In the midst of the pandemic, drawing musical sustenance from 17th century Germany

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German composer Hentrich Schütz’s life and career are relevant to our current predicament. Photo: Universal History Archive, Getty Images

The COVID pandemic is still with us, and it will be for quite a while yet. But here and there, as we see hints of the gloom beginning to lift, it’s natural to have thoughts of musical deliverance and to take musical stock of this experience.

It’s time for us to talk about Heinrich Schütz.

To be honest, there’s never a bad time to talk about Schütz. He’s one of my favorite composers and one that even many practiced music lovers don’t know a thing about. So any opportunity to be an evangelist for his work is a godsend.

But in particular, Schütz’s music — a towering highlight of the early Baroque period — has been a lifeline for me over the past year. Holed up at home, waiting for the cultural scene to reclaim some hint of normality, I found myself turning repeatedly for sustenance to Schütz’s world of order, beauty and spiritual grace.

Furthermore, Schütz’s life and career are surprisingly relevant to our current predicament. Like today’s artists, Schütz lived through a widespread catastrophe that forced him to turn inward and rethink his artistic premises — and he came out safely on the other side.

So who was this guy?

Schütz was born in 1585 and lived through most of the 17th century before dying at 89. If you’re into superlatives, you could call him the greatest German composer of that century and get no pushback.

As a composer, Schütz did one thing almost exclusively: write sacred vocal music. In his youth, he published one collection of Italian madrigals, and he composed the first known opera in German (a score that has been lost). But otherwise, all of his 500-plus compositions are settings of biblical or liturgical texts, either in Latin or in German, often accompanied by a handful of instruments.

Yet within that concentrated field, Schütz found scope for an extraordinary range of expressive and structural approaches. Some of his music is elaborately wrought, some slim and intimate (more on that in a moment). His settings of the Passion story, which can sound ascetic to ears accustomed to the more luxuriant Passions of Bach from a hundred years later, have a stately majesty; the “Christmas History,” conversely, sounds buoyant and joyful.

When Schütz puts a biblical text to music, it’s like a master class in close literary analysis. The words come springing to life, their poetic resonances underscored by the musical structures and melodic rhymes that Schütz has so carefully assembled.

And even though the themes are spiritual, the music also boasts a remarkable sensual allure. Like many musical (and visual) artists before and since, Schütz knew that the secret to smuggling sex into a religious context was to make a beeline for the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon. The catalog of the beloved’s physical attractions in “O quam tu pulchra es” (“How beautiful you are”) is steamy enough to warrant at least an R rating.

Schütz studied in Venice in his youth, where he was schooled in the grandiose style of that city’s St. Mark’s Cathedral — a matter of multiple choruses, big instrumental ensembles and dazzling spatial effects. But aside from a few extended visits to the Danish royal court in Copenhagen, Schütz spent almost his entire career in Dresden, in the service of the Elector of Saxony.

That meant that he lived through one of the great upheavals in German history: the Thirty Years’ War, which from 1618 to 1648 spread death and devastation on a scale that Europe would not witness again until World War I. And although Dresden was spared much of the actual fighting, the resulting economic disruption took a toll on the resources Schütz had to work with.

Before the war, Dresden’s musical establishment was among the most expansive in Germany, and Schütz had the luxury of writing for a sizable chorus and an array of expert vocal and instrumental soloists.

By the 1640s, with the war in its third decade, all that was a memory. Unpaid and unsupported, the court’s musicians scattered, or else stayed on in wretched poverty. Whatever music Schütz could hope to hear performed had to be conceived for limited forces.

And he rose to the challenge. To take just one pet example, “O süsser, o freundlicher” — one of a collection of stripped-down pieces Schütz published in 1636 — is scored for just one voice with keyboard accompaniment and none of the solo instruments that would traditionally be part of the mix. Yet it has the same expressive immediacy that Schütz would ordinarily have derived from a much larger ensemble.

I thought again of “O süsser, o freundlicher” after watching “Playing Changes,” the elegantly spare program of music for solo violin presented last month by San Francisco Symphony violinist Helen Kim, with dances by Post:ballet. The idioms could not be further apart, but there’s a shared esthetic of necessity: When your circumstances are restricted, you make art out of what you have available.

Review: ‘Playing Changes’ brings together music, dance and film in a gorgeous swirl

Violinist Helen Kim performs in “Playing Changes,” an elegantly spare program presented by the San Francisco Symphony and Post:ballet. Photo: San Francisco Symphony

Last summer, when discussing the art of the pandemic with my Chronicle colleague Mick LaSalle, I brought up the example of Schütz. What I didn’t have the courage to add back then — before vaccines, before the election — was that this too might pass.

In the end, Schütz outlived the Thirty Years’ War. Old age brought its own tribulations, but he was able to see the musical court in Dresden restored to something of its original glory, and he went back to writing the big, intricately worked-out pieces he’d had in his head all along.

Maybe there’s an omen in that for all of us.



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