Michael McCooe: Composer – Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz was a 17th Century German composer and organist. Today, Schütz is considered to be one of the key composers of the era and the most important one before Johann Sebastian Bach.

Musical education

Heinrich Schütz was born in 1585, in Saxony. After being discovered by the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, he became choir boy in 1599. He then studied music with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice between 1609 and 1613. The German was highly influenced by Gabrieli’s trademark polychoral style, which was reflected in his first published work – a set of Italian madrigals for five voices released in 1611.

Afterwards, all of Schütz’ known pieces are vocal settings of sacred texts. In 1613, he returned to Germany, moving to Dresden in 1615, with the Landgrave giving Schütz a permanent position in his chapel in 1618. A year later, Schütz released Psalmen Davids I, followed up with 1625’s Cantiones Sacrae and 1628’s Psalmen Davids I. Composed of motets and madrigals, these were sacred texts set to music in the Venetian style, either with solo voices, acapella or instrumental formations.

Changing styles

In 1627, Schütz’ most well-known secular work was first performed.  This was Dafne, the first ever German opera. The music Schütz wrote for Dafne is lost, but it’s libretto (crafted by Martin Optiz), survives. In 1628, Schütz returned to Venice and met Claudio Monteverdi. Schütz is credited with bringing the style developed by Italy’s monodists, often seen in Monterverdi’s work, back to Germany.

Schütz released one his most famous religious work in 1629, in Symphoniae Sacrae I. This served as a bridge between his early choral output, which involved up to four choirs and the more intimate solo and duet pieces he would produce later on. Symphoniae Sacrae I was Schütz’ last work in Latin. This was followed up by two more publications in this series – 1647’s Symphoniae Sacrae II and 1650’s Symphoniae Sacrae III, which featured more experimental combinations of vocals and instruments.

Austere turn

In 1633 he left Dresden and became the Chapel Master at Copenhagen’s royal court, before moving back to Dresden in 1635. The year 1636 marked a major milestone in Schütz’ life, with the release of Musicalische Exequien, his first German requiem. It used choral sections firmly based in German traditions, but its solos and duets were often florid in the Italian style. That same year he published Kleiner Geistlichen Concerten I, for solo voice and continuo, with Kleiner Geistlichen Concerten II following in 1639.

Schütz kept working in Dresden, releasing dramatic works for combinations of voices and instruments, such as 1648’s Geistliche Chormusic. Another major milestone came in his Christmas Oratorio, which we know of from a publication dating back to 1664. It is for soloists, choir and instruments and they foreshadow the austere turn Schütz took from then on. His final works were acappella passions, where plain scriptural text is sung in a recitative, syllabic style, interspaced with brief polyphonic choruses.

Influential composer

By the time he died in 1672, Heinrich Schütz was a respected composer of sacred music. He brought emerging Italian styles back to Germany, modifying them to the country’s musical landscape, while experimenting with vocal structure and instrumentation. This had a huge influence on later composers like Bach so in this way, Schütz helped bring about the onset of the Baroque age, where German composers dominated the scene. This is why he is regarded as the most important pre-Bach composer.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.