The rise of the “spiritual opera”
by Ken Myers
“The composer and scholar Johann Mattheson defines oratorio: ‘An oratorio is nothing other than sung poetry that represents a certain action or edifying occurrence in a dramatic way . . . an oratorio is a spiritual opera.’ Mattheson was one of the foremost music theoreticians of his time. His lengthy treatise Der vollkommene Capellmeister (‘The Perfect Music-Master’), published in 1739, remained influential into the early classical period. He writes that oratorio is a performance that ‘brings beautiful thoughts and events to light, not in bare speech, or in narrative alone, but in moving scenes of all kinds; spirits are raised to meditation and holy fear, as well as to compassion and other impulses, but primarily to the praise of God and to spiritual joy, through chorales, choruses, fugues, arias, recitatives, and the employment of the most skillful diversity, all with various instruments, as the occasion demands, cleverly and unpretentiously providing accompaniment.’ The primary example of oratorio, for Mattheson, is the performance of the Passion of Christ. (Although he notes that in some major churches, because of opposition of the clergy, the Passion genre is curtailed; in other churches it is performed ‘in true oratorio fashion.’)
“The first true Passion oratorio in Mattheson’s sense is considered to be Der blutige und sterbende Jesus (‘The Bloodied and Dying Jesus’) by the celebrated poet Christian Friedrich Hunold (known under the pen name ‘Menantes’), set to music by Reinhard Keiser in 1704. For the first time the role of the evangelist is eliminated. The scriptural texts are replaced by Hunold’s poetry, drawn freely from all four Gospels, and the characters address each other as though in an opera or a play, without a narrator. However, Hunold adds an allegorical figure, the ‘Daughter of Sion,’ to react emotionally to the events — somewhat in the manner of the ‘chorus’ in Greek drama. Hunold later explained that he did not use any ‘high poetic language’ in his writing, but had followed the spirit of the plain word of God; and in fact there are echoes of Luther’s translations of the Gospels in his text. Nevertheless, we know from a handwritten marginal note on the manuscript of the libretto in the Acta Hamburgensis that ‘many took offence or were even scandalized by it’ at the first performance in Hamburg. (Where it is likely that the young Handel was present as a violinist or clever symbolists.) . . .
“Both texts and music of the oratorio bespeak an effort to produce ‘compassion,’ not only for Jesus, but also for Mary, who has a lengthy lament. . . . [T]his was typical of Catholic spirituality; but it was something that Luther had said should be avoided in meditation on the cross. Like the change in musical form to a more emotional, subjective, and operatic form, it expresses the new devotional feelings that were arising in some Lutheran circles. Dialogues of the sinful and lamenting soul with God or with Jesus formed a significant part of the Neue Frömmigkeit (‘new piety’) that took hold in the Lutheran tradition during the seventeenth century, even outside the bounds of Pietism. The genre of colloquies between the soul and God often with the words on each side provided by scriptural texts, became common in German Lutheran devotional books and songs from the 1620s onward, and flourished in the mid-century. . . .
“Luther’s idea of true meditation on the passion centered on sin and its forgiveness. He favored a didactic portrayal of the crucifixion, in which the cross is shown primarily as the means of God’s triumph. We have also noted that the Pietist movement, while keeping this perspective, also reintroduced a strong affective devotion to the suffering Jesus, and complemented Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith with a new stress on the personal transformation that should be its result.”
— from Richard Viladesau, The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—The Baroque Era (Oxford University Press, 2014). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal.