As we speak of The Three B's (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), so too we hear of The Three S's -- or "The Three Sch's," which is the name of the latest program by the enterprising Madison early music vocal group Eliza's Toyes. It was performed at Gates of Heaven Saturday night.
These are Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Johann Schein (1586-1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). They were the key personalities in Germany's transition from the late Renaissance music idiom into the new language of the Baroque. They eased their musical scene away from strict polyphonic textures, furthering Venetian polychoral techniques and, above all, introducing the new concertato (concerted) style of varied vocal forces with basso continuo. Under the culturally progressive aegis of Lutheranism (and princely patronage), these composers brought a musical revolution to German lands and charted its stylistic directions for the next century.
In the first half of the program, Eliza's Toyes performed sacred works that demonstrated the revolutionary character of these composers' efforts. One piece used a Latin Psalm text (Luther was careful to retain some use of liturgical Latin) as set by Scheidt, and then two each of German pieces by Scheidt and Schein. The diverse textures, from three to eight vocal parts, showed how the new possibilities of coloristic and expressive techniques were being explored.
The second half was devoted to secular pieces. Two items by Schein, in the old tradition of five-voice German part-songs, included a really funny vignette of monks making whoopee in their abbot's absence. Likewise, a set of five dances from an expansive 1617 instrumental collection showed Schein as matching the contemporaneous work of Michael Praetorius in refining the four-part setting of Renaissance dance tunes.
But the dominant figure in this half was, finally, Schütz, the most famous of the three composers, and the most significant German musician before Bach. He alone of the three spent extensive stays in Italy, studying with Giovanni Gabrieli and absorbing the new proto-Baroque styles. The culmination of his initial studies was the publication in 1611 of a collection of 19 Italian madrigals that he composed effectively as his graduate thesis. From that collection, Eliza's Toyes offered four examples, three in the traditional five-voice style. The fourth, the collection's finale, is a grand eight-voice piece of magnificent sonority.
As an encore, the group presented one of Schütz's seminal sacred pieces, a five-voice German motet, in polychoral style, from his 1648 collection of "Sacred Choral Music" -- in which all forces could combine.
Those forces involved eight able, well-blended singers, plus five additional instrumentalists. Participating and leading was the ensemble's founder, Jerry Hui, that versatile, highly gifted musical dynamo who is one of the important sparkplugs in our musical life these days. Madison's musical scene consists of more than just the large and prestigious organizations, and it is the small but enterprising ones, like Eliza's Toyes, that bring us important music not otherwise accessible.