Heinrich Schütz's Musikalische Exequien represents the starting point for the project, being both the historical source and the reservoir of musical material, while conceptual inspiration for the piece was derived from an analytic study by the American musicologist Gregory S. Johnston, who examined the rhetorical figure known as prosopopeia, a personification - in this case of a deceased person - intentionally used by Schütz in his work, in order to commemorate the death of Count Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. Heinrich Posthumus worked closely with the composer during the last ten years of his life (possibly participating in early performances of his own funeral music), and it was he who suggested the texts to be set, which were the very biblical verses and sacred songs he had chosen to have engraved on and inside his pewter coffin.
The “concerto in the form of a German funeral Mass” that the two of them seem to have conceived together is one of the most extraordinary results of the application of the rhetorical figure prosopopeia: it invests the work with a strong dramatic vision of the deceased as a character. The orator at the funeral ceremony of February the 4th, 1636 was meant to be a medium who transmitted messages from beyond the grave, evoking a transcendent vision of the afterlife. Schütz's music, thanks also to the importance lent it by the figure of Heinrich Posthumus, afforded substantial support to the orator, moving the listeners through various superimposed conceptual levels of transmission of the same idea: the transcendent presence of the departed count. Actually, he was still there in the flesh, since his coffin was probably placed directly beneath the pulpit, a connective between the speaker and the congregation. Schütz may have conducted the Musikalische Exequien himself on the day of the actual funeral ceremony.
The new piece will integrate part of Schütz's score, transcribed and re-arranged for the vocal and instrumental ensembles, and will develop some of the original compositional textures that retain at times strong evidence and at others just subliminal traces of the 17th-century work. The temporal flow of the musical development will follow the chronology of the Exequien, freely extending or contracting some of the contrapuntal structures, and allowing the “flowering” of new complex configurations, with texts from roughly the same period by John Donne, Torquato Tasso, Francisco de Quevedo, Andrew Marvell, Pierre de Marbeuf and Richard Crashaw as a sort of meta-madrigalism at the textual level.
As the Exequien makes use of rhetorical figures, often employed in Lutheran funeral music, in order to emphasise the presence and continuing afterlife of Heinrich Posthumus, the project attempts to recreate the situation of the ceremony of 4 February 1636, stressing the actual presence of Schütz as conductor, the virtual presence of Posthumus, and the orator as medium. The spatialisation of sounds, which Schütz and Posthumus intended, will be “amplified” by a more complex understanding of the transmission and reception of sound.
The Martinskirche of Kassel offers great scope to the imagination in its inner architecture, especially in the form of circular stairways leading to no certain location and surprising places where the musicians can suddenly appear and disappear as they perform. The church itself will reacquire its original baroque acoustical grandeur, with reverberations creating resonant pieni, architecturally determined echo effects and tiny, delicate, ephemeral pianissimi.