einrich Schütz (1585 - 1672) was the Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden from 1615 until his death. His works are notable for successfully combining Italian and German styles. He was a student of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice and spent several years as the guest court conductor to the King of Denmark in Copenhagen.
The practice of setting the events of Holy Week to music can be traced back as far as the 4th century and range from the simplest forms of plainsong to the quasi-operatic offerings of the late Baroque period and beyond. During the Middle Ages a single cantor would perform the entire story using different vocal ranges to distinguish between Christ, using the lowest four pitches, the middle register for the Evangelist and the top four pitches for all other characters. The 'popularity' of this liturgical dramatic subject meant that numerous passion plays were conceived. Even in the famous Carmina Burana two settings are to be found.
From the 15th century three persons were typically employed distributively with the more wealthy establishments able to deploy the crowd parts (turba) to a choir. Some notable settings of the late Middle Ages include the polyphonic work of Gilles Binchois. From the time of the Reformation both Latin and German settings became commonplace and, depending on the conception of the composer and the place of composition, these works could be motet styles for choir alone or a continuation of the earlier plainsong style. Some notable composers from the time include Johann Walther (Schütz' own choirmaster), Antoine Longaval (Schütz' passion follows this type), Jacobus Gallus and Leonhard Lechner. Even more elaborate settings were devised during the 16th century, eg the Italian composer Antonio Scandello's setting of the Passion according to St John for a diverse choral ensemble. Turbae music for the five voices, single-line Evangelist, three part Peter, Pilate etc, with the words of Jesus set for four voices. Scandello was based at Dresden where, a century later, Heinrich Schütz was to maintain the strong tradition of Passion composition.
Political upheaval during Schütz' employ meant that his choral forces were quite limited and thus he returned to a more austere model to achieve his aims (an alternate interpretation suggests that this was an affectation to maintain the tradition of no instrumental activity in Holy Week). All characters are sung as unaccompanied plainsong while all turba utterances are performed by a four-part choir. The Lutheran ideals of faith found through the inerrant biblical word presents us with a complete rendering of chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel according to Matthew. The only deviation from this is the use of textual repetition for dramatic effect.
Musically, each of Schütz' passion settings is based upon a different mode. One commentator has suggested that the choice of mode fits with "amazing precision the character of the three passion stories". In the case of the St Matthew Passion the drama and contrast of the scriptural text finds it echo in the solemnity and modulatory mobility of the Dorian mode (F major: G-g).
Regarding the plainchant, each character has a distinct melodic quality. The Evangelist emphasises words of importance with dramatic use of melisma or melodic progression. Christ maintains a more sombre quality punctuated by the impassioned renderings of the crucifixion texts of which there are suprisingly few in this Gospel. Judas is an excitable, anxious alto; Caiphas, melodically duplicitous (note the use of the tritone - the devil's tone) while Pilate is concerned yet always dispassionately urbane.
As to the 'correct' performance practice for this work, Schütz himself gives us a clue in introductions to his other biblical histories: "The Evangelist takes a part by himself and recites it without any fixed bar measures, in whichever way seems suitable to him, without holding any one syllable any longer than he would ordinarily do in slow, comprehensible speech".
Chorally, Schütz chooses a pronounced realism in contrast to the later settings of Bach, which seem more to stress the inner meaning of the text. The rendering of a staggered three minim beats for each voice against the imperfect metre (2/1) of the crowd shouting "Barabbas!" has been rarely matched in the choral repertoire. This single line is further emphasised by the use of a similar device for the "Kreutzige!" (Crucify) choruses. In contrast "Sein Blut ..." (His blood be upon us and our children), has a shocking stillness in today's interpretation. Two further choruses need mentioning. "Halt, lasst sehen" (Wait, let's see if Elias will come ...) contains a biting sarcasm with the juxtaposition of voices as a simple ascending series of root position triads. The final motet, Beschluß (Conclusion), has a grandeur not present throughout the Passion and reminds the devout of the significance of the liturgical drama. This is divided into three main sections: "Ehre sei dir Christe" (Glory to Thee), "und herrchest mit dem Vater dort in Ewigkeit" (and reigneth with the Father in Heaven) and Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy). The first has the majestic qualities of many a Renaissance setting of a final Amen; the second, the nature of a regal fanfare and the third, the reminiscence of a Latin/Lutheran Mass.