The New York Times' chief classical music critic, Anthony Tomassini, gives credit to the person who was Germany's greatest composer, until Bach:
[B]orn in 1585, exactly 100 years before Bach, he is considered the greatest German composer of the 17th century. I hardly knew his music, however, and neither does much of the concert-going public today.
One day, that professor put on a recording of Schütz’s “Die Sieben Worte Jesu am Kreuz,” a setting of Jesus’s final words from the cross, framed by two stanzas of a hymn text. From the start of the poignant Introitus to this austerely beautiful piece, I was hooked.
What grabbed me was the importance Schütz gave to making the German text clear. In faithfully rendering the clipped rhythms and natural cadences of the language, the music taps into the deeper meaning of the words. Schütz drives home the emotions through deliberate repetitions of overlapping phrases. As a devotee of musical theater, I was struck by how Schütz seemed to anticipate the word-setting techniques of Broadway songsmiths.
Later in life, Schütz — who died in 1672, at 87 years old — composed three passions that anticipated those of Bach. These works are affectingly austere. The elegant, supple, quasi-melodious recitatives for the Evangelist and Jesus are unaccompanied; the lucid choral writing is dramatic, but understated. The tenor Peter Schreier, who died last year, recorded all three of the Evangelist roles with the Dresdner Kreuzchor choir, singing with radiant sound and aching sensitivity. I especially love the “St. Matthew Passion.”
I don’t think Bach would mind if, now and then, a performance of his own “St. Matthew Passion” were replaced with Schütz’s. I’d be there.
If you find yourself with extra time on your hands, check out some of Schütz’s works.