Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was one of the greatest and most prolific composers before J. S. Bach. His would have rubbed shoulders with other prominent musicians such as Giovanni Gabrieli, Michael Praetorius, Johann Hermann Schein, and Sameul Scheidt. Schütz was devoted to making music for the glory of God, and he is known for Passion settings, psalm settings, and other sacred works for choir and instruments.
Schütz was born to Christoph and Euphosina in 1585 in a small town in Saxony. When Schütz was still quite young, the family moved to Weissenfels, and Schütz was first exposed to music through joining the church choir as a boy. He was so talented as a singer that when Landgrave Moritz stayed the night at the family’s inn and heard the boy’s voice, he asked that young Schütz come with him for musical training at his court in Cassel. As Schütz was only thirteen at the time, his parents were reluctant to let him go, but the Landgrave insisted, and so the boy began his life as a musician.
In 1609, Schütz was now a young man and had enrolled in the University of Marburg to study law. Again, Landgrave Moritz intervened and insisted that Schütz pursue music, providing funds for Schütz to travel to Venice and study under Giovanni Gabrieli. Schütz accepted the offer and stayed in Venice for several years, immersed in the rich and elaborate compositional styles there. When he returned to Germany in 1613, Schütz was in such high demand that he soon joined the prestigious court of Elector Johann Georg in Dresden and became the director of the Lutheran Church’s finest group of musicians.
In 1619, Schütz married Magdalena Wildeck, and they were blessed with two daughters. Only six years later, Magdalena died, a tragedy that Schütz felt deeply. He put aside the work of writing grand compositions, and turned instead to reading the psalms. There was a Lutheran pastor of Leipzig, Cornelius Becker (1561-1604), who had taken each of the psalms and created a rhyming, metrical text for each. This Becker Psalter especially comforted Schütz after his wife’s death, and as Schütz read them, he began to compose choral settings for each, eventually setting all the psalms to music. About this project Schütz writes:
“It pleased Almighty God, according to His infinite wisdom and gracious will, through a particular family grief and through the sudden death of my late beloved wife, Magdalena Wildeck, to bring to a halt such other work I was planning and put into my hands this little psalter, as it were, so that I could derive more comfort from it in my sorrow. I thus set about this task more willingly, without further thought of myself, as a comforter in my sorrow, and finally prepared this small work, as it is presented here, with God’s help.”
Schütz published these works three years after his wife’s death and wrote this message to those who would read and sing them:
“May the true God, in these afflicted times of late, let His holy, pure, true Word live abundantly in the churches, the schools, and with each father in his home, through pure devout teachings, as also through spiritual and consolatory songs and psalms, until the longed for future of His beloved son, our Savior and Redeemer, that we might await Him in love, patience, and joyous hope, and be found always ready for that time. Amen.”
Schütz himself lived a long life, survived the hardships of the Thirty Years’ War, wrote an astounding number of sacred pieces, and died surrounded by the sound of hymns.
Source: Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition (1524-1672) by Carl Schalk, pgs. 151-179.
Quotations from A Heinrich Schütz Reader by Gregory S. Johnston, pgs. 63-64, 66.