capricornus sonatas niburu

Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665)
Vocal and Instrumental Works
Ensemble Inégal/Adam Viktora
Texts and translations included
Nibiru 01702231 [64]

One of the remarkable features of the music scene before the romantic era is the size of the oeuvre many composers were able to produce. Apparently the compositional process did not take that much time. Samuel Capricornus is a good example. He was just 37 years of age when he died, but extant inventories list over 400 works in nearly every genre in vogue in his time: sacred liturgical music, instrumental works, ballets and operas. His contributions to the latter categories have been largely lost, but many sacred works have been preserved in printed editions and hand-written copies.

Capricornus was born in Schertitz (Žerčice) in Bohemia and baptised with the name of Samuel Friedrich Bockshorn. In order to escape from religious persecution his family fled to upper Hungary. In 1643 Capricornus went to Silesia to study Latin, theology and philosophy. After a short sojourn in Strasbourg he went to Vienna, where he came into contact with the main musicians who served at the imperial court, such as Giovanni Valentini, Antonio Bertali, Wolfgang Ebner, Johann Jacob Froberger and Giovanni Felice Sances. The Austrian court was under the spell of Italian music, and this was also the style which greatly influenced Capricornus. However, he didn’t stay there for long; after a short period as a teacher in Reutlingen, south of Stuttgart, he returned to upper Hungary. For two years he acted as a teacher in Pressburg (Bratislava) and in 1651 he was appointed director of music at the Church of the Holy Trinity. In 1657 he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court in Stuttgart where he stayed for the rest of his life.

There he became the subject of a conflict which reveals much about his stylistic stance and about the debate on various aspects of composing in the 17th century. It largely concentrated on the freedom of a composer towards the rules of counterpoint. The conflict was initiated by Philipp Friedrich Böddecker (1615-1683), organist at the collegiate church. It is assumed that his complaints against Capricornus’ style of composing were largely motivated by disappointment that he was not appointed Kapellmeister when that position fell vacant. Even if that was indeed the case, that doesn’t mean that the subject of the debate didn’t matter. In a letter Böddecker included several passages from compositions by Capricornus which he believed were in conflict with the traditional rules of counterpoint. Capricornus’ reply is interesting and tells us much about his ideal in composing sacred music. He emphasized that it was not right to break the rules of counterpoint, except in the interest of expression and in order to emphasize specific words. Here we notice the Italian influence: expression was the main aim of any music and the dominance of the text over the music is one of the features of the seconda pratica as propagated by the likes of Giulio Caccini in the early 17th century. Capricornus also used “the famous Athanasius Kircher” to support his case.

The disc under review attests to the Italian leanings of Capricornus. The sonatas are particularly interesting. Their authenticity cannot be established; only the Sonata a 8 is definitely from Capricornus’ pen. The other six sonatas were published under the title of Continuation der neuen wohl angestimmten Taffel-Lustmusic by an unknown printer in 1671. The next year saw the publication of Prothimia suavissima ovvero XII Sonate a tre o quattro strumenti e basso, a copy of which is preserved in the Bibliothèque National in Paris. The name of the composer is designated on the title page by the initials F.S.A.B.. Sébastien de Brossard, the French composer and music collector, who had a keen interest in Italian music, identified the composer as Antonio Bertali (1605-1669). The first six sonatas from the collection are completely identical with the six sonatas from the 1671 set, and copies which are part of the Düben Sammlung mention the name of both Capricornus and Bertali. There is no doubt that Bertali was Capricornus’s main model, and Gunar Letzbor, in the liner-notes to his recording of the 1672 collection (Arcana, 2006), suggests that at the time of publication the use of the name of Bertali, who occupied the prestigious post of Kapellmeister at the Habsburg court in Vienna, may have guaranteed a larger sale than that of Capricornus. To date it has not been possible to establish the identity of the composer with any certainty.

That said, Capricornus was quite a famous name in his time. The fact that such a large part of his sacred oeuvre has been preserved, is largely due to the dissemination of printed editions and hand-written copies, which attests to the appreciation of his music. It is remarkable that it was still known and performed in the early 18th century, although it had become stylistically old-fashioned. His sacred oeuvre comprises both large-scale works and concertos for solo voices, either with basso continuo or with a small instrumental ensemble. The present disc focuses on the latter category. It is notable that all the pieces are settings of Latin texts, although Capricornus was a Lutheran composer. We should take into account that Luther never banned Latin from the liturgy, and especially at aristocratic courts there were basically no rules as to what could be performed. It seems that Capricornus had a special liking of devotional texts in Latin. In addition he set biblical verses and Psalms.

As I mentioned above, Capricornus considered the text the most important part of sacred music, and that comes clearly to the fore here. There is quite some text expression, and there are also some theatrical traits, especially in the Magnificat. In comparison, his setting of the dramatic verses from Dixit Dominus is rather restrained, if we compare it with later settings, such as the one by George Frideric Handel. Amor tuus in nos is for soprano and alto, and here Capricornus uses harmony for expressive purposes. O felix jucunditas is based on a basso ostinato, which perfectly emphasizes the piece’s content: “O blessed comfort, O consoling beatitude”. These opening lines are repeated at the end.

Considering the size of Capricornus’ oeuvre it is a little disappointing that this disc includes just one first recording: the very short Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (00:53). However, the number of recordings of Capricornus’s oeuvre is rather small, and his music is seldom performed. That makes this disc a most welcome addition to the discography. Moreover, the performances are pretty much ideal. Adam Viktora has brought together a very fine team of singers and players, who deliver technically impeccable performances and highly expressive interpretations. This disc is a perfect demonstration of the quality of Capricornus’s oeuvre, and in its combination of vocal and instrumental music, it is the perfect way to get to know this unjustly neglected composer.

Johan van Veen

Availability: Nibiru Publishers

Sonata à 8
Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina
Dixit Dominus
Sonata I à 3 (*)
Sonata II à 4 (*)
O felix jucunditas
Sonata III à 3 (*)
Amor tuus in nos
Sonata IV à 3 (*)
Justorum animae
Sonata V à 3 (*)
Adesto multitudo coelestis exercitus
Sonata VI à 3 (*)
(*) also attributed to Antonio Bertali (1605-1669)