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Motet Notes

Heinrich Schütz: "Passion motets,” SWV 56-60 - Cantiones Sacrae


The five passion motets, from Schütz's 1624 "Cantiones Sacrae" are based upon Augustine's gigantic expansion of Psalm 115 and are among the peaks of seventeenth century music.  In richness of harmony, intensity of expression, and most importantly, the exploration of the vague, the ambiguous, and the contradictory, they are without equal.  In fact, no musical analogy functions as well as the obvious correlation between these works and the feverish drama in Caravaggio.  One thinks particularly of a work like "The Martyrdom of St. Matthew" in Rome, a painting of such religious fury that the violence and passion of the beginnings of Christianity are almost palpable. Few pieces of religious music care to explore this side of the faith as these Passion motets. They make great use of the musical equivalents of chiaroscuro.  The light and shade achieved by extremes of range at the words "ego superbivi" in the third motet; the wonderful blurred harmony at "cruciatus tui labor" in the second part are all painterly in their ambiguity.  The immense journey from darkness to light, by means of the subtle ascending of the range and the gradual predominance of the major mode over the minor, is like following one of the gigantic beams of light that illuminate the best of Caravaggio's paintings.

©Craig Smith


There is perhaps no more purely painterly music written in the 17th century than the five motets based upon Augustinian Lenten poetry published by Schütz in the Cantiones Sacrae.  Although Schütz' recent Italian sojourn had been exclusively in Venice, it is hard to believe that he had not seen the then recent paintings of Caravaggio. Certainly the striking chiaroscuro of his mature works finds a remarkable parallel in the ambiguous, darting harmonies in these works. More than any technical similarities what bind these two great artists together is the unequaled intensity of their vision.  Schütz went on to be a very different kind of composer later in his career, but he was never greater than in these monumental pieces.

©Craig Smith