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Volume 15, no. 1:

Thomas Elsbeth: Sontägliche Evangelien. Edited by Allen Scott. Recent Researches in Music of the Baroque E 127. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2003. [xxv, 234 pp. ISBN 978-0-89579-534-2. $97]

Reviewed by Kathryn Welter*

1. Overview

2. Gospel Motets: Text and Music

3. Biography

4. Conclusion

1. Overview

1.1 Allen Scott brings together two collections of gospel motets from the little-known Franconian composer, Thomas Elsbeth, in this well-rendered edition of Sontägliche Evangelien fürnembste Texte durchs gantze Jahr (Leignitz, 1616 and 1621). Elsbeth’s works were among the chief gospel cycles in use during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, joining Andreas Raselius’s Teutscher Sprüche aus den sontägliche Evangeliis durchs gantze Jar (Nuremberg, 1594), Melchior Vulpius’s Deutscher sonntäglicher evangelischer Sprüche (Jena, 1612 and 1614), Christopher Demantius’s Corona harmonica, ausserlesene Sprüche aus den Evangelien, auff alle Sontage (Leipzig, 1610), and Melchior Franck’s Gemmulae evangeliorum musicae (Coburg, 1623). Elsbeth’s compositions set gospel lessons for every Sunday and major feast day of the liturgical year, but they differ from other contemporary collections in his particular treatment of the gospel texts.

2. Gospel Motets: Texts and Music

2.1 Clearly, the use of gospel motets in the German Protestant tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries served to highlight the importance of the gospel reading in the liturgy. Scott’s introduction to the edition notes the popularity of this type of motet and the disagreement among various scholars of its place and use within the Protestant liturgy. He further outlines scholars’ assertions regarding this repertory that range from an insistence that these motets were liturgically bound to a suggestion that they are part of a broader devotional practice, drawing in particular upon Craig Westendorf’s study.1 Scott notes that Thomas Elsbeth’s gospel cycle is an unusually versatile collection—appropriate not only for liturgical use, but also for didactic and devotional use in the Trost (comfort) tradition, in keeping with Westendorf’s thesis.

2.2 Scott further highlights how Elsbeth often approaches the text with a free hand—selectively restating the main idea of the gospel in his own words preceding the actual text, or as Scott points out, completely departing from the traditional texts. As an example, he notes Elsbeth’s setting for Epiphany, where he substitutes the verses from Matthew 2:1–12 (the visitation of the Magi) with some of those from the Old Testament reading for that day, Isaiah 60: 4–6. Elsbeth’s freer approach to text setting extends even further. While Elsbeth’s contemporaries set the Kernspruch (central idea) of the gospel verbatim, he creates independent “stories” out of the lessons by paraphrasing verses leading up to the central idea, omitting unnecessary verses, commenting on the gospel content, indicating who is speaking to whom, compiling verses to convey a similar idea, etc. The result of this type of text setting is a kaleidoscopic collection of texts rendered as gospel motets. While Scott gives a good sense of Elsbeth’s practices, his examples do not cover the complete range of the composer’s text treatments, including those motets for which he made no changes in the text and those that are complete paraphrases of the gospel text without any actual quotes from the original passage.

2.3 Scott convincingly displays Elsbeth’s musical treatment of these texts, highlighting the way in which the music conveys and complements the unusual texts. The scores of the motets are clean and clearly edited, and at first appear to be in conservative five-part motet texture without basso continuo, opening with a conventional point of imitation. Scott does a good job in his introduction, however, of cataloguing and describing Elsbeth’s general musical techniques of text painting, texture, structure, and scoring, as well as musical phrasing as it separates introductory paraphrases from the Biblical quotations. Scott provides several examples of motets to illustrate these highlighted musical techniques; however, since Elsbeth’s choice of texts and the musical treatment of them is such an unusual feature in comparison to his contemporaries, Scott could have been even more thorough in his discussion. As it stands, his introduction provides the solid groundwork for further scholarly exploration of the text/music relationships in this intriguing collection.

3. Biography

3.1 With very little to go on in the way of primary sources, Scott has created a remarkably full picture of Thomas Elsbeth’s personal history, using Elsbeth’s own publications to ferret out and deduce biographical details, such as the assumption that he was born in the mid-sixteenth century (based on Elsbeth’s complaining in 1616 of his “now-beginning old age”), and that he probably lived in Frankfurt an der Oder at the time of his earliest publications, in 1599 and 1600. Scott speculates on Elsbeth’s education and time spent in Breslau (now Wrocław), Frankfurt, Coburg, and possibly Leignitz, a seat of the dukes of Silesia. Elsbeth’s later publications place him from 1615 to the end of his life (presumably around 1624, as there is no more information after that year) in the city of Jauer (now Jawor, Poland), another seat of the dukes of Silesia.

4. Conclusion

4.1 In addition to the thoughtful introduction, biography, and musical analysis, Scott includes several welcome accompaniments to this edition, including four pristine and beautiful facsimiles of the dedication, title page, index, and cantus partbook from the first series, published in 1616; a side-by-side translation of the dedication in the original German and in English; and a complete listing of the texts for each Sunday of the liturgical year, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, in both German and English. Scott leaves one item unexplained, however. In Part I of the texts, Elsbeth inserts the gospel texts for the 25th and 26th Sundays after Trinity directly after the gospel for the second Sunday of Advent. It then continues with the third Sunday in Advent. The musical edition is ordered in the same way, and one can only assume that this was Elsbeth’s ordering as well, but Scott does not give any explanation or speculation as to why this is so.

4.2 This omission does not, however, detract from the overall features of the edition. Allen Scott has created a beautifully wrought study of Elsbeth’s contribution to the gospel motet genre. The story of Thomas Elsbeth and his unusually creative gospel motets will be of interest to scholars and students of German Protestant liturgical practice, the didactic and Trost traditions of text setting, and Renaissance and Baroque performance practice. Followers of the Germanic motet tradition will especially find this a worthy addition to the body of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German liturgical motets available in modern editions. It is an engaging and refreshing approach, with astute attention brought to a new way of setting the texts of the gospel.

* Kathryn Welter (kathryn.welter@bestavros.net) is Executive Director of the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center at Wellesley College as well as an active church musician. She has researched and written particularly about the life and works of Johann Pachelbel.

1 “The Textual and Musical Repertoire of the Spruchmotette” (D.M.A. paper, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1987).


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