The Book with Seven Seals

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The Book with Seven Seals (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) is an oratorio in German by the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt, on themes from the biblical Book of Revelation of Saint John. It was completed in 1937 and first presented in 1938 in Vienna.

Textual structure[edit]

The oratorio is arranged in two main parts, with a prologue in heaven.[1]

Prologue in Heaven[edit]

The principal soloist is Saint John who, as narrator, opens with words of devotion to God the eternal, and to Christ the redeemer. The voice of God (bass) announces that He is the Alpha and Omega, and will show what must come. John then paints the vision of the throne in heaven, the rainbow,[2] the 24 elders, the seven spirits, the sea of glass and the four living creatures. In turn the creatures and the elders sing praises. Angels then ask, who is worthy to open the book with seven seals which is in the hand of Him who sits on the Throne. John observes that no-one is found worthy, but then sees the Lamb that was slain, standing before the throne, that redeemed us with its blood, and John leads and the Chorus repeats and develops the phrases as the Lamb takes the book (Chorus: Die Vision des Lammes). John describes how everything falls down and worships, and introduces the chorus of worship to the Lamb. So ends the prologue.

Part One[edit]

The first part concerns the opening of the first six seals, and tells the history of Mankind and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After a great organ passage the first seal is broken, and John describes the appearance of the white horse and its crowned rider. The creature announces the antichrist.[3] He rides as a warrior in righteousness, with his heavenly hosts, to fight in the Name of God. John tells how the Lamb opens the second seal, and the fire-red horse and rider (War) emerges, followed by his hellish hosts, who shall drive all peace from the world, so that men shall all be driven into war against one another. He is given a great sword. Choruses of warriors extolling death and plunder demand that children be torn from their mothers' love and protection, as the women's choruses seek to protect them and cry out their sorrow and torment. (Chorus: Der Krieg)

The third and fourth riders signify what follows upon the world plunged into war. John tells of the third seal, and of the black horse and its rider, with scales in his hand. The rider announces a small portion of wheat and barley for all, and the mother and daughter sing a piteous lament (Duoszene: Mutter und Tochter) to the father in heaven as they starve from famine. John then describes the pale horse and rider, and the kingdom of death and pestilence which follows him. Tenor and bass soloist, survivors on the corpse-field (Duoszene: Ueberlebenden auf dem Leichenfelde) sing of the death unleashed upon all mankind, but for a small remnant 'He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.'

The fifth seal is broken, and John reveals the choir of souls of the Christian martyrs beneath the altar, which cry out for vengeance upon the earth (Chorus: Der Aufruhr im Himmel). The voice of God bids them wait a little while until their brothers and fellow warriors shall join them. John tells of the sixth seal's opening, and behold, a great earthquake, deluge, and world-burning: the first part of the oratorio ends in a violently-agitated chorus (Der Weltuntergang), cut through by angular trumpet-figures, as the Moon goes red with blood, everything crashes in storms, the stars fall to earth, the sea overflows, the sun goes black, and all mankind comes together before the face of the God of Gods in the Day of Anger.

Part Two[edit]

The second part opens in a climactic organ passage introducing a long narrative for John with orchestra. At the opening of the seventh seal, he describes a great silence in heaven. The ensuing narrative is an allegory for the history of the true believers and their Church, from the birth of Jesus Christ, of their struggle against the followers of the Devil and his false teachers, and of the ultimate victory of the righteous. John describes signs in the heavens, the appearance of a woman, sun and moon at her feet and crowned with twelve stars around her head, and also of a great dragon with seven crowned heads. The dragon's tail strikes the stars down to earth. The woman bears a child, a son, who is drawn up to the throne of God. The woman flees to a wilderness where a place is appointed for her. Then there is war in heaven, and Michael and his angels fight with the dragon (signifying Satan) and his angels, and the dragon is cast down onto the earth, and has no more place in heaven. And the dragon, seeing this, pursued the woman, and made war on those who kept God's word and bore the sign of Christ. He sees the heaven open, and the King of Kings ride out on the white horse, and all the dragon's followers were slain. An angel came down from heaven, and bound the dragon for a thousand years, and cast him into the eternal pit and closed it up so that he should never more trouble the people of the earth.

John's narration returns to the stillness of heaven, the end of all earthly time,[4] and tells that seven angels appear and are given trumpets. Each sounding signifies great sorrows upon the world and its people. The soloists announce the woes, building from alto through to quartet: a rain of blood and fire (punishment for the sins of mankind, responds the chorus); a glowing mountain appears in the sea, and all ships founder, and all lives are lost in the sea and the water is turned to blood (Response: Great God, your judgements are righteous); the star named Wormwood falls to earth, and poisons all waters, and whoever drinks it, dies (Response: Lord, your punishment is truly righteous); Woe to you, sun moon and stars are lost!, sings the quartet of solo voices. The fifth and sixth blasts and their woes are given entirely to the chorus: the plague of hosts devouring the people, and the armies of riders seeking out and slaying people.

Then sounds the seventh trumpet, which announces the fulfilment of God's plans foretold by the prophets. The chorus sings that God rules the world and mankind praises God, in the summons to the Last Judgement (Chorus and Quadruple Fugue: Der Appell zum Jüngsten Gericht). John then narrates that earth and heaven disappear before the face of Him that sits on the throne, and the sea and hell give up their dead, and all the dead stand before the throne, and another book, the Book of Life, is opened. Those whose names are not found written there, shall be thrown into the sea of fire. John sees a new heaven and a new earth, and all those whose names are written in the Book of Life go there to have eternal life. The voice of God speaks, saying that He is the Alpha and the Omega and will give to them that thirst the water of life, and they will become His people, and He will wipe away their tears, and there shall be no more death nor sorrow. Behold, He makes all things new. Whoever shall overcome shall be taken up as an Heir (soll es zum Erbe empfangen), and He shall be his God, and he will become His son.

Then follows an ecstatic Hallelujah chorus (Chorus: Hallelujah), in which the choir sings praises to God, followed by a subdued male chorus of thanksgiving on three notes, in the manner of plainchant. Introduced by a light fanfare as at the opening, John makes his final declaration, that all this was the revelation given to him, and was the sacred exposition of the prophets. The chorus sings 'Amen'!

Orchestration[edit]

The oratorio is scored for Heldentenor solo, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass solos, mixed choir, and an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, organ, and strings.

The history of its creation[edit]

On 23 February 1937, Franz Schmidt wrote the last notes of his oratorio in his home at Perchtoldsdorf, and inscribed the date below. From the time of the first sketches many years went by before he was able to complete what was to become his greatest work.[5]

In the four little Preludes and Fugues for the organ (of 1928), some parts of the work are already foreshadowed, such as the Hallelujah and the closing address of God. Whereas two sketchbooks for the opera Notre Dame, and sketches for other works have been found, only a rough outline of the second part of the oratorio exists on two notebook-leaves. If this does not provide very much of trail for the actual composition, Schmidt himself has left us a very adequate statement about the writing-out of the work into full score: it took him two years (1935-1937).

Franz Schmidt completed the Prologue on 15 October 1935. He must have worked from 1 January to 1 July 1936 on Part 1. Then he had to stop writing again because his hand was extremely painful, and he hoped to improve it by a period of hospital rest. At the turn of the year 1936/37 the full score had grown as far as the sounding of the Seventh Trumpet. It was completed on 23 February 1937, and waited only a little more than a year for its premiere.

The premiere was held in Vienna on 15 June 1938, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Oswald Kabasta: the soloists were Erika Rokyta, Enid Szantho, Anton Dermota, Josef von Manowarda and Franz Schütz at the organ, and the musical recitative role of the Evangelist was sung by Rudolf Gerlach. The difficult choral music was sung by the Vienna Singverein (Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde).

We know from certain accounts,[which?] that Schmidt thought for a very long time about the setting of certain biblical passages which he wanted to bring together into an oratorio. He must have chosen letters of Saint Paul for the purpose, just as he thought of setting the Song of Solomon. It is very difficult to be certain who may have drawn his attention to the Apocalypse, but both Oswald Kabasta and Raimund Weissensteiner are mentioned in this connection.

When Schmidt definitely settled upon the Book of Revelation for his subject, in addition to his own house Bible, which contained the Martin Luther translation, he also consulted other translations in order to arrive at a beautiful and clear text. Who wrote the freely-constructed additions, which do not come from the Bible, has not been recorded. Schmidt maintained however in his introduction to the original performance, that he had determined to have no alterations to the biblical texts. His own words about this are: "I have also, in selections from the elision I have admitted above" - referring to his selection of verses from the Apocalypse - "held sufficiently to the original... "

Schmidt's attraction to a resonant word can be inferred because while he was writing out the full score he altered some words, as for example in the Prologue, where in place of "a seat stood there in heaven", "a throne stood there in heaven" appears as a textual improvement. Also in purely musical respects one can follow the thread of improvements which Schmidt worked on repeatedly until achieving the final form.

The work had its UK premiere on 24 May 1966, conducted by Bryan Fairfax.

Recordings[edit]

  • Anton Dermota (Ev.), Walter Berry (God), Hilde Güden, Ira Malaniuk, Fritz Wunderlich, (soloists): Vienna Philharmonic cond. Dimitri Mitropoulos, with Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Alois Forrer, (organ). Salzburger Festspiele, 23 August 1959. Sony SM2K 68442 (2CD).
  • Julius Patzak (Evangelist), Otto Wiener (God), Hanny Steffek, Hertha Töpper, Erich Majkut, Frederick Guthrie (soloists): Munich Philharmonic cond. Anton Lippe, with Graz Domchor, Franz Illenburger (organ). Recorded in Stephaniesaal at Graz, January 1962. Amadeo 2 LP AVRS 5004/5005 St, 2 CD Amadeo 423 993-2.
  • Peter Schreier, Holl, Greenberg, Watkinson, Moser, Rydl, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Lothar Zagrosek. Orpheus Digital C 143862H (2CD).
  • Eberhard Büchner (Johannes),Robert Holl (God), Wiener Symphoniker, Wiener Singverein, Horst Stein (cond.) (1997)
  • Stig Fogh Andersen, Rene Pape, soloists: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Franz Welser-Möst (EMI Classics 2-CD).
  • Kurt Streit, Franz Hawlata, Dorothea Röschmann, Marjana Lipovsek, Herbert Lippert: Vienna Phil. cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wiener Singverein. 2 CD, Teldec (2000)
  • Johannes Chum (Evangelist), cond. Kristjan Jarvi. CD, Chandos (2008)

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ This section is adapted from the programme-note by Schmidt for the original performance.
  2. ^ The rainbow signifies the Covenant between God and the Earth, see Genesis IX.13.
  3. ^ Franz Schmidt, in his own original commentary upon the text used for the oratorio, explains that he identifies the white rider as Jesus Christ (not as the Holy Spirit or the Antichrist). F. Schmidt, 'Einige Bemerkungen zum text des Oratoriums "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln".' (written 1938). '... der christlichen Heilslehre durch den weißen Reiter (Jesus Christ) und seine Himmlischen Heerscharen verfällt die Menschheit in Nacht und Wirrsal;'
  4. ^ Schmidt's gloss.
  5. ^ This section is translated from the German Wikipedia.

Sources[edit]

  • Andreas Liess, Franz Schmidt (Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachf. G.m.b.H., Graz 1951).
  • Carl Nemeth, Franz Schmidt (Amalthea-Verlag, Zurich-Leipzig-Wien 1957).
  • Franz Kosch, 'Das Österreichische Oratorium. Zur Musik von Franz Schmidts "Das Buch Mit Sieben Siegeln",' in Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, Jahrgang 8, Wien 1953, pp. 98–104.
  • Albert Arbeiter, 'Einführung in "Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln",' 1958, Styria, Judenburg.
  • Franz Schmidt, 'Einige Bemerkungen zum Text des Oratoriums "Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln".'(Printed in full (German) in insert to Amadeo LP and CD record sets of 1962 recording).

External links[edit]