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Heinrich Schutz was considered one of the great German composers of the 17th century, and one of the first to achieve international recognition. He composed in a variety of genres: madrigals, motets, sacred concertos, requiems, histories, and passions. The Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi was composed and published late in his lifetime, around 1664. It was a musical setting of the Nativity story, written for choir, soloists, and orchestra.
The Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi, also known as “The Christmas Story,” was composed when Schutz was in his 70s. It includes text taken from the Bible, concerning the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The choir is written in up to 6 parts, and the soloists consist of an Evangelist (who is the narrator and a tenor soloist), wise men, an angel, and some shepherds. The piece intersperses the solos and choral parts in eight interludes. Vaccaro and Fineman have written an article with an interesting analysis, that Schutz composed this piece with metrical symbolism: “In the oratorio, the musical language used by the human characters is expressed through binary means and the language of the supernatural characters through a ternary metric.”
Schutz came a generation before Bach, and laid the foundation for Bach, who composed his Christmas Oratorio in 1734. Bach continued many of the traditions that Schutz began, including using secco recitative for the tenor soloist. Bach divided his Oratorio into six parts, however they were meant to be sung during different feast days, as opposed to Schutz’s Historia that was composed to be sung in one setting. No doubt Bach was familiar with Schutz and influenced heavily by him.
It is interesting to see the chain of influence, over the course of music history. Schutz was influenced by Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and Bach was influenced by Schutz. Each composer has taken those influences and formed something uniquely their own, that has caused them to stand out in the canon of Western classical music. It is important to remember this thread when considering the works of the “great” composers, and through critical study and analysis. The Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi by Schutz and the Christmas Oratorio by Bach are excellent examples of this phenomenon.