why persecutest thou me?

I continue to nibble at Gardiner’s Bach, finding juicy nuggets every time. Today I happened upon his description of Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich, which I’d never heard (or might have heard, without paying any attention to the text):

Implied… in this quite stupendous work –a ‘sacred symphony’ lasting less than five minutes– is an imaginary mis en scène: of Paul on the road to Damascus… [Schütz] marshals his ensemble of six soloists, two obbligato violins, two four-part choirs… not just to depict the scene with pictorial effects, not to fill in the textual gaps by means of apt rhetorical figures, but to create a compelling psychodrama compressed into eighty bars of music. The result is an astonishing portrayal, every bit as striking in its way as Caravaggio’s altar painting…

OK, that’s arresting enough that I thought maybe YouTube would have the piece, and sure enough, complete with the Caravaggio painting and conducted by Gardiner himself:

And here’s Gardiner’s exegesis:

True to past practice when setting Christ’s words, Schütz employs his voices in pairs. They emerge from mysterious depths as a barely audible mutter in a four-fold repetition of Saul’s name, separated by rests, before transferring to the next terraced pair, each climbing through the space of an octave before evaporating in a wordless violin extension… What began as a quiet reproach, the voice of conscience, now grows into an accusation, the monosyllable punched out and tossed between the two halves of the double choir –to encircle and disorient the now-enfeebled Saul before the Was verfolgst du much is sped up in dizzying contracted rhythmic patterns and terraced echoes. Schütz’s purpose is to make sure that the listener gets caught up in the process and becomes equally disoriented. In performance (especially in a church with a long reverberation and with the musical forces deployed spatially) it can amount to an aural bombardment with a disturbing resemblance to the amplified noises of the torture chamber directed at the target from all sides, in all pitches and volumes. (pp 116-117)

Without the YouTube version I’d have thought Gardiner’s description pretty gripping, but the combination of text and audio and visual doth elevate the experience considerably. And Gardiner keeps pulling musical rabbits like this out of a whole forest of hats, which makes for slow going but potent education.

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