Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
My daughter has finished her exams and is keen to take in a show. Of course, there is no end of choices at this time of year. And given complete free rein, she has chosen Schütz’s Christmas Story, 17th-century German composer Heinrich Schütz’s (1585-1672) musical interpretation of the Nativity story.
Schütz’s Christmas Story is a desirable addition to the Toronto holiday concert roster. It will be performed by The Toronto Consort’s Artistic Associates, which is an ensemble of guest players and singers, including English tenor and Baroque specialist Charles Daniels. It will be conducted by David Fallis, Artistic Director of the production. Schütz’s Christmas Story will be performed in the second half of the concert, succeeding the Christmas music of Schütz’s contemporaries Schein, Scheidt, and Hassler. And days ahead of its opening, it looks headed for a warm reception.
This is my daughter’s first time hearing about this work. Its appeal lies both in the novelty of rarely-performed music using rarely-used instruments, and the opportunity to relax and surrender to its different aesthetic. She and other young people need not concern themselves with following a plot or parsing intricate choreography. Instead, they can concentrate on the beauty of Baroque music performed on the period instruments it was composed for . . . and give in to the emotions catalyzed by the music.
Schütz’s Christmas Story was first performed in Dresden in 1660, when Schütz was 75 years old. It uses a simple narrative text drawn directly from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and a score for six singers, who give voices to such characters as angels, shepherds, and wise men, blending the festivity of Yuletide, the reverence of the Nativity, and the vibrant colours of early Baroque music.
The music is “beautiful and quite literal, if you know what I mean,” affirms Fallis. It is the words from two Gospels brought to life in a beautifully dramatic way, led by a narrator – the Evangelist (Daniels) – telling the story. It resembles a Christmas pageant, with singers who dramatize the text and sing the words spoken by characters like the Shepherds, the Angel, King Herod, and Priests. In Fallis’ view, what makes it “quite fun” is that Schütz has coloured each character with different instruments. “So you only hear recorders for the Shepherds, Herod the King has a regal accompaniment from cornetti, the Angel is indicated by the viola da gamba, and the High Priests are accompanied by trombones.”
Fallis describes Seventeenth-century Germany as a “hotbed” of musical innovation, when various cultural, national and compositional influences converged. Regarded by most as the most important German composer before Bach, Schütz is credited with bringing the Italian style to Germany and continuing its evolution from the Renaissance into the Early Baroque. “To this day, Schütz’s Christmas Story stands as one of the shining examples of the tremendous work emerging from this period. Schütz’s tutelage under Italian masters, such as Monteverdi and Gabrieli, translated to more dramatic musical expression, coupled with the association of characters with particular instruments, and subtler relationships between text and music. All of these innovations melded into a joyous celebration of hope and peace, capturing the true spirit of the holiday season.”
The concert opens with a program constructed like a palindrome. The first and seventh pieces have the same celebratory text; the second, third, fifth, and sixth speak to the fulfilment of prophecy and the coming of the lord. “And right in the middle is a piece I wanted to draw attention to: a stunning lament to Rachel weeping for her children. It is a work that is rarely performed and heard.”
The concert also presents a unique opportunity to hear unusual musical instruments which were popular in the Seventeenth century, but are rarely encountered today: “Each requires a highly specialized musician; in fact, we have many players coming from out of town!” Some of the instruments are early versions of instruments that people are familiar with. For instance, the sackbut is a smaller, early trombone. There will also be organ and harpsichord, a long-necked lute called a theorbo, and baroque violins, which have a softer, delicate sound. Finally, there will be the cornetto, which sound like brass but are actually made of wood; and the viola da gamba (or viol) a bowed instrument similar to the violin, but with six strings and frets like a guitar. “They all combine to create quite a wonderful mixture of different kinds of sounds that make up our little orchestra.” The international cast of musicians that Fallis has assembled is “quite experienced.” They are some of the best interpreters of these instruments, and “such expertise is a bit of a rarity”.
Fallis himself is one of Canada’s leading interpreters of operatic and choral/orchestral repertoire, especially of the Baroque and Classical periods. For this reason, he was the Historical Music Producer for dramas The Tudors and The Borgias (Showtime). In addition to being a member of the Toronto Consort since 1979, he served as Artistic Director from 1990 to 2018. He is also the Music Director for Opera Atelier, and has locally and internationally conducted major operatic works by Mozart, Monteverdi, Purcell, Lully and Handel. Schütz’s Christmas Story is a welcome addition to this oeuvre and a “slightly challenging balancing act” that Fallis is looking forward to: “The Narrator is accompanied by organ and theorbo, and I’m actually going to be playing the organ for these narration sections.” As for conducting, he hopes to do little, as most of the piece consists of different pairs of instruments accompanying each sung character. Rather than looking to him, the musicians “navigate [each piece] by listening to one another”.
So Schütz’s Christmas Story has struck an unexpected chord with my daughter . . . and as my interest also swells, it feels like a sympathetic echo of Fallis’ contagious excitement: “This is a beautiful and rare piece that I simply love. It has been many years since I’ve last had the opportunity to share it – and we can not wait to do it for Toronto audiences!”
News You Can Use
What: The Toronto Consort presents Schütz’s Christmas Story, featuring Charles Daniels (the Evangelist)│Artistic Direction by David Fallis
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: December 13–14, 8:00 pm and December 15, 3:30 pm
Where: Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall, 427 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: torontoconsort.org
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2019