Out of the Box: Heinrich Schütz's "Christmas Story"

Dec 20, 2019

Musical innovation, Italian opera, and German storytelling come together in a beautiful setting of the nativity story.

WHAT: Yale Schola Cantorum & David HillSchütz: Historia der Geburt Christi, & Other Works

MUST LISTEN: Heinrich Schütz, “Historia der Geburt Christi” (i.e. “The Christmas Story")

WHY THIS MUSIC: It's never a bad idea to enjoy some lesser-known Christmas choral music (lesser known than Handel’s Messiah, I mean), performed by one of the premier university choirs in the nation.

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand. 

The Schola Cantorum is Yale's premier chamber choir, dedicated to sacred music from the 16th century to today. Simon Carrington (an original member of the King's Singers, and, it turns out, a good friend of my high school choral director) founded it in 2003, as an extension of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. After Carrington stepped down in 2009, Masaaki Suzuki led the Schola Cantorum through 2013. That's when David Hill took over, and this Heinrich Schütz album is his fifth with the Cantorum's on the Hyperion label.

Schütz’s The Christmas Story (actually titled “Historia, der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi” or “The Story of the joyful and gracious birth of God and son of Mary, Jesus Christ”) is a quasi-dramatic liturgical setting of the nativity story from 1664.

The music may not sound particularly cutting-edge. But don't let your ears deceive you. In the 1660’s, Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story was actually quite avant garde. Here’s why.

Portrait of composer Heinrich Schütz, painted by Christoph Spätner, c. 1660, the year he wrote his "Historia der Geburt Christi"
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Music in Schütz’s lifetime was rapidly evolving from the flourishes of the Renaissance to the more structured sensibilities of the Baroque. Composers, mostly in Italy, wrestled and experimented with ideas of what music could be and what it could achieve.

As luck would have it, the German Schütz just happened to spend a bit of time in Italy with Claudio Monteverdi, who’s responsible for one of the greatest innovations of the time: opera. From his time with Monteverdi and a few other Italian composers, Schütz became versed in, and learned the power of, a new compositional technique called "recititative."

Recitative is that operatic way of musically delivering big chunks of dialog in a lyrical yet conversational way, and it is a staple in the aforementioned late baroque works by Handel and Bach. But it was Schütz who used it first in a German religious setting.

Now, I understand, this might not seem like a big deal. But it is! Before this, composers had been using chant to convey dialog and longer texts in religious works. Like... medieval chants! Not Schütz. He had witnessed firsthand the power of singing as a dramatic art form, and had the inspiration to transfer that drama from the stage to liturgy. And without that little creative spark, you could even go so far as to say that the ornate and exuberant works by Handel and Bach that have become such beloved holiday traditions today simply would not have been as good.

And so, it is the innovative, “out-of-the-box” thinker, Heinrich Schütz, who combined Italian opera techniques with German religious texts, that we celebrate this week on Out of the Box. I hope you enjoy this graceful music this holiday season, and perhaps even turn it into a new tradition.

Gerard van Honthorst's "Adoration of the Shepherds" c. 1622
Credit Wikimedia Commons