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Vox Luminis: Royal Funeral Music

The Musicalische Exequien was commissioned from Heinrich Schütz for prince Heinrich von Reuss of Gera. Von Reuss, nicknamed “the Posthumous” was deeply religious and had even planned every detail of his own funeral, including how the coffin should be made, the eulogy, and the choice of texts to be read.

He had ordered a coffin made of copper, all of the surfaces of which were painted and then covered with texts that he had chosen; this sarcophagus was rediscovered in Gera in 1995. His widow then naturally went to Schütz for music for the occasion. The two men had known each other, and there were frequent occasions on which they would have met. Von Reuss died on December 3, 1635; he was then embalmed, and his funeral rites were celebrated on February 4, 1636. Schütz therefore had very little time in which to compose this score, unless we assume that the prince had already commissioned the work before his death.

The composition was intended for an ensemble of six to eight voices plus ripieno singers, with the basso continuo accompaniment being given to the organ. Two elements in particular define the realization of the basso continuo: ‘Bassus continuus vor die Orgel / Bassus continuus vor den Dirigenten oder Violon.’ Violon should here be read as Violone: this indication occurs frequently and implies a bass string instrument that does not necessarily play one octave lower than written. The work is divided into three parts that correspond to the three sections of the liturgy. We nonetheless know that the funeral procession was accompanied at the start of the office by the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, this being sung by all present.

The word Concert was much employed by Schütz and his contemporaries and was clearly derived from the use made by Italian composers, above all by Monteverdi in his Vespers and other works, of the word concerto to describe their new sacred compositions for solo voices accompanied by basso continuo. Schütz developed this style of composition in the several volumes of the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and in other works during the years of economic di culty that followed the Thirty Years’ War. The composer here uses a systematic alternation of sections intended for solo voices (between one and six) with sections for a Capella in six parts for which he recommends doubling the number of voices.

This first part is the longest of the three and is made up of two sections that Schütz associated with two sections of the Deutsche Messe, notably the Kyrie and the Gloria.

The texts used here are not those of the Mass as used by Lutherans, but come from the collection of texts described above that was made by von Reuss. The two sections are easily recognizable, each one being introduced with a plainsong incipit.

It is not possible to mistake the origins of the Kyrie: the verses sung by the Capella are closely related to those of the Kyrie proper, with invocations to the three members of the Holy Trinity. “Lord God the Father who art in heaven, have mercy on us / Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us / Lord God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.”

This triple invocation by the Capella is also linked to the Latin Kyrie, in that the same music is used for the first and also for the third invocation.

The relationship of the Gloria with the original Mass text is less straightforward: here we have a succession of texts that are not only glorifications of God but also a description of hope for consolation and for redemption.

The settings of the verses for the solo voices are, in general, more active in character and make frequent use of imitation. This is in contrast to the settings of the verses intended for the Capella, which are principally homophonic, although in the Gloria Schütz provides music for verses sung by the Capella that are much more varied in style, employing imitation and even alternating passages between the upper and lower voices. Amongst the texts chosen by von Reuss is one of the verses of the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin; Schütz takes advantage of this by using the chorale melody in imitation. In contrast to his contemporaries and friends Schein, Scheidt, and Praetorius, such a practice is extremely rare in Schütz’s work.

By the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, it had become fashionable for the educated class to affect a studied melancholia. This taste of the times found its expression in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the poetry of John Donne, and in music, where lutenist John Dowland effectively made an advertising slogan of ‘semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (ever Dowland, ever grieving). To muse artfully on death and grief was the mark of a thoughtful and sincere creative.

In 1603, the Queen died, departing from this life ‘mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree,’ according to a contemporary diarist. At her state funeral, Thomas Morley’s setting of the Funeral Sentences was sung (Morley himself had died the previous year). The three Dirge Anthems set the words appointed to be read at the service of burial according to the Book of Common Prayer. Morley’s setting of the text was sufficiently popular that it was performed at many subsequent state funerals and used as a model for future settings including that of William Croft.

The first anthem is sung at the entrance to the churchyard, before the procession moves into the church or to the grave. The second is sung at the grave, and the third as the earth is cast onto the coffin. Morley conveys beautifully the sense of grief at the inevitability of death mingled with the hope of the resurrection — a true apposition of light and shadow.

According to recent research, it is clear that the Funeral Sentences composed by Purcell and which have long been assumed to form part of the funeral music for Queen Mary were actually composed for another purpose. It is, however, not yet possible to state exactly what this was. Purcell set three of the Funeral Sentences: Man that is born of a woman, In the midst of life, and Thou knowest, Lord — the three texts that are required to be spoken or sung at the grave. Purcell’s funeral music is therefore incomplete as Purcell seems to have made no other settings of the remaining Funeral Sentences; the three pieces that have come down to us date from 1680-1682.

These three pieces and the two other anthems that date from the same period (Hear my prayer, O Lord for 8 voices and Remember not, Lord, our offenses for 5 voices) form the greater part of the works composed in this style by Purcell. Two main types of anthem had been in use in England from the beginning of the 17th century onwards: the full anthem and the verse anthem. The full anthem was exclusively for a vocal ensemble, although with the optional use of an organ or viols doubling the vocal lines and, in Purcell’s time, with basso continuo. The verse anthem alternated polyphonic passages with sections for one or more soloists accompanied by the organ or the viols, although by Purcell’s time this accompaniment had been brought up to date and entrusted to violins and violas supported by the basso continuo. As an inheritor of this great polyphonic tradition, Purcell handles this antique style with absolute mastery, nonetheless adding his talent for chromatic harmony to express the emotion implicit in the texts. We should also note that the full anthems also date from the beginning of Purcell’s career, a time when he seemed at first to turn his attention to the old polyphonic tradition, only to bring it to an incredible apotheosis; this can be heard not only in these anthems but also in his fantasias for the viols.

Purcell would compose one further tribute to Queen Mary, which was unrelated to her funeral. In May 1695 Henry Playford published Three Elegies upon the Much Lamented Loss of our Late Most Gracious Queen Mary. Purcell’s O dive custos, from this publication is a orid, Italianate duet, invoking the rivers of Oxford and Cambridge in grief for Mary.


—Notes by Jérôme Lejeune, Judith LeGrove, and James M. Potter — provided by Vox Luminis