Motets of Gottfried August Homilius (1714–1785)
Auf, auf, ihr Herzen, seid bereit
Unser Vater in dem Himmel
Der Herr is nahe allen
Dies ist der Tag
Alles, was ihr bittet
Gott ist getreu
Ich habe dich je und je geliebet
Shannon Canavin, soprano
Carrie Cheron, mezzo-soprano
David Evans, tenor
Brian Church, bass-baritone
Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 3:30pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA
Notes on the Program
Gottfried August Homilius was hailed as “now probably without doubt the best church composer” of his day by J. F. Reichardt. Despite this praise, his impressive output (including over 60 motets), his prominent position as the Cantor at the Kreuzkirche and director of music at the three principal churches in Dresden, and his innovative, forward-looking style of composition, he remains today mainly a footnote in musical history as a student of Johann Sebastian Bach, most likely during his time as a law student at Leipzig University. But his work has recently gained a modicum of attention, thanks to the tercentenary of his birth this year and the inclusion of some of his music in the impressive Complete Works of C. P. E. Bach published by Packard Humanities (Homilius’s music can be found in Passions by the younger Bach). Exsultemus is thrilled to bring his music to Boston audiences as part of today’s Bach Birthday Celebration in hopes it is enjoyed, appreciated, and pursued by listeners and performers alike.
Born at Rosenthal (Saxony) in 1714, his family moved to Porschendorf near Pirna shortly thereafter, where Homilius spent the first years of his life. After his father’s death in 1722 Homilius went, probably on the initiative of his mother, to the school directed by her brother, the Annen-Schule in Dresden. In May 1735 Homilius entered Leipzig University as a law student, after applying unsuccessfully for the post of organist at St. Annen in Dresden, though he was apparently active musically; Christian Friedrich Schemelli wrote that he had laid down his “foundations of music with…Bach in Leipzig and the…then skilled Musico in Leipzig Homilio.” The first motets by Homilius may have been written while he was still in Leipzig, although he had composed at least one cantata during his early days in Dresden. According to Johann Adam Hiller, Homilius studied under J. S. Bach, and that may have been at this time.
After applying unsuccessfully for a post as organist at Bautzen, Homilius became organist at the Frauenkirche in Dresden in 1742. Finally, in 1755, Homilius succeeded Theodor Christian Reinhold as Cantor at the Kreuzkirche and director of music at the three principal churches in Dresden, a position which he held until his death in 1785. Homilius’s work became centered not on the Kreuzkirche but on the Frauenkirche, because the Kreuzkirche was totally destroyed by Prussian artillery in 1760 during the Seven Years’ War, and the rebuilt church was not consecrated until 1792. The pupils of Homilius included, in addition to Schemelli, Johann Adam Hiller, Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Christian Gotthilf Tag, and Daniel Gottlob Türk.
Homilius left a substantial oeuvre. So far as is known at present there are, in addition to his motets in German, Latin, and Greek (probably related to his duties teaching the classics to church pupils), some 220 church cantatas, an Easter and Christmas Oratorio, six Passions, six unaccompanied settings of the Magnificat, two Magnificats for soli, choir, and orchestra (although their authenticity is uncertain), two extensive collections of four-part chorale settings, seven “Gesänge für Maurer” (Songs for Freemasons), 28 organ preludes, numerous organ chorale preludes (some of them with obbligato horn), a harpsichord concerto, and a thoroughbass tutor.
In their day Homilius’s compositions were widely appreciated and remarkably well-circulated. A few years after Homilius’s death the lexicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber wrote that Homilius “was without question our greatest church composer” (1790). During succeeding ages it was particularly Homilius’s motets that lived on, some of them published by J. A. Hiller in Leipzig from 1776 onwards, and some published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in various collections of choral works (only a small selection, and often the same motets).
Given that the second half of the eighteenth century has most often been seen during the twentieth century as a period of decline in the field of church music, interest in the music of this extremely productive era has increasingly fallen away. With the widespread acceptance of J. S. Bach being the touchstone by which everything else in the field of Protestant church music was to be judged, the composers of the next generation were measured against a figure from whom they had in fact tried to distance themselves, rather than following the example of, during this age of “Empfindsamkeit” (music intended to express “true and natural” feelings, and featuring sudden contrasts of mood), not in comparison but in contrast to the music of Bach.
The motets of Homilius date from a time when the motet was about to reach a new period of fruition. During the first half of the eighteenth century motets were almost always composed for particular purposes, while the constant need for, say, Introitus motets were generally filled by using existing compositions. The generation of the sons and pupils of J. S. Bach, however, produced newly composed motets for the Sundays and feast days of the Church year.
The majority of the motets by Homilius were presumably composed for services at the Dresden churches during his period in office as director of those churches. The motets were performed either as Introitus motets at the beginning of the principal services or at vesper services. His motets belong to the tradition of Thuringian-Saxon motets of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, with their particular characteristics of biblical quotations combined with a church hymn, often homophonic composition, and the use of arias and strophic settings of poetic words (choral arias). In contrast to the often quite simple and pronouncedly conservative motets of the first half of the century (with the exception of the motets by J. S. Bach and a handful of other composers), the motets of Homilius are among the best of their era; indeed their effect is at times decidedly modern.
Notes by Shannon Canavin, based on Uwe Wolf’s forward to the Carus-Verlag edition of Homilius’s motets (translated by John Coombs).
Special thanks to Christopher Greenleaf for bringing Homilius to our attention and suggesting a program of his music for today’s Bach celebration.