Historia Nativitatis – A Christmas Oratorio


A Christmas Oratorio after Heinrich Schütz SWV 435.

This Christmas Oratorio is kind of a plea for a free handling of the repertoire of the 17th century and is meant to inspire today’s musicians to prepare their own versions and variations of the Weihnachtshistorie and/or other works for concert performances or for worship services. Your initial courage will result in happiness.

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The Historia developed during the 17th century. It is a genre in Protestant sacred music that uses the words of the Luther Bible to report on the events of Easter, the Passion and Christmas stories. The Historiae were performed on high feast days and included recitations of the gospels, choruses and sacred concertos. This form was used already in 1623 by the Dresden Hofkapellmeister Heinrich Schütz, who was already famous during his lifetime, with his so-called Resurrection Historia SWV 50. After the Thirty Years’ War, Schütz composed a new setting of the Christmas Gospel, which probably sounded for the first time on Christmas Day in 1660 in the old Dresden Schlosskapelle (renovated in 1662) “by gracious directive” of Johann Georg II, the reigning prince elector since 1656. The part of the Evangelist, who declaims the greater part of the Christmas story after Lukas, is no longer set in a liturgical lection style, but in the stylo recitativo, with the basso continuo, comprised of an organ and “bass violin”, underpinning the harmony.

Schütz intended to “translate music” into words, so the eccentricities of the German language with its light and weighty, short and long syllables, are translated into music events. It is also this stylo recitativo that represents a type of composition that is “new and until now, as far as I know, that has never appeared before in Germany”. A symmetrical form in 10 “Concertos in the organ” (eight intermedia, complete with introduction and resolution) gives the so-called Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Historia) SWV 435 a ground-breaking text structure.

When Heinrich Schütz had his Weihnachtshistorie published in 1664, entitled Historia, Der Freuden- und Gnadenreichen Geburth Gottes und Marien Sohnes/Jesu Christi, Unsers Einigen Mitlers/Erlösers und Seeligmachers (Historia, the joyous and merciful birth of God’s and Mary’s Son / Jesus Christ, our own blessed saviour), he replaced the older Historia of Schütz’ predecessor Rogier Michael (printed in Dresden in 1602), whose text Schütz mostly adopted (leaving out the depiction of Jesus in the temple after Luke 2:22–39). Schütz’ Historia is in its facture conceived for the Dresden Court Orchestra of the time, whose musicians and singers mastered several instruments. Eleven vocal soloists, violins, cornettos, trombones, flutes, trumpets and the basso continuo are called for. Schütz offered only the individual parts of the evangelist and the basso continuo for sale, holding back the other ten vocal and instrumental parts. The music for these were available as rental material “for a small fee” only from the organist Alexander Hering of Dresden or from the cantor in Leipzig (St. Thomas’ cantor at the time was Sebastian Knüpfer). But Schütz did not have an economic motive in mind with this step – he looked forward in thinking that only royal court orchestras had the opportunity to perform these very diversely instrumented concertos. Due to the opulent orchestration, a performance then as well as today of this extraordinary music for choirs, chamber choirs and ensembles would be difficult to organise. However, the Christmas message setting was not to be reserved only for the Royal Saxon Court, but was also to become musical practice in any church. The diverse treatises and prefaces of printed music of the 17th century often refer to the fact that the works to be performed should be adjusted according to local circumstances and possibilities. Schütz wrote in his preface to the Weihnachtshistorie, that “it should be a free choice in performing the ten concertos (whose texts are also provided on these prints) in drawing upon the local corpus musicum in the manner desired or even to compose anew or to have it composed by others.” This approach has inspired the Ensemble Polyharmonique to draft an alternative version of the Weihnachtshistorie that is also feasible for the ensemble. The resulting HISTORIA NATIVITATIS strictly follows the intention of the Sagittarius form and was arranged for a Corpus Musicum of six voices, two violins, dulcian and a colourful basso continuo (organ, regal, theorbo, baroque harp, violin). In archives and libraries, contemporary and predominantly Central German sources of music were found, some of it unknown, including works by Andreas Hammerschmidt, Samuel Scheidt, Wolfgang Carl Briegel, Johann Georg Carl, Stephan Otto among others, which correspond exactly to the text material. The HISTORIA NATIVITATIS is prepended by a Prolog, which prepares the content of the traditional Christmas story and which is connected to the plot with its dramaturgy of various voice types. The solemn opening Freue Dich sehr, du Tochter Zion (Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion) by Andreas Hammerschmidt is followed by the liturgical tradition of prophesy accordingly.

The setting of Isaiah’s words Das Volk, so im Finstern wandelt (The people that walked in darkness) by St. Thomas Cantor Tobias Michael is performed joyfully and intimately by the soprano and tenor voices that later take on the roles of the Angel of the Annunciation for the shepherds and the Evangelist later in the Historia. The subsequent annunciation dialogue, masterly set by Schütz, Sei gegrüßet, Maria (Hail Mary) SWV 333 describes how the Virgin Mary learns from the Angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear the Son of God through the Holy Spirit. The role of the angel is characterised by an alto voice, which later calls upon Joseph to flee to and return from Egypt to protect the newborn from the soldiers of King Herod and to lead him back home after the threat has passed. Johann Eccard’s Übers Gebirg Maria geht (Mary goes over the mountain) tells of the journey of the pregnant Mary to the mother of John the Baptist (Base Elisabeth), who is also pregnant. The movement flows into the joyful song of praise Mein Seel den Herrn erhebet (My soul doth magnify the Lord). The soprano part of Mary gleams time and again during the story. The splendid concerto Hosianna dem Sohne David (Hosianna to the Son of David) by Melchior Franck rounds out the Prolog. After a short pastoral Sinfonia by Johann Rosenmüller, the actual Christmas story begins. The opening chorus of the original Weihnachtshistorie has unfortunately not completely survived. Thus the motets Ein Kind ist uns geboren (A Child is Born to Us) and Das Wort ward Fleisch (The Word became flesh) from the collection Geistliche Chor-Music (Sacred Choral Music) (Dresden 1648) by Heinrich Schütz form the introduction and the conclusion to the HISTORIA NATIVITATIS.

The Evangelist part then reports of the shepherds in the fields, the adoration of the three kings and the flight to and return from Egypt. Just as in the Schütz, the eight intermedia depict a continuation of the events. They are taken from various concert settings of the gospels O ihr lieben Hirten (O ye dear shepherds), Wo ist der neugeborne König (Where is the newborn king) by Andreas Hammerschmidt, Wolfgang Carl Briegel’s Stehe auf Joseph (Stand up Joseph) and the Christmas dialogue O ihr lieben Hirten from the collection Kronenkrönlein (Freiberg 1648) by Stephan Otto. The part of Herod and the arrival of the high priests are connected to In Festo Trium Regium Evangelium cum Arien by Johann Georg Carl. Only the captivating chorus of angels Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Glory to God in the highest) is from the original work. The motets Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet (For God so loved the world) by Philipp Dulichius, Deo dicamus by Bartholomäus Gesius and ein Psallite by Samuel Scheidt are also added. Together with the familiar Christmas carols Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming), from the collection of Michael Praetorius, Joseph, lieber Joseph mein (Joseph, my dear Joseph) by Sethus Calvisius and Lobt Gott, ihr Christen all zugleich (Praise God, all ye Christians) by Johann Hermann Schein provide colourful commentaries of the events. The Historia ends with the exultant conclusio In dulci jubilo by Samuel Scheidt. The HISTORIA NATIVITATIS recorded here is a Historia in a form that may have sounded in Central Germany at the time as a vespers or a matins. It combines magnificent art music with the traditional Christmas sages of Central German origin and transforms them as a whole into a lively oratorio.

This Christmas Oratorio after Heinrich Schütz SWV 435 is a kind of plea for a free handling of the repertoire of the 17th century and is meant to inspire today’s musicians to prepare their own versions and variations of the Weihnachtshistorie and/or other works for concert performances or for worship services.

Your initial courage will result in happiness.

Alexander Schneider & Christoph Koop
Translated by Daniel Costello