in: Reviews

October 25, 2010

Requiems from Two Eras

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The Cambridge-based choir Musica Sacra under their longtime director Mary Beekman offered an interesting juxtaposition of early Baroque and 20th-century Requiem music in a concert at the First Church, Cambridge. on Saturday, October 23

Heinrich Schütz composed his Musikalische Exequien for the funeral in 1636 of the local sovereign, Heinrich Posthumus of Reuss-Gera, a small German principality. Prince Heinrich, an accomplished singer and instrumentalist and a learned and cultivated man as well as a devout Lutheran, had occupied himself with every detail of the preparation for his own death. The copper coffin he had constructed secretly a year beforehand was painted and engraved with his own selection of Biblical and chorale verses. In his preface to the published edition of the Exequien, Schütz explains that he has brought together all these quotations in one concerted work in the form of a German Mass. In fact, with the exception of the opening Introit (a passage from Job), all the texts of the Kyrie tropes and the Gloria paraphrase that together constitute the first section of the Musikalische Exequien were inscribed on the prince’s coffin in a symmetrical pattern that balances the antithetical relationships of life and death, salvation and damnation, heaven and hell, time and eternity, hope and despair

Choruses alternate with sections for varying combinations of one to six soloists. As in Schütz’s own time, Musica Sacra’s excellent soloists were members of the choir and sang from within the group. Schütz’s music employs richly figurative word-painting and delivers the German texts with a declamatory pungency that does not come easily to English-speaking choirs. Still, Beekman’s direction elicited pleasing tone color and lively and flexible rhythms from the choir. A quotation from Psalm 73, “Lord, if I have only you / I ask nothing else of heaven or earth,” provided both the principal theme of the sermon delivered at the burial service and the text of the eight-voice double-choir motet sung immediately afterwards. Recently we heard piece this sung one-on-a-part by the British choir Stile Antico [ed: q.v. elsewhere here]; the performance by the twenty-five singers of Musica Sacra was somewhat more diffuse but no less effective.

The third and final movement presents the valedictory prayer of Simeon following the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple: having seen the Messiah, he can now depart in peace. According to Schütz’s performance directions, the Song of Simeon is declaimed by a five-voice choir placed close to the organ. At the same time, a smaller choir “set up at a distance” representing two seraphim (originally two boy sopranos)  and a heavenly spirit (bass), who may represent the personified soul of the dead ruler, sing a consolatory text from the Book of Revelation, “Blessed are the dead who die in the name of the Lord.” Schütz, who had studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, was well aware of the rhetorical effect of these displaced and disembodied voices, just as telling the other night in the exquisite singing of a trio of Musica Sacra soloists placed  high in the church’s rear balcony.

John Rutter’s Requiem combines parts of the Catholic Mass with parts of the Anglican Service for the Burial of the Dead. Steeped in the British choral tradition of Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Britten, with a nod to Fauré and Duruflé, Rutter’s writing combines effective text setting with transparent instrumentation that supports without obscuring the voices. While the Schütz was supported only by a pared-down continuo of violone and chamber organ, Rutter’s Requiem calls for flute, oboe,cello, harp, timpani, and glockenspiel supported by the large main organ. This colorful ensemble provided varied and evocative tone colors, for example in the timpani’s tocsin heard against choral chanting in the opening and concluding Requiem, the affecting cello melody that introduced Psalm 130 (Out of the deep have I called unto thee), the heavenly harp that accompanied the “Pie Jesu” soprano solo, and the joyful noise of timpani and glockenspiel in the Sanctus. Although the largely syllabic settings could be a bit monotonous at times, they were saved by excellent diction from the choir and relieved by a number of truly lovely melodic passages. In the final Lux aeterna, the same text from the Book of Revelation that concluded the Musikalische Exequien was heard “from on high,” this time in soloist and choir member Rebecca Blum’s boyishly pure soprano.

Founded in 1959, Musica Sacra has been under Mary Beekman’s direction since 1979. The volunteer group (and its audience) are fortunate in their skilled and inspired leader, whose choice of repertory and overall musicality bring out the best in these dedicated singers.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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