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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2017

Markus Rathey*
Yale University


The celebration of Christmas in Early Modern Europe underwent a significant transformation in the second half of the seventeenth century. Even after the Protestant Reformation, European Christmas traditions maintained numerous features of their medieval practices, such as carnivalesque celebrations, processions, masks, and riotous behaviour. This changed during the seventeenth century. Popular carnivalesque Christmas plays were prohibited and replaced with a more internalized devotion that emphasized the individual’s relationship with the newborn Child. This transformation was part of a larger paradigm shift in seventeenth-century religiosity, which replaced external and physical displays of piety with internalized devotional practices. These shifts also included new theologies of corporeality and gender, which likewise had an impact on the ways in which Christmas was celebrated. The theological shifts correlate with the rejection of the carnivalesque in the Early Modern period, as it was analysed by Mikhail Bakhtin.

Most of these changes took place in the 1670s and 1680s. Schütz’s Christmas Historia – which was composed before 1664 – represents a transitional phase and retains some earlier views of Christmas. The most obvious example is the Kindelwiegen (rocking of the child), the physicality of which was highly suspicious to theologians in the later seventeenth century. Schütz not only refers to this practice but incorporates it in the texture of his music.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 The complete title for the composition is: Historia, der Freuden- und Gnadenreichen Geburth GOttes und Marien Sohnes, JESU CHRISTI, Unsers Einigen Mitlers, Erlösers und Seeligmachers; in the interest of brevity, I will only use the abbreviated English form, Christmas Historia.

2 Moser, H. J., Heinrich Schütz: Sein Leben und Werk (Kassel, 1936), pp. 553554 Google Scholar.

3 Bach’s oratorio will not be the main focal point of this essay and I will touch on it only briefly. However, it is a useful point of reference because it is still an integral part of our musical canon, and while it was composed seventy years after Schütz’s historia, it helps highlight some of the major differences. For a more thorough discussion of the Christmas Oratorio and its cultural and theological contexts see Rathey, M., Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (New York and Oxford, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and his World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind., 1984), p. 19 Google Scholar.

5 E. Schmidt, Der Gottesdienst am Kurfürstlichen Hofe zu Dresden: Ein Beitrag zur liturgischen Traditionsgeschichte von Johann Walter bis zu Heinrich Schütz, Veröffentlichungen der Evangelischen Gesellschaft für Liturgieforschung, 12 (Göttingen, 1961), p. 207.

6 Basil Smallman interpreted the mention of Johann Georg II as ‘gracious instigator’ of the piece as an indication that the Saxon ruler was also the publisher of the print; Smallman, B., Schütz (Oxford, 2000), p. 149 Google Scholar. This, however, is rather unlikely. Princes and Electors rarely served as publishers. It is more likely that Johann Georg II simply commissioned the historia for a performance at the court chapel.

7 See the translation of the afterword in A Heinrich Schütz Reader: Letters and Documents in Translation, ed. G. S. Johnston (Oxford, 2013), pp. 242–4.

8 Knüpfer might have been influenced by Schütz’s piece when he composed his own (albeit shorter and smaller) setting of the nativity story; see Knüpfer, S., Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, ed. C. Theis (Kassel, 1992)Google Scholar. In 1685 Knüpfer’s son, Johann Magnus, composed his own version of the nativity play for an extra-liturgical occasion. He collaborated with the opera librettist Paul Thymich; see Rathey, M., ‘Die Geistliche Hirten-Freude: Eine Leipziger Weihnachtsmusik im Jahre 1685 und die Transformation weihnachtlicher Bukolik im späten 17. Jahrhundert’, Daphnis. Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur und Kultur der Frühen Neuzeit (1400–1750), 40 (2011), pp. 567606 Google Scholar.

9 Quoted after A Heinrich Schütz Reader, pp. 242–3.

10 Smallman, Schütz, pp. 149–50.

11 For the function and content of Schütz’s collection from 1657 see Rathey, M., ‘Christoph Kittels Bearbeitung von Schütz’ “O süßer Jesu Christ” (SWV 427) – Funktion und Anspruch’, Schütz-Jahrbuch, 28 (2006), pp. 141155 Google Scholar.

12 Rose, S., ‘Music in the Market-Place’, in T. Carter and J. Butt (eds.), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 5587 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 68.

13 See Linfield, E., ‘A New Look at the Sources of Schütz’s Christmas History’, Schütz-Jahrbuch, 4/5 (1982–3), pp. 1936 Google Scholar, at 19. Though interesting, the different versions of the piece do not have major implications for the main foci of this essay and I will not discuss them in more detail.

14 I am following Tim Carter’s summaries of the movements in his article ‘The Search for Musical Meaning’, in Carter and Butt (eds.), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music, pp. 158–96, at 180.

15 Ibid., pp. 180–1.

16 Linfield, ‘A New Look’, p. 19.

17 For the relationship between the forces available in the Dresden court chapel and the instrumentation of the Christmas Historia see also Hofmann, K., ‘Dritte Abhandlung zur Weihnachtshistorie von Heinrich Schütz: Das zweite Intermedium Die Menge der Engel ’, Musik und Kirche, 62 (1992), pp. 190197 Google Scholar, at 190–2.

18 Michael, R., Weihnachtsgeschichte, ed. K. Winkler (Stuttgart, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 This has already been suggested by W. Osthoff, ‘Die Historien Rogier Michaels (Dresden 1602): Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Historienkomposition’, in Festschrift Arnold Schering (Berlin, 1937), pp. 166–79, at 178. For the liturgical context of Michael’s historiae see also Schmidt, Der Gottesdienst, pp. 189–90.

20 The manuscript is today owned by the music department of the German State Library, Berlin (Deutsche Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn Archiv, D-B Mus. ms. 14427).

21 For Bugenhagen’s compilation of the synoptical texts see Bieber, A., Johannes Bugenhagen zwischen Reform und Reformation: Die Entwicklung seiner frühen Theologie anhand des Matthäuskommentars und der Passions- und Auferstehungsharmonie (Göttingen, 1993), pp. 6566 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 English translation cited after A Heinrich Schütz Reader, p. 243.

23 ‘It can still be mentioned hereby: should one prefer to make use of the old choraliter speaking style (in which evangelists in the Passion as well as other sacred stories have customarily sung without organ up to now in our churches), this setting of his [Schütz] hopefully would not stray too far from the mark were he to continue in the following manner and proceed up to the end’; A Heinrich Schütz Reader, p. 242.

24 See Schmidt, Der Gottesdienst, p. 190.

25 See the juxtaposition of the different liturgies between 1617 and 1730 ibid., pp. 120–2.

26 Ibid., p. 120.

27 See also Frandsen, M. E., Crossing Confessional Boundaries: The Patronage of Italian Sacred Music in Seventeenth-Century Dresden (New York and Oxford, 2006), pp. 353355 and 381CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Additionally, the triple metre sections in no. 11 constantly alternate with sections in alla breve.

29 Smallman, Schütz, p. 152.

30 See Steude, W., ‘Das wiedergefundene Opus ultimum von Heinrich Schütz: Bemerkungen zur Quelle und zum Werk’, Schütz-Jahrbuch, 4/5 (1982–3), pp. 918 Google Scholar, at 16.

31 Frandsen, Crossing Confessional Boundaries, p. 373 (the original German text can be found in on pp. 452–3).

32 Ibid., p. 372.

33 See Rathey, M., Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (New Haven, 2016), pp. 145146 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 The texts for the biblical historiae, including the Christmas historia, already appear in a book by the Dresden court preacher Polycarp Leyser the Elder, from 1605. Leyser also introduces the Christmas story with the same words Schütz uses in his first movement; see Leyser, P., Handbüchlein: Darinnnen begrieffen Die Historien der heiligen Empfengnis und Geburt/ auch des bittern Leiden unnd Sterbens/ Item/ der frölichen unnd siegreichen Aufferstehung unsers lieben Herrn und Seligmachers Jesu Christi . . . (Dresden, 1605), p. [45] Google Scholar. I am grateful to Bettina Varwig for bringing this source to my attention.

35 Cf. Brown, C. B., Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), p. 83 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 For Schütz’s use of pastoral elements in other works see Varwig, B., Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 6071 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 A Christmas play from Görlitz from 1668, for instance, features shepherds with the names Dafnis, Coridon, Menalkas, and Mopsus; see Rathey, ‘Die “Geistliche Hirten-Freude”’, pp. 582–3.

38 It should be mentioned that within the spectrum of modal harmony in the seventeenth century, both keys are neither adventurous nor do they represent a shift towards a completely different key area. However, the listener will still perceive the juxtaposition of third-related keys as somewhat of a surprise.

39 One of the earliest mentions of the practice is in treatise by Geroh von Reichersberg (1093–1169), who vehemently rejected it in his De investigatione Antichristi (1161/62); see the quotation from Geroh’s treatise in Ameln, K., ‘“Resonet in laudibus” – “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”’, Jahrbuch für Liturgik und Hymnologie, 15 (1970), pp. 52112 Google Scholar, at 90.

40 Even during the Middle Ages, the practice was sometimes criticised.

41 Hommer, M., Erklärter Weihnachtsgesang Dr. M. Luthers: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (Leipzig, 1608)Google Scholar, cited after Hoffmann von Fallersleben, A. H., Geschichte des deutschen Kirchenliedes bis auf Luthers Zeit, 2nd edn. (Hannover, 1854), p. 429 Google Scholar.

42 Quoted after Schlegel, C., Ausführlicher Bericht von dem Leben und Tod Caspari Aquilae (Leipzig und Frankfurt, 1737), p. 174 Google Scholar. See also Nürnberg, U., Der Jahreswechsel im Kirchenlied: Zur Geschichte, Motivik und Theologie deutscher und schweizerischer Lieder (Göttingen, 2016), pp. 5152 Google Scholar.

43 J. Mathesius, ‘Ein kurtzer bericht von der Lehr und Ceremonien der Christlichen Kirchen in S. Joachimsthal’ (1567); English translation cited after Brown, Singing the Gospel, pp. 79–80.

44 Cited after L. D. Cook, ‘The German Troped Polyphonic Magnificat’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1976), i, p. 313.

45 See K. M. Sponheim, ‘The Anthologies of Ambrosius Profe (1589–1661) and the Transmission of Italian Music in Germany’ (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1995).

46 In his overview of the moral views on dance in Renaissance and Baroque, Alessandro Arcangeli aptly discusses the theological perspective on dance both as a ‘virtue’ and as a ‘vice’; see Arcangeli, A., ‘Moral Views on Dance’, in J. Neville (ed.), Dance, Spectacle, and the Body Politick, 1250–1750 (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2008), pp. 282294 Google Scholar, at 283–7.

47 W. Salmen, ‘Dances and Dance Music, c.1300–1530’, in R. Strohm and B. J. Blackburn (eds.), Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages, New Oxford History of Music, iii/1 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 162–90, at 166. For traditions of medieval dance and the function of labyrinths in these rituals see also C. Wright’s study The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), esp. pp. 129–58.

48 See Loos, H., Weihnachten in der Musik: Grundzüge der Geschichte weihnachtlicher Musik (Bonn, [1992]), p. 60 Google Scholar.

49 The piece has been discussed by H. J. Moser in his Schütz biography, Heinrich Schütz, pp. 611–15.

50 A suggestion made by Moser, ibid., p. 613.

51 See Kirsch, W., ‘Die Verbindung von Magnificat und Weihnachstsliedern im 16. Jahrhundert’, in L. Hoffmann-Erbrecht and H. Hucke (eds.), Festschrift Helmuth Osthoff zum 65. Geburtstag (Tutzing, 1961), pp. 6174 Google Scholar.

52 Dreßdnisch Gesangbuch . . . wie sie in der Churfürstl. Sächß. Schloß-Kirchen zu Dresden gesungen worden (Dresden, 1656). The hymns Resonet in laudibus and Joseph, lieber Joseph mein appear as nos. 25 and 27 (pp. 48–51).

53 See the overview of German Magnificat tropes in L. K. Wagner, ‘The Collaboration of Choir and Congregation in the Performance of the Music of Michael Praetorius’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2012), pp. 323–85.

54 An interesting example for the use of the hymn in a Catholic region is a Christmas pastorale by Daniel Bollius based on the song. The Pastorale nel nascimento di Christo sopra il Josef lieber Josef mein is a sacred concerto for two violins, alto, tenor, and b.c.; see the description in Gottron, A., Mainzer Musikgeschichte von 1500 bis 1800 (Mainz, 1959), pp. 4648 Google Scholar; see also Loos, Weihnachten in der Musik, p. 48.

55 This function of Baroque dances has been described by McClary, S., Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music (Berkeley, 2012), pp. 203205 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and she refers to corroborating scholarship in neuroscience: ‘recent neurobiologists have found that radical changes in brain function occur in people involved in such rituals, especially those involving music and dance. The parts of the brain responsible for orienting us as individuated selves as we move through space actually shut down their activity, causing subjects to experience as reality that merger with timelessness’ (p. 205).

56 Hoë von Hoënegg, M., Ausführliche und vielfaltig begehrte Fest-Postill/ Das ist: Außlegung der Evangelien/ so auff die hohe Fest/ und alle andere Christliche Feyertage durchs gantze Jahr/ verordnet sind . . . (Leipzig, 1614), p. 994 Google Scholar.

57 Loos, Weihnachten in der Musik, p. 33.

58 Hale, R. D., ‘Joseph as Mother: Adaptation and Appropriation in the Construction of Male Virtue’, in J. C. Parsons and B. Wheeler (eds.), Medieval Mothering (New York and London, 1996), pp. 101116 Google Scholar, at 102–3; see also Sheingorn, P., ‘Constructing the Patriarchal Parent: Fragments of the Biography of Joseph the Carpenter’, in R. Voaden and D. Wolfthal (eds.), Framing the Family: Narrative and Representation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods (Tempe, Ariz., 2004), pp. 163182 Google Scholar.

59 Hale, ‘Joseph as Mother’, p. 104.

60 Ibid., p. 105.

61 See Rubin, M., Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven, 2009), p. 324 Google Scholar.

62 Hale, ‘Joseph as Mother’, p. 108.

63 J. Gerson, Opera Omnia, ed. L. Ellies du Pin (Hildesheim, 1987), iii, p. 66; English translation cited after Hale, ‘Joseph as Mother’, p. 108.

64 For a study of the changing concepts of family during the Reformation see Roper, L., The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Rubin, Mother of God, p. 359; a partly similar development can also be seen on the Catholic side, where representations of Mary and Joseph in the later sixteenth-century increasingly depict Joseph as a much stronger and more dominant figure; see Wiesner-Hanks, M. E., Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 230231 Google Scholar.

66 Hoë von Hoënegg, Ausführliche und vielfaltig begehrte Fest-Postill, p. 38.

67 Ibid., p. 53.

68 The practice also remained popular in Catholic regions; see Fisher, A. J., Music, Piety, and Propaganda: The Soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria (New York and Oxford, 2014), pp. 71 and 161–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 C. Weise, Die drei ärgsten Erznarren in der ganzen Welt (1673; repr. Halle, 1878), pp. 181–3.

70 Drechssler, J. G., Christianorum Larvas Natalitias Sancti Christi nomine commendatas, post evolutam originem, confodit Stylo Theologico conscientiosus Christi cultor Chressulder (Leipzig, 1674)Google Scholar.

71 Drechssler, J. G., Christianorum larvas natalitias Sancti Christi nomine commendatas, post evolutam originem, confodit Stylo Theologico conscientiosus Christi cultor: auctius jam prodit, cum Apologia, quam Autor opposuit festinatio quorundam judiciis (Leipzig, 1677)Google Scholar.

72 Drechssler, J. G., De Larvis Natalitiis, Earumque Usu & Fine, Tempore, ut vocant, Sancti Christi solitis Cum Apologia (Leipzig, 1683)Google Scholar.

73 J. G. Drechssler, ‘Curiöser Bericht wegen der schändlichen Weyhnacht-Larven so man insgemein Heiligen Christ nennet herausgegeben’, Deliciarum Manipulus, das ist: Annehmliche und rare Discurse von mancherley nützlichen und curiosen Dingen (Leipzig and Dresden, 1703), no. 18.

74 See B. Grosse, ‘Zwei Arnstädter “Heilige Christ-Komödien”’, in Programm des Fürstl. Gymnasiums zu Arnstadt (Arnstadt, 1899), p. 16.

75 Drechssler, Christianorum larvas natalitias . . . cum Apologia (1677), pp. 15–17

76 Ibid.

77 Büttner, Christ-Larven oder Böß-benahmter Heiliger Christ (Hall, 1702), pp. 132–3.

78 For a discussion of this shift in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries see Rathey, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, pp. 13–49.

79 The mocking transformation of the texts for the Christmas plays was a typical element for carnivalesque forms of popular culture as well; see Burke, P., Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot, 1994), p. 123 Google Scholar.

80 Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, p. 19.

81 See also Dülmen, V., ‘Volksfrömmigkeit und konfessionelles Christentum’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Sonderheft 11 (1986), pp. 1430 Google Scholar, at 25–6.

82 Bakhtin, Rabelais, p. 7.

83 Johannes Praetorius, Saturnalia, das ist, Eine Compagnie Weihnachts-Fratzen, oder Centner-Lügen und possierliche Positiones . . . (Leipzig, [1663]).

84 See the seminal study by M. Franko, Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body, rev. edn. (New York and Oxford, 2015).

85 This was particularly the case for physical representations of faith and biblical narratives, which had been heavily promoted by the Catholic reformation and had become a marker for Catholic religiosity; see Fisher, Music, Piety, and Propaganda: ‘Interrupted to a degree by the Reformation, the building of physical representations of biblical scenes was strongly revived in post-Tridentine Catholicism, which promoted the visual, tactile experience of the divine mysteries’ (p. 161).

86 Hoë von Hoënegg, M., Parasceve ad Solenitatem Jubilaeam Evangelicam (Leipzig, 1617), p. 4 Google Scholar; English translation cited after Varwig, Histories of Heinrich Schütz, p. 29.