Yale Schola Cantorum Performs Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie

By Christopher Browner

Baroque painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus surrounded by angels in a painting by Carlo Maratta from 1655
The Holy Night, 1655 (oil on canvas) by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713); Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; PD-1923 (out of copyright)

The superbly talented singers of Yale Schola Cantorum, Yale Institute of Music’s chamber choir for the performance of sacred music, were still in the holiday spirit on January 27, 2018, when they offered a radiant performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Weihnachts-Historie (Christmas Story), SWV 435 to a packed audience at New Haven’s Christ Church. The evening — which also featured a selection of other Christmas-themed works by Schütz — showcased the ensemble’s accomplished musicianship under the direction of their principal conductor, David Hill.

The first half of the concert comprised six standalone pieces all centered on the birth of Christ — from a jubilant rendition of the choral “Hodie Christus natus est,” SWV 456 to an intimate yet engaging duet for soprano and countertenor “Ave Maria, gratia plena,” SWV 334 to a setting of the Marian “Magnificat,” SWV 468 replete with vivid text painting. Throughout, the choir sang in taut harmony, even in passages of richly textured polyphony, as in “Das Wort ward Fleisch,” SWV 385, with its text taken from the opening lines of the Gospel of John. And while the nearly 30-member ensemble was always at the forefront, the first half also featured many moments of excellent solo singing, most notably the bright tenors of Haitham Haidar and James Reese and the focused, ethereal soprano of Addy Sterrett.

After a brief intermission, the group returned for the centerpiece of the program, Weihnachts-Historie, a sung, quasi-theatrical account of the Nativity story that stitched together various biblical passages and sacred hymns. A series of scenes connected by a single narrator, the Evangelist, the bulk of the singing lay with Reese, who impressed not only with his stamina but also with his agile voice and penetrating timbre. Sterrett reappeared as the Angel of Lord, again executing the challenging music with crystalline tone and adept precision. Bass-baritone Matt Sullivan was a commanding King Herod, and countertenor Bradley Sharpe, mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy, and Haidar blended nicely as shepherds. The chorus, this time playing a more supporting role, further enhanced the storytelling.

Note must be made of the accomplished Baroque orchestra that accompanied the evening’s proceedings. In addition to a full compliment of strings, the 16-person ensemble featured fluttering recorders — skillfully played by Grant Herreid and Mack Ramsey — dulcian, theorbo, and a brass section that included trumpets, cornets, and sackbuts. Throughout the evening, Hill marshaled all the musical forces with energy and passion, qualities that clearly translated into the group’s spirited performance.

Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Letter from the Publisher

Creative Commons music, image by Horia Varlan

At the heart of the Academy of Sacred Drama is a communal effort to explore the world of sacred dramatic music. Lost oratorios and forgotten masterpieces are resurrected through the creation of translations and editions, their stories and contexts are explored in the Academy Journal, and they are performed in Oratorio Readings that mirror the format of their original presentations.

The musical and textual material that we explore is in the public domain. The concept that printed works from past ages can exist for anyone to use, modify, or otherwise engage with recognizes that great ideas and works of art aren’t just the property of an artist and his or her descendants but have something to do with the contributions and identities of communities and even generations.

Copyright might not sound as riveting as the topics of oratorio texts, but it plays an integral part in the Academy’s mission. The 2017–2018 season is the Academy’s Year of Judith. We’re taking three oratorios from the Baroque era and re-imagining them for modern times. Our first oratorio of the season is a Giuditta with music by Domenico Freschi and a libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. Both music and libretto have not been heard by anyone since the early-eighteenth century.

Lucy Yates has contributed a masterful translation of Abate Francesco Silvani’s libretto which will be released as a draft during our November 2017 Oratorio Readings and will be released in it’s final—though still early—form in October 2018. We’re confident that her translation successfully conveys the meaning and intention of Silvani’s libretto. However, we want to make it possible for other translators and musical directors to make changes to her translation as they deem necessary in order to highlight their linguistic priorities without having to start a new translation from scratch.

Jonathan Woody transcribed the notes from Freschi’s manuscript, and I edited the music and inputted the text, making decisions about how the text corresponds to the musical notes as I went along. My editorial decisions will be reviewed in the rehearsal process for the Oratorio Readings. Through the course of this process, a final—though still early—edition of Freschi’s Giuditta also will be released in October 2018.

The same system will guide our exploration of Antonio Draghi’s Giuditta in March 2018, and we will create English and Spanish translations of Niccolò Jommelli’s La Betulia liberata for our Oratorio Readings in May 2018. It might be possible for our organization to bring in a little extra money by selling these editions and translations. However, while we acknowledge and value the contributions of the many people whose ongoing efforts make Academy programs a reality, these oratorios and their librettos are the property of everyone who engages with them.

Many people put in a tremendous amount of time and effort into Academy programs. They do this for little or no monetary payment, and it is both important and a privilege for the Academy to recognize and publicize their contributions. We’re grateful to the many musicians, scholars, and writers who contribute to Oratorio Readings, the Journal, and our editions and translations.

We chose to use a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license for the editions and translations which enables other people to modify them, and a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license for the Academy Journal which enables other people to distribute and reprint articles as they deem appropriate. This balances our need to acknowledge the efforts of Academy members by requiring the attribution of their work on Academy projects with our desire to make what we do through the Academy the starting point for other communities and generations to build on our work.

Although our work is already ambitious, we have even larger goals that couldn’t begin to be realized without utilizing copyright licenses that acknowledge both the individual and communal aspects of human identity. Our system for publication makes it more easily possible to spread the stories and music of Baroque-era oratorio and even to begin to re-imagine the way we do research or form communities.

If this intrigues you, help us explore Baroque-era sacred dramatic music as a member of the Academy of Sacred Drama. Together as musical professionals, linguists, historians, amateurs, and supporters we can rediscover the perspectives of past ages and explore the world of sacred dramatic music for our own time. We can’t wait to share this fantastic journey with you.


Jeremy Rhizor is a Baroque violinist, the artistic director of the Academy of Sacred Drama, and the publisher of the Academy Journal. He dedicates his time to exploring the world of sacred dramatic music and searching for appropriate boundaries in our understanding of what it means to be human.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Liturgical Time Machine: Ensemble Origo Performs Luther’s Deutsche Messe

By Christopher Browner

Luther as Professor, 1529 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); Schlossmuseum, Weimar, Germany; German, out of copyright
September 16th, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manhattan

For an hour or so on a balmy September evening, Hartford-based early-music group Ensemble Origo transported a small but excited audience to September 14, 1530, the Feast of the Holy Cross. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the group presented a musical reconstruction of a Medieval Lutheran church service. The concert, entitled “Luther’s Deutsche Messe” and built around Martin Luther’s instruction on how to celebrate a Mass, included German chorales by Luther’s chief musical collaborator, Johann Walter, declaimed portions of the liturgy set by Luther, and four of five movements of Josquin des Prez’s heavenly Missa de Beata Virgine. (The “Credo” was sung in a German setting by Walter.) With their clean, pure tones and taut harmonies, the ensemble of eight a cappella singers, led by Ensemble Origo’s director, Eric Rice, offered a vivid and moving account of early-Lutheran adoration.

The four selections by Josquin were the clear standout of the evening, with the ensemble executing the complex, textured polyphony with seeming ease. The singers created a balanced and elegant vocal blend while also masterfully executing the composer’s florid, ornamented lines. The “Sanctus” was especially moving, as soprano Sarah Moyer’s light, shimmering tone floated above the group with angelic lyricism. Later, Moyer lent her voice, alongside the cooler soprano of Megan Chartrand and the husky alto of Mary Gerbi, in a lovely rendition of Walter’s “Nun freut Euch,” a trio originally intended for choirboys.

The men of Ensemble Origo also displayed skilled musicianship. Basses Elijah Blaisdell and Paul Max Tipton sang with sonorous richness in both their solo numbers—they were responsible for singing much of the declaimed music, such as the Collect and Gospel—and when contributing to the larger musical texture. Countertenor Clifton Massey’s supple timbre contributed nicely to a brief duet with Tipton during the second verse of Josquin’s “Agnus Dei,” and tenors Paul D’Arcy and James Williamson sang as if they were one, bright voice throughout the evening—even if D’Arcy’s sound did seem a little stretched by the solo demands placed upon him during the Epistle.

All in all, the performance was fairly brief; however, in that short time, the Ensemble Origo not only offered a superb performance of sublime early music, they succeeded in resurrecting the past in a uniquely ear-opening way.

Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Ensemble Origo’s performances of Christ lag in Todesbanden will be on February 9th, 10th, and 11th in Hartford, Boston, and New York. Visit https://www.ensembleorigo.org/ for more information.