“Prosopopeia”. Lucia Ronchetti’s homage to Heinrich Schütz
The Italian composer Lucia Ronchetti has attempted the impossible for a commissioned work: the evocation of the afterlife through music, despite the impossibility of escaping the metaphysical cycle. In her piece “Prosopopeia”, Ronchetti makes reference to the “Musikalische Exequien” by Heinrich Schütz. A suggestion for the Schütz anniversary year 2022 (350th anniversary of the composer’s death on 6 November).
The “fantastic” invention of Prosopopeia, the “concerto in the form of a Mass” which Lucia Ronchetti composed based on the Musikalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz, is concealed in the chiasmus between the “theatre of rhetoric” and the “rhetoric of theatre”. The invocation of the rhetorical figure of Prosopopeia (who allows the dead to speak), refers to the inscription of this ancient topos in a hidden “dramaturgy of the word”. The Baroque funeral ritual which forms the backdrop for this “study of personification”, contains with the display of the sacred body of the deceased, a triumphant, ceremonial theatricality which Ronchetti transfers to the present with her “secular mass”.
The “Musikalische Exequien”, composed in memory of Prince Heinrich Posthumus of Reuss, was performed on 4 February 1636 in the Johanniskirche in Gera, two months after the death of the Prince who commissioned it and to whom it was dedicated. It is, however, almost certain that the Prince worked with the composer on both the selection of texts and on the overall form of the memorial service. The rhetorical formulae which he used in his polyphonic setting presumably did not have as much of the function of evoking the abstract and disembodied memory of the deceased, as of manifesting his “physical” presence, perpetuating it in the memory of the congregation. During the celebration the bier was placed between the orator’s pulpit and the congregation of the faithful, confirming the hypothesis that the Mass was less of a celebration “in absentia” than a ritual “in praesentia”, in which the orator was a medium who was entrusted with retrieving the words of the deceased from the afterlife. The evocation of the afterlife was achieved through the special placement of the voices within the church interior: with the experiences of the “cori spezzati” which he had learned from Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz placed a small choir in the interior of the crypt, thereby creating the illusion of an “invisible” voice which sounded from a dark “beyond”.
It is exactly this idea of the plurality of spaces which led to the creation of the stylus phantasticus of Prosopopeia. Lucia Ronchetti works with philological accuracy with the metaphorical space of the word: numerous texts by contemporaries (Donne, Tasso, Quevedo, Marvell, Crashaw) grow out of the body of the original text, which – linked through key words (Himmel [heaven], Sünde [sins], Zeit [time], Leib [body], Verklärung [transfiguration], Heil [salvation], Fleisch [flesh], Auffahrt [ascension]…) – gives rise to astonishing poetic flowerings. In the process, the fragments of Schütz’s polyphonic setting remain in the shadow of the old “stile severo”, and by contrast, the textual interpolations are set in a modern “stile florido” in which homophonic declamations, pulverising madrigalianisms, frozen psalmodies and contrapuntal dissonant affects are linked. It is this plurality of texts which leads to the plurality of the acoustic spaces.
Like Schütz, Ronchetti also transforms the architectonic enclosure of the church into a wonderful instrument which creates varied acoustic dimensions: a background of angelic sounds, produced by vocal groups which remain out of sight, surrounded by “wandering” vocal and instrumental sounds which represent the different routes through the church.
However, out of this overall texture of wave-like, wandering sounds two voices break away shortly before the finale, and are given a dramaturgical function and an unmistakable symbolism in sound. The trombonist moves, together with a bass singer, on various routes through the church, wearing the festive garment of Schütz himself. Shortly afterwards, announced by a jubilant trumpet solo, the tuba player in dialogue with the tenor voice assumes on the shroud of the deceased Prince and becomes the incarnation of the figurative and symbolic idea of Prosopopeia. This encounter leads to a strange descant in which the dedication, a text by Donne on earthly things and one by Crashaw about heavenly love, are intertwined. Out of this springs a gloomy reflection on the impossibility of escaping the metaphysical cycle which links “Living Death” and “Dying Life”. An extreme chiasmus which culminates in an unexpected spatial and sonorous unison: the two “Heinrichs” transform the melodic arch into the linearity of the recitation and start singing the saturnic, agnostic concluding meditation of John Donne: “Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself.”
(Translation: Elizabeth Robinson)
from [t]akte 2/2010