Born in 1585 to an inn-keeper, Heinrich Schütz, the great Church composer, learned music from the local church and then pursued studies in law. When a Landgrave heard his musical abilities, he offered to pay for Schütz to study in Italy. Schütz spent several profitable years studying with Gabrieli in Venice. At his death, Gabrieli left Schütz his signet ring as a token of his respect for his abilities and warm friendship. Schütz said of his studies:
“Gabrieli—What a man he was…After I had been but a short time with my teacher, I found out how important and difficult was the study of composition…and I realized that I still had a poor foundation in it. From this time on I put away all my previous studies and devoted myself to the study of music alone. Upon the publication of my first humble work Giovanni Gabrieli urged me with great warmth to continue the study of music.”
Schütz returned to Italy after the death of his wife to study with Claudio Montverdi for a short time. When he returned to Germany this time, he stayed in the employ of the Duke of Saxony for the rest of his life.
Schütz’s ambition was to take the ideas of Martin Luther with regard to music and worship and translate them into practical use. He wrote a series of pieces for choir on the Psalms of David using Luther’s own Biblical translation so that the text would be understandable to the people. In addition, he set the text in such a way that the music enhanced and elaborated the meaning of the words to give greater clarity. Schütz also composed the music for the Becker Psalter.
The German Requiem, several settings of the Passion, The Christmas Story, “The Last Words of Christ,” and more than 500 extant works testify to his desire for good liturgical music to be available for the worship of the Church. Since many of his other works were destroyed by fire, war, and other causes, his full output is unknown.
Schütz died on 7 November 1672 after living a full life and composing to his last days. He was survived by his granddaughter and great granddaughter. Schütz was born 100 years after Luther and 100 years before Bach. He did more than anyone to establish Luther’s ideas about worship in such a manner that enabled Bach to build upon his foundation in his own remarkable way. Schütz’s music is energetic, complex, understandable, and a wonderful testimony of God’s faithfulness and glory.