Judgment Day Cast in a Baroque Oratorio

Das Jüngste Gericht – a painting by Wassily Kandinsky from 1922.

Is it possible to make Man confront his many sins, to make him repent and to improve his behaviour? I have my doubts, and  maybe it is a sign of our time that the divine element has less and less place in our lives and can no longer serve as a moral beacon for many. Dieterich Buxtehude, a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, however was a firm believer in the Lutheran god and expected the fear of Judgment Day being stimulating enough to encourage the citizen of Lübeck to repent and return to the right path. “Das Jüngste Gericht” (Judgement Day, BuxWV Anh. 3) is the title of an oratorio Buxtehude most likely composed for his Abendmusiken, the amateur concerts he conducted in Lübeck.

Music scholars still haven’t made up their mind whether this work can really be attributed to the composer; some deem it too banal to have been written by such an eminent composer. Be that as it may, I like this work. It is exhilarating to hear and it reminds me of a similar composition from Italy, Emilio di Cavalieri’s oratorio “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo”. “Das Jüngste Gericht” has been scored for choir (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), two violins, two viols and basso continuo. Since the authorship of this work is disputed, don’t press me for a date when it might have been composed. Those scholars who believe the piece was composed by Buxethude, like the researcher Gilles Cantagrel, also believe that it was performed in 1682 as one of the very few if not the only surviving piece written explicitly as an Abendmusik.

Obviously it helps if you understand German to follow the narrative of the oratorio. Act I is a prologue with the three allegoric figures Greed, Lust and Pride presenting their case. Three soprano voices, representing the three sins, claim to have power over Man and unite to announce that the German empire is doomed by God’s will. God – not to be seen, but only to be heard as a bass voice – warns mankind of the consequences of giving in to the three temptations with  quotations from the Bible. Act 2 and 3 oppose Man’s weakness to his desire to be elevated to Heaven, they illustrates the struggle between Good and Evil with ample quotations from the Bible again and liturgical songs.

Now the struggle between Good and Evil, the quest for justice, for freedom from oppression, for fairness – it can be cast in religious terms, it can be cast in political terms. If the Baroque words may seem a bit out-of-date, especially for an atheist audience, the subject remains important today, and Buxtehude’s music transports this message admirably well. The dramatic element in the music illustrates the dramatic nature of the subject. The survival of mankind as a society is at stake, nothing less.

“Das Jüngste Gericht” has been recorded by the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Ton Koopman.

© Charles Thibo


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