudite vocal music, strongly inspired by concertante church music from Italy. Freed from the confines of liturgical requirements, they therefore chose texts, both Latin and German, which offered numerous opportunities for expressive composition: specially chosen excerpts from the Bible (strikingly often those dealing with suffering and death) and devotional texts, many of which were strongly mystic or pietistic in tone. The most important member of this second generation was Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), who was most probably a student of Scheidemann, and who succeeded Franz Tunder in the post of organist at the Marienkirche of Lbeck from 1668 until his death. His surviving compositions include not only a large quantity of organ and harpsichord works, but also a number of string sonatas and some 120 cantatas. The enormous range of texts, compositional techniques, and settings - from intimate solo cantatas to large-scale works - suggests that he enjoyed a good deal of artistic freedom.
A good example of this is provided by Buxtehudes setting, BuxWV 38, of the Psalm text Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe [Lord, when I have but Thee] (Psalm 73, verse 25-26), a beloved funerary text in seventeenth-century Germany, usually set as a solemn motet. In contrast, Buxtehudes setting is a fashionable, graceful Ciacona, with a repeated six-note bass motive - a compositional technique which originated in Italian secular music. Above this unchanging bass line, the soprano engages in lively exchanges with the two violins, including much word-painting, e.g. the swaying triplets at meines Herzens Trost (the comfort of my heart). This Ciacona was written in the 1670s; in contrast, the Dialogus inter Christum et fidelem animam, Wo ist doch mein Freund geblieben? [Where for is my friend departed] (BuxWV 111) is a late work of the 1690s. This dialogue between Christ and the faithful soul, sung respectively by bass and soprano, is based on a paraphrase of a familiar text from the Song of Songs, referring to the lost beloved (Christ in this context). The text is strophic, but Buxtehude only sets the beginning, the monologue of the searching soul, as a song with uncomplicated alternation between the soprano, accompanied only by the continuo, and the strings. After the Beloved has been found, a freely composed dialogue arises between the two voices, an operatic love duet which is crowned by the ecstatic 6/8 meter of the conclusion So lieben die Seele und Jesus zusammenSie brennen und stehen in lieblichen Flammen. [Thus the Soul and Christ mingle their loveThey live and burn in the flames of love]. O Gottes Stadt [O city of God] (Bux WV 87) is also based on a strophic song text, in this case drawn from the Himmlische Lieder of 1642 by Johann Rist, a poet who was both a familiar figure in organist circles in Hamburg as well as a friend to Buxtehudes presumed teacher, Scheidemann. Buxtehude uses only the first and last verses of Rists song text, which speaks of longing for the eternal heavenly Jerusalem. Rists text is made to order for a simple strophic aria (and in the 1642 collection, it is indeed set in this way by the Hamburg violinist Johann Schop), but it has inspired Buxtehude to compose a compelling, broadly proportioned concertante version in which the strings function as an emotional sounding board for the soprano another example of freely written organists music. The first verse is set as an expansive sarabande with strikingly realistic illustration of the believers sighs. The second verse begins in a hesitant, searching four quarter time, and Buxtehude also lets the words break off (wenn ich aus diesem Leben) [when from this life I]. But he returns to the ecstatic, dancing 3/4 meter, and the reason can be found in the continuation of the text (zu dir spring in dein Reich hinein) [leap up to Thy glorious kingdom]. The works climax comes with the elaborate setting of the rejoicing Zion with showy coloratura writing for the soprano. Buxtehude must have drawn much inspiration from the music of Franz Tunder (1614-1667), his predecessor in the office of Lbeck organist. Tunder was in close contact with the Sweelinck-based school of Hamburg organists. Buxtehude married Tunders daughter and in this way became the direct heir to his music.
Tunders compositions, of which disappointingly few have survived, are distinguished by their unusual richness of harmony and polyphonic writing. An Wasserflen Babylon [By the waters of Babylon], a much-loved chorale in North German organists circles, was composed by Tunder as a type of polyphonic motet for soprano (taking the chorale melody) and five stringed instruments. Tunder set the first lines of this hymn, known as the Lament of Zion very expressively, culminating in the chromaticism of the line da weinten wir [there we wept]. From this point onwards, the setting relaxes into a more homophonic, simpler idiom for the remaining lines of the hymn. Far different is Tunders Ach Herr, la deine lieben Engelein [O lord, let Thy dear angels] - a text which is widely known from the closing chorale of Bachs St. John Passion. This is the third verse of Martin Schallings 1571 hymn Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr [Great is my love for Thee, o Lord]; the chorale melody usually associated with it is completely missing here, however. Instead, Tunder, like his son-in-law Buxtehude some years later in O Gottes Stadt, has written a concertante aria on the text. After a speaking sinfonia, the soprano sings the first half of the text in continuous dialogue with the strings; the last line, ruhen bis am jngsten Tage [to rest until the final day] is then illustrated in a static instrumental interlude. The change of affect afterwards, with Alsdenn vom Tode erwecke michin ewiger Freud [so then Thou shalt awaken me from death.in eternal joy], in rapid triple time, could not be greater. Tunder made a close study of the vocal church music composed by Monteverdi and his successors, as can be clearly seen in the German composers reworking of a motet by Giovanni Rovetta. But Tunders other Latin settings also draw their inspiration from the south, as is surely the case for O Jesu dulcissime, a solo motet for bass on a seventeenth-century devotional text. Matthias Weckmann (1616/9-1674) a student of both Heinrich Schtz and Jacob Praetorius, and organist at the Hamburg St. Jacobi from 1655, also wrote unmistakeable organists music. In 1663, Hamburg suffered a serious epidemic of the plague, which killed many citizens including several of the most important musicians, among them Scheidemann and the city cantor, Thomas Selle. This catastrophe inspired the large-scale dialogue Wie liegt die Stadt so wste [How the city doth lie desolate], completed by Weckmann on October 14th 1663. Here again we have an unmistakably liberated composer at work: the verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah have been carefully selected and reshuffled in such a way as to allow them to be set as a soprano-bass dialogue. With the exception of the closing segment, the voices only sing separately: the soprano assumes the role of narrator, and symbolizes the mourning widow at the opening of the piece, whereas the bass takes the part of the somber, sinful prophet himself. The structure of the dialogue is underlined instrumentally by the sopranos accompaniment being limited to the continuo, while the bass is accompanied by the full string ensemble. This basic contrast, as well as the inspired alternation of recitative and aria styles from segment to segment, has produced a poignant setting of this Old Testament prophecy of doom. Particularly impressive are the desolate opening, the sighing Ciacona for bass, Man hrets wohl [Well dost thou hear] (because of the Italianate technique, just as in Buxtehude accompanied only by two violins and continuo), and the closing segment: here the two voices join together in a compelling cry for help (Ach Herr, siehe an mein Elend) [Ah Lord, behold Thou my wretchedness].
The organist Christian Ritter (1645/8-1717/25) was of Saxon origin and probably received his education in Dresden as a student of Schtz and other teachers. Later he worked alternately in Stockholm, Dresden, and Hamburg. His 22 surviving vocal works are of high quality and diversity - yet another example of organists music. Both in Stockholm and Dresden he attained the rank of assistant leader of court music. Cantatas, particularly those by Buxtehude and other North German composers, were familiar and beloved in the Swedish capital, while in Dresden, after the death of Schtz, the Italian style ruled the day. O amantissime sponse Jesu, a Latin devotional text, has the rhythmic power and vocal refinement (particularly in the recitatives) of the best Italian church music of the period, but the heavy five-part string accompaniment and the innovative dissonance of the harmonies are both unmistakably North German - nowhere as clearly as in the tension-filled opening, where the soprano declaims the motto of this cantata, surrounded by rich harmonies. The score, preserved in the Berlin library, was already published in a modern edition at the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1959 in the Netherlands, a famous, widely distributed recording of the piece was made by the singer Aafje Heynis, conducted by Anthon van der Horst - who was for more than 30 years the artistic director of The Netherlands Bach Society. Pieter Dirksen, 2003 Translation: David Shapero