Funeral Music from Gottorf Osterreich FortschMichael Österreich, Johann Philipp Förtsch, Georg Österreich

Funeral Music from Gottorf

Weser-Renaissance Bremen

Manfred Cordes, conductor

NDR Kultur, 2015

Funeral Music from Gottorf: Composers

Differently from many other reformers, Martin Luther’s was extremely interested in music. He considered music «the excellent gift of God» and valued it as much as theology, supporting his conviction writing hymns (his musical skills were recognized from his youth) and recommending this art for children’s education. Music thus holds a special place in Lutheran divine service and funeral music has a peculiar importance, since it is the last chance to express the link between earth singing and the eternal concert of angels.

The places where this precept was carried out with the most grandiose ceremonies were obviously the courts and the Gottorf Court in the North of Germany is the one where the custom was exploited in the best way between the XVII and XVIII century.

Gottorf and its Music

The Gottorf (or Gottorp) Castle in the city of Schleswig, Germany, was the seat of the Dukes of Holstein-Gottorp from XVI to early XVIII century and, for a short lapse of time, became a major musical centre together with Hamburg and Lübeck. The Gottorf Hofkapelle, founded by Duke Johann Adolph (ruled 1544-1586) and completed in 1595, is one of the earliest Protestant castle chapels in the North of Germany, but talented musicians preferred to leave it and moved to other, more prestigious destinations. Anyway, Gottorf was spared by the horrors of the Thirty Years Wars because the Duke declared his neutrality and the chapel benefited from this, even if it was only during the reign of Duke Christian Albrecht (1659-95) that it began to acquire importance.

It was in the last years of Duke Christian Albrecht’s rule that Georg Österreich (1664-1735), music collector, singer and composer, was employed as Kapellmeister, a post he kept until the Duke’s death and again during his successor’s reign from 1697 to 1702. It is thanks to the tireless work of Österreich as a copyist that Gottorf church music has been preserved to our days because it was for his own initiative that one of the main sources for German Protestant vocal music of the later XVII century (the Bokemeyer collection) was assembled.

Gottorf took advantage also of the coming of the English viol player and composer William Brade. Thanks to him, the first years of the XVIII century showed the development of Gottorf string music to the point that it started to influence the compositional praxis of the North of Germany.

The aforementioned Österreich is one of the three Gottorf composers of the present recording, the other two being his brother Michael Österreich (employed in the military administration, but trained in music at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig) and Johann Philipp Förtsch. The first work of the collection has been composed by Förtsch, who was also a physician and a diplomat as wells as a composer of sacred and operatic music (his name is associated with Hamburg opera, where he was leading composer between 1684 and 1690).

In Gottorf, he wrote the music for the burial of Duchess Maria Elisabeth, patroness of the musical life at court and a gifted musician herself. The Duchess died in 1684 but her state funeral was postponed for eight years because at the time of her death Danish troops were occupying Gottorf territory. It was on the occasion of reburial and solemn funeral that Förtsch’s Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr was performed, probably together with Michael Österreich’s Ich habe einen guten Kampf gekämpfet, which is recorded immediately after.

Förtsch wrote another work for Gottorf, Ich vergesse, was dahinten ist, not for a member of the ruling family but for the death of the daughter of a court scholar, Maria Elisabeth Niederstedt, admired poetess and wife of one the court’s most important diplomats.

The last two works have been composed by Georg Österreich in 1702, after the death in battle of Duke Friedrich IV. These are some of Österreich’s last works for Gottorf, which he left forever in the same year. Of the two compositions presented here, it is definitely the latter (Plötzlich müssen die Leute sterben) the most interesting: in the first place, it is written as a lamentation over Jonathan fallen in battle, following the theme of the Old Testament, and thus it reminds the presents of the reason why they gathered in the church without ever mentioning the dead; in the second (and most interesting) place, this composition presents the characteristic amalgamation of texts common in the Lutheran church music of the period and an unusually large continuo section, with the inclusion of a “violono maggiore” and of a “contra fagott”.

Funeral Music from Gottorf: the Performance

The Weser-Renaissance Bremen, conducted by Manfred Cordes, offers here a really fine and, in a certain sense, surprising execution of these rare and beautiful pieces. I said “surprising” because I expected a rather gloomy and even boring album and instead I found myself listening to solemn but not pompous works, animated by a spirit which, with some short exceptions, seems confident in the eternal salvation rather than sad. Grief is expressed only in Unser keiner lebet ihm selber, one of the pieces composed for Duke Friedrich IV’s death. The nervous character of some sections, the voice of the bass in the first part and later the extremely high soprano part characterize this piece as a sorrowful and desperate lamentation.

The other works, especially the first three, are oriented towards a purely spiritual dimension. In this regard, I dissent with what it is stated in the booklet about Förtsch’s Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr and the necessity «to reproduce a collective atmosphere of mourning – just as if Maria Elisabeth had only recently died» because its music, although sad, seems to accompany her soul in a quiet and ethereal place rather than to express mournful feelings. Another feature that struck me is the absence of severity, something that becomes even lyrical in Ich vergesse, was dahinten ist, Förtsch’s work for Maria Elisabeth Niederstedt and the perfect commemoration of a poetess.

This is a marvellous recording, a wonderful journey through the history of music and its execution.