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I'm a huge fan of Heinrich Schütz and in particular of the Dresdner Kammerchor's recordings of his work. This moment in bar 169 of "Vater Abraham, erbarme dich mein, SWV 447" really caught me off guard.

Score (IMSLP): https://www.cpdl.org/wiki/images/e/ed/Vater_Abraham%2C_SWV477_Schutz.pdf Record (links to the cadence in question):

What kind of dissonance is this? Why did Schütz want it to sound like that?

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There is not really that much dissonance here. In the penultimate measure you get a prepared major 7th, but that’s about it. What makes the particular recording the dissonances added in the organ as well as the violins playing strongly out of tune.

This a deliberate choice of the performers to musically describe the text ("an den Ort der Qual" → "to the place of torment"). But it is exactly that. There is no indication that this is what Schütz wanted it sound like. It is what the performers wanted it to sound like.

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Note: The recording is a half-step higher than the linked score. This analysis is based on the score.

Note 2: Schütz was composing during a period of development toward tonality, but the "rules" of tonality were not yet established. So one should take a modern tonal analysis with a grain of salt.


Analytically, this is a half cadence.

Measure 167 clearly sets the ear in B minor, measure 168 in E minor, and then measure 169 in F# (major — the third of the chord is missing by modern standards, but an open fifth cadence was idiomatic for Schütz's time).

It sounds harsh for a few reasons:

  1. In music since around Bach's time, an open fifth at a cadence is an unexpected, even harsh sound. It resonates with a "buzz" that would otherwise be mitigated by the presence of a chordal third. (Hard rock, for example, routinely uses open fifths — power chords — in part for this very reason.)
  2. The parallel fourths in the violins also present a "harsh" sound to modern ears. Parallel fourths are often avoided, or used is special circumstances (we see you, parallel 6-3 chords). But having them in such an exposed position (high, isolated) is an unexpected sound.
  3. The tuning and timbre of the instruments, in particular the organ. F# would have been a very unusual key for the time, and it's likely that contemporary, fixed-pitch instruments (like the organ) would have been tuned in a way that made and F# chord particularly harsh. Short of knowing the details of this, they do sound "out of tune" for someone used to 12-TET. This can be a result of the resonance of the open fifth, or it could be the specific tuning, or it could be a limitation of the organ tuning.
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    It is not really a matter of the recording being a half step higher, just a difference of tuning. You need to keep in mind that A = 440Hz is something quite recent, and in the era and area of Schütz it was practice to tune quite a bit higher that 440Hz.
    – Lazy
    Feb 2, 2023 at 22:47
  • @Lazy That's all true, but the recording is a half-step higher, and I didn't want to create confusion between the score-based analysis and what is actually heard on the recording.
    – Aaron
    Feb 3, 2023 at 15:42

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