Organ Vespers for Epiphany Eve

Eve of the Epiphany
2015.01.05 · 19.30
St Austin Catholic Parish

     A solis ortus: Versus i   Samuel Scheidt
office hymn
     Hostis Herodes impie
     Organ versets   Samuel Scheidt
magnificat   Tone VIII
     Organ versets   Hieronymus Praetorius
     Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam   Michaël Praetorius

A long-brewing project is now coming to fruition. For the Region VII Convention of the American Guild of Organists held in Austin in 2013, I formed Schola Aliquando, with whom I presented Vespers for the Visitation of the bvm featuring chant-based organ polyphony of the early seventeenth century in its native habitat, i.e. in alternation with the sung chant.

Since then, and particularly in the second half of this year, I have been working to establish a series of Organ Vespers that will showcase not only the extensive chant-based organ verset literature of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but also other genres – short intonations, motet-intabulations (i.e., transcriptions of vocal polyphony), and what we now call choral-fantasias (extended works based on chant melodies) – that grew out of the same Vespers tradition. My colleague John Hoffman has graciously agreed to let us present Organ Vespers at St Austin, which has a fine acoustic and a beautiful German-Baroque-style organ – the ideal setting for this endeavor.

Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), a court musician and later music director of the famous Market Church in his native Halle, wrote choral music as well but is probably best known for his major collection of keyboard music, Tabulatura Nova (Hamburg, 1624), which includes a large selection of liturgical versets. His hymn-verset cycles all follow a similar pattern, in which the first verse is in motet style, treating each phrase of the tune in turn in imitative counterpoint, and the remaining verses present the tune as a cantus firmus (i.e., in straightforward fashion) in each voice in turn. The composer advised that these cantus firmi should be brought out through stronger or contrasting combinations of stops; the prevalence in North German organs of pedal stops sounding one or two octaves higher than normal meant that not only a bass line, but also a cantus firmus in the tenor, alto, or even treble voice could be played on the pedals. Because the Vespers hymns for Christmas- and Epiphanytide are part of the same text (from an alphabetic acrostic poem by the fifth-century poet Cælius Sedulius) and use the same tune, Scheidt’s verses on ‘A solis ortus’ can be used for ‘Hostis Herodes’ tonight: the first played as a prelude; the third, fourth, and fifth with the singing of the hymn.

Hieronymus Prætorius (1560–1629) had a seminal role in establishing the rich North German musical scene of the seventeenth century. Organist of Hamburg’s principal church, St James’s, from 1586 until his death, he wrote numerous vocal Masses, Magnificats, and motets in the new Venetian polychoral style – one of the first in Germany to do so – and is credited with the large manuscript collection of liturgical organ music (the ‘Visby’ or ‘Petri’ tablature) from which tonight’s cycle of Magnificat verses come.

The first verse of this cycle presents the chant tone relatively straightforwardly in the tenor voice, doubled in this performance by the right foot and the left hand (the left foot playing the bass) to bring it out of the rich five-voiced texture: a practice attested in this period. The remaining verses achieve their length by breaking the chant tone into its constituent motives and then tossing them back and forth among the voices, cycling through different tonal areas. In the second and third verses, the treble voice is elaborated with many runs and flourishes and invites the use of a solo registration; most of the verses feature echo-like passages reminiscent of the polychoral style.

Michaël Prætorius (1571–1621) is perhaps the best-known composer represented tonight, though organ works constitute a tiny fraction of his prolific output. Nevertheless they include some of the earliest known examples of what today is called the choral-fantasia – an extended organ solo work based upon a chant, treating each phrase of the melody in turn at some length – a genre which flourished throughout seventeenth-century North Germany, often improvised after Saturday or Sunday Vespers. Though later generations developed a whole grammar of musico-rhetorical techniques for interpreting the texts of these chants, tonight’s example, from Volume VII of Musæ Sioniæ (1609), remains firmly within the imitative-contrapuntal motet style (in some sections employing the archaic cantus planus) of the Renaissance. The hymn that is its subject, ‘Christ our Lord came to the Jordan...’, was not written specifically for Epiphanytide, but rather is one of Luther’s five hymns on his Small Catechism – but as much of it retells the Gospels’ account of the Baptism of Christ, it seems appropriate to include it here.