Theology in Matthias Weckmann’s Organ Chorale “Es ist das Heil”

In 1655, Matthias Weckmann (1615/16-1674) became the music director at Hamburg’s Jakobikirche, where he served until his death. In 1660 he founded Collegium Musicum, a group of about 50 musicians that, for the first time in Germany, performed weekly public concerts. Weckmann studied with Heinrich Schütz in Dresden and Jacob Pretorius in Hamburg. Only a few of his compositions survived, all demonstrating superb compositional techniques of the highest quality.

The text of “Es ist das Heil kommen her,” by Paul Speratus, is a strongly-worded statement of some of the most important teachings in Lutheran theology: the Christians are redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith alone. “Salvation unto us has come” is based on the following passage in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that one may boast.” The hymn tune first appeared in a Wittenberg hymnal in 1524, without any credit to its author.

Weckmann’s elaborate organ work demonstrates a mind-blowing amalgam of polyphonic techniques drawn from the works of Monteverdi, Palestrina and Lassus, along with newer diminution techniques of the Italian baroque. Such variations were sometimes improvised or performed during the Saturday Vesper Services, alternating the organ verses with the choir and congregation’s singing.

In the first verse, the composer uses a thick imitation technique on a descending figure, thereby musically depicting the first verse as “from above”. The entire melody is quoted in augmentation in the pedal.

(1) Salvation unto us has come, by God’s free grace and favor Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone He is our one Redeemer

The second verse is a three-part setting using a stunning canon (could refer to “law” in the text) in the left hand displaced a fifth above (hyperdiapente) and a half-note apart (post minimam). The melody is clearly played by the right hand. Tonight’s rendition will use two of the reed stops in this variation: Rp. Krummhorn 8’ for the left hand and Gr. Trumpet 8’ for the melody.

(2) What God did in His Law demand, and not to Him could render Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand, for man, the vile offender. Our flesh has not those pure desires the spirit of the Law requires, And lost is our condition

One of the most interesting and difficult distribution of voices is found in the third verse, where the organist plays the melody in the tenor on the pedal while playing the bass with the left hand. The opening introduces the melody in motet-style followed by figuration in the left hand in dotted French rhythm. Here you will hear two of the reed stops on the Rp. and the pedal trumpet. In this variation, the organist would ideally use the prepared Cornet 2’ in the pedal and the Shalmei 4’ on the Rp.

(3) It was a false, misleading dream that God His Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem and by their works gain Heaven. The Law is but a mirror bright to bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

In the fourth variation, Weckmann uses a canon displaced by an octave (subdiapason) and a quarter note (semiminimam) in the manuals, quoting the melody in the pedal. Here you will hear the 4’ Flutes for the canon and the Octave 4’ of the pedal for the melody.

(4) From sin our flesh could not abstain, sin held its sway unceasing; The task was useless and in vain, our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisioned dart or purify our guileful heart — So deep is our corruption

Similarly to the fourth, the fifth variation is a strict canon between the two hands, this time displaced by a fourth below (disdiapente) and a quarter note. The entire melody is quoted in the tenor, played on the pedal trumpet.

(5) Yet as the Law must be fulfilled or we must die despairing,
Christ came and has God’s anger stilled, our human nature sharing. He has for us the Law obeyed and thus the Father’s vengenance stayed Which over us impended

In the sixth verse, Weckmann deployes all of the techniques available to a composer of his time in one of the most beautiful and mind-blowing masterpieces of the organ repertoire. He first introduces the melody in five voices, in motet technique, followed by the cantus firmus in an almost unrecognizeable ornate form. Then he imitates fractions of the melody in every possible style and transposition This scheme is applied innovatively to each phrase of the melody, that making this 12-minute variation interesting from slow beginning to seven-voiced virtuosic end.

(6) Since Christ has full atonement made and brought to us salvation, Each Christian therefore may be glad and build on this foundation. Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead, Your death is now my life indeed, For You have paid my ransom

The seventh verse returns to a straightforward motet setting of the triple-length version of the tenor melody. Six voices almost continuosly play in a stunningly rich texture deploying double-pedal, making the organ sound the loudest possible.

(7) Let me not doubt, but truly see Your Word cannot be broken.
Your call rings out, “Come Unto Me!” No falsehood have You spoken. Baptized into Your precious name, my faith cannot be put to shame, And I shall never perish

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One Response to Theology in Matthias Weckmann’s Organ Chorale “Es ist das Heil”

  1. Hanné Becker says:

    Thanks for this. Very informative and what a wonderful composition.

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