Choral music has been with us for thousands of years! Although we can’t determine with any certainty when it became an organized activity, we do have examples of early vocal music that would probably have been sung by a group of people. In my old tattered copy of “Historical Anthology of Music” from my student days there are examples of early Greek hymns from 138 B.C. along with other vocal music from the first century A.D. Clearly singing in groups has been with us for a while.
These early examples don’t look, or sound like modern choral music. They are single lines of music and no accompaniment is there. What’s important about them is the idea that someone wanted to make sure that whatever was being sung, was being sung in a particular way.
This is what starts to move vocal music away from an “oral tradition” where tunes and songs are simply passed from one generation to another by singing together. This oral tradition would continue, but mostly with secular music. Sacred music would start to become more complex and over the years would involve multiple voices singing separate parts at the same time. That might be the beginning of choral music as we know it today
Now we have a “chorus” – but what to do with them? As vocal music continued to become more complex, different regional styles emerged. Some music was written for multiple voices to sing. As it evolved, some composers began to write for multiple groups of singers or choruses. A big leap forward.
This is what leads us into the music for our concerts this weekend.
For me, the Schütz “Musikalische Exequien” is a turning point in the evolution of vocal and choral music. A detailed description and analysis would take far more space than I have here. But contained in this twenty-five minute piece of music is a compendium of musical styles. By itself, that’s not all that amazing because composers almost always try to be inventive using all the tools at their disposal.
What’s amazing about this piece is that Schütz not only uses many musical idioms of the day, he’s also looking forward and trying new musical techniques. Many of these would become touchstones for generations of composers who would follow him.
Here’s an example of what I mean in the second movement of the Schütz “Musikalische Exequien” that we are singing this weekend. This music is written for two separate choruses. This video allows you to see and hear how the choruses answer one another.
What Schütz does reflects who his teachers were. He studied with Giovanni Gabrieli, the master of polychoral (music for more than one choir) music. But Schütz takes this concept of multiple choruses and, in the last movement, moves one of the groups “offstage” – maybe in a side chapel of a church where the piece was being sung.
Another composer and teacher of Schütz’, Claudio Monteverdi also did in his “1610 Vespers,” but with a solo voice. Schütz studied with Monteverdi just a few years before writing “Musikalische Exequien” and, still looking forward, expanded this idea with his “offstage” chorus. While it was startling and new in 1635, two hundred years later this technique would be a staple of opera composers like Verdi.
What all of this does is move choral music away from being strictly functional – like church music – to something that is highly complex and artistic.
Listen to Schütz setting of “Selig sind die toten,” which is for six-part chorus. Even though it is for a single chorus, you can find places where he imitates the multiple chorus sound. I chose this performance by Phillippe Herreweghe because he uses one voice on a part and I really like the lyrical quality he gets with this music!
There is so much to share about this amazing piece, which I believe is one that moved vocal music into the modern world! Join me this weekend and we will begin a musical journey together that will take us all the way to the end of the 20th century by our last concerts in April.