Fresh from his studies in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz was named Kappelmeister to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden in 1617, the year in which the centennial of the Protestant Reformation was celebrated throughout Lutheran Germany. By the time he wrote the central work on our program published in 1664 as Historia, der freuden- und Gnadenreichen Geburth Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi, Unsers Einigen Mitlers Erlösers und Seligmachers, commonly referred to as Weihnachtshistorie, or Christmas Story, Schütz was one of the few members of his generation surviving to remember those celebrations.
Saxony, along with the rest of northern Europe, was finally beginning to recover from the economic and social devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). As always resources had been devoted to weapons instead of people and for many years during the war musicians in the court musical ensemble were paid only occasionally. In a letter written in 1651, Schütz described “the very great lamentation, distress, and wailing of the entire company of poor, deserted relatives of the singers and instrumentalists, who live in such misery that it would move even a stone in the earth to pity.”
The situation changed significantly in the 1650s, particularly with the ascent of Johann Georg II in 1656. While there was some concern among church authorities about his allegiance to the Lutheran confession, Johann Georg II was quite devoted to spiritual matters and to the support of the arts, and the new Elector lavished huge sums from the court treasury on an opulent musical ensemble. Some of the finest Italian singers were appointed and the instrumental ensemble was expanded to become one of the finest musical establishments in Europe.
It was with this magnificent ensemble in mind that Schütz composed his setting of the Christmas narrative, based on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The trend toward the dramatization of Vespers readings was already under way by the time Schütz wrote the Christmas Story, as for example in a similar work composed in the 1650s by his colleague Peranda, but Schütz was the first to use such a diverse orchestra to depict the characters in the story. The use of operatic recitative style for the Evangelist’s narrative was also innovative and reflected a theological trend toward the personalization of liturgy in an effort to communicate directly to the emotions of the congregation.
In developing a liturgy for the reformed church, Luther and his followers retained the Matins and Vespers services from the daily Divine Office of the pre-Reformation church, adapting their content to suit the new theology. The basic structure of Vespers remained in an abbreviated form, along with many of the Gregorian melodies and recitation formulæ, but the congregation was involved directly through the singing of chorales and the use of German along with Latin. The inclusion of chorales, the addition of a sermon, and the expansion of the lesson to include large sections of scripture recited in German served to shift the emphasis of the Vespers service away from prayer and meditation and toward the education and spiritual edification of the congregation.
Though Luther established a basic structure of worship, the details of liturgy and ritual were left largely to the discretion of local authority. Upon his ascension to the Electorate in 1656, Johann Georg II established a revised liturgy for the Dresden Court Chapel and this, together with diary entries from the court secretaries has provided considerable detail in determining the structure of worship in Dresden and the specific entry for Christmas 1660 has provided the franework and many of the musical elements of Magnificat's program.
Adapted from program notes written by Warren Stewart for Magnificat's 1992 and 2001 performances of a Dresden Christmas Vespers featuring Schütz's Christmas Story.
The background image is a detail of Albrecht Dürer's altarpiece for the Wittenberg Castle, commissioned by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony in 1496, now in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.