Weckmann – ‘Es ist das Heil’

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Mayfair Organ Concerts
St George Hanover Square, St George Street, London W1S 
11 October 2016, 1:10-1.50

Matthias Weckmann  (1616-1674)
‘Es ist das Heil kommen her’

Andrew Benson-Wilson plays the monumental set of 7 verses on the Lutheran chorale ‘Es ist das Heil kommen her’ written by Matthias Weckmann (1616-1674). Lasting about 35 minutes, it is the longest such organ work from the whole of the 17th century. It includes, as the sixth verse, the most extensive and most complex Chorale Fantasia of that era.

It is played on the 2012 Richards, Fowkes & Co organ in St George’s Hanover Square, based on North German 17th/18th century organs.
Admission free – retiring collection.
Programme notes below

Matthias Weckmann (1616-1674)
‘Es ist das Heil kommen her’

Matthias Weckmann is one of the most influential 17th century organist composers of the North German school. He was born in Thuringia, studied in Dresden with Schütz (a pupil of G. Gabrieli) and in Hamburg with Jacob Praetorius, a Sweelinck pupil. He settled in Hamburg in 1655 as organist of the Jacobikirche where he remained until his death. He is buried beneath the Jacobikirche organ.

Weckmann’s monumental set of seven verses on the chorale Es ist das Heil kommen her (‘It is our salvation come here to us’) is one of the most extraordinary (and probably the longest) organ works from the whole of the 17th century. The chorale, Es ist das Heil kommen her was published in 1524 in the first Lutheran hymnbook. The text was written by Paul Speratus while he was in prison awaiting execution. It is set to the melody of a 15th century Easter chorale. It was reputedly first heard by Luther in Wittenburg, sung by a beggar from the Baltics. Later writers suggest that hearing the beggar singing reduced Luther to tears, and started his belief in the power of music to support his reforming religious thinking. The text emphases the important of faith, based on the biblical concept that “by grace you have been saved through faith. This is a gift of God, not a result of your works so that you may boast”.

Unusually for such 17th century North German chorale variations, Weckmann’s piece does not seem to be intended to be performed as part of the congregational singing of the hymn, with organ verses interspersed between some of the sung verses. In his doctoral thesis on Weckmann’s keyboard music*, Hans Davidsson suggests that it was performed as an independent work, perhaps during a special Sunday Vespers service. There seems to be little direct correlation between the seven organ verses and the 14 verses of the hymn, although Davidson has suggested the Weckmann selected four specific verses to set in between the Primus Versus (acting as a Prelude) and the concluding two verses, based on the last two verses, Sei lob und Herr, which was often sung as a doxology in the Hamburg Jacobikirche.

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Primus Versus a5 Voc. Im vollen Werck.  (c3’45)
The first verse has the chorale theme in the pedals after an eleven-bar introduction, based on the first two lines of the chorale. It features Weckmann’s distinctive use of repeated motifs, in the case, the insistent five-note syncopated descending figure heard from the start. It is repeated 57 times in the 57 bars. This motif appears in all seven verses.

Secundus Versus Manualiter. Canon in hyperdiapente post minimam.   (c2’15)
This is the first of three verses using a two-part canon, in this case beneath the treble chorale theme. Canon movements usually refer to ‘law’ or ‘wisdom’. The canon is at the interval of a fifth above (hyperdiapente) and a minim (half-bar) apart (post minimam).

Tertius Versus Auff 2 Clavir.  (c4’)
This unusual verse has the chorale played at 8′ tenor pitch on the pedals (after a 24 bar introduction) while the bass is played on a 16’ reed with the left hand. There are indications that this might be intended as a reflection on the birth of Jesus, not least the fact that the pedal theme enters at the 25th bar beneath a quote from the Christmas chorale, Von Himmel hoch. The final few bars, based on the motif from the Primus Versus, are illustrated below.Weckman v3.jpg

Quartus Versus a.3 Pedaliter. Canon in subdiapason post semiminimam.   (c3’)
The central verse is the second of the three canonic verses. It has the chorale in the bass beneath a canon at the octave below (subdiapason) and a crochet (quarter-bar) apart (semiminimam). Davidson links this to the 9th verse of the chorale, with its references to the Cross, musically indicated by a central sequence of sharp signs (# = cross), and to God’s law having ‘no rest or quietness’, indicated by the subsequent break into a triple time rhythm.

Quintus Versusa3 Pedal. Canon in disdiapente post semiminimam.   (c3’35)
Although the canonic structure is similar to the Quartus Versus, the mood is very different. Here the canon between the two hands is at an octave and a fourth below (disdiapente), with the tenor theme in the pedal. Davidson sees the wide-spaced canon as a reference to Heaven and Earth, with God helping to combine the two with the middle voice theme, the awkward harmonic implications of a disdiapente canon perhaps depicting ‘God’s wrath’.

Sextus Versus Auff 2 Clavier.   (c13’)
This extended chorale fantasia is the longest and most complex of all such pieces. It has 238 bars and lasts for about 13 minutes. The mood is one of praise, with suggestions of a link to The Trinity. It is written in five and six parts, increasing to seven and eventually, on the gloriously emphatic final chord, to eight parts. Each of the seven lines of the chorale are treated in turn but, unlike other chorale fantasias, the beginning and end of each section is not always clear, the start of a new chorale line often overlapping the close of the previous line. The chorale theme is treated to an extraordinary range of ornamentally devices, to which are added many of the motifs from earlier verses. The fifth line of the chorale features ascending trills over a descending bass line, reaching the remote key of F# major before eventually arriving at the highest note on Weckmann’s organ.

The extended final section, treating the last line of the chorale, lasts for 66 bars. Davidsson suggests this is a possible reference to the apocalyptic number 666, reflecting the disastrous times of war, plague and famine of Weckmann’s lifetime. It runs through all the playable keys of a meantone organ, eventually breaking into seven independent parts with double pedal. The emphatic coda is based on a rising seven-note motif, repeated seven times, leading to the confident final eight-part C major chord. This chord spans the entire range of Weckmann’s Jacobikirche organ, from bottom CC to top c”.

Septimus et ultimus Versus Im vollen Werck. Coral im Tenor Manualiter et pedal.   (c4’)
The monumental final verse is for six independent parts, with the chorale theme heard in the upper of two pedal voices. Following Weckmann’s known practice, the upper pedal chorale theme is doubled in the manuals. The main motifs are ascending and descending scales. The six voices play almost continuously in an extraordinarily rich texture, making the organ sound the loudest possible. The suggested text is a paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer.
© Andrew Benson-Wilson, 2016

* Hans Davidsson: Matthias Weckmann: the interpretation of his organ music. Stockholm: Carl Gehrmans Musikförlag, 1991.

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