Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel was one of the leading musicians of his generation. Born in 1690 in a small village near what is now the German/Czech border, he was educated at Leipzig University. Subsequently he followed a cosmopolitan career as composer working in Breslau, Gera, Beyreuth, Prague, and Innsbruck. Like Handel, he spent over a year in Italy where he met, amongst others, Vivaldi in Venice and Alessandro Scarlatti in Rome. From 1720 to his death in 1749 he was Kapellmeister in Gotha.
Although his output was extensive, much of his music was lost during the latter part of the C18th. And because he worked at just one of the many courts in central Germany that had a professional musical establishment, his name has rather been relegated to the footnotes of history.
Which is a shame, because what survives of his music is excellent. The Bach family clearly thought so too. The aria Bist du bei mir from Stölzel’s opera Diomedes was long thought to be by Bach (BWV 508) and Bach copied a harpsichord Partita by him for his son Wilhelm Friedemann to learn (see the image above of the opening of this piece in Bach's hand).
One of the first works that Stölzel composed when he was appointed Kappellmeister in Gotha was a Passion setting. It was first performed at Easter 1720. Despite being quite different from many of the passion settings of the time - for a start, he wrote the poetry himself in the form of twenty ‘reflections’ on the biblical narrative - it proved particuarly popular.
A number of performances over a twenty-year period can be traced through the survival of printed libretti, including one from Cheltenham’s twin town Göttingen. Another was given by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1734.
It seems amazing that a work that Bach appreciated should have been so neglected. So we decided to do something about it.
Although much of Stölzel’s music has been lost, by a quirk of fate there is a substanital collection in Sondershausen in central Germany. Stölzel held an external position which required him to provide music for the court there. By chance the same Passion that Bach performed survives in a set of parts that were used in Sondershausen in the early 1730s.
We managed to obtain copies of these, and by collating them with the original libretto from Stölzel’s performance in Gotha in 1720, we have been able to produce our own edition from which we performed.
Surprisingly, we know quite a bit about the conditions for the performances in Gotha and Sondershausen. Lists of the players involved survive, and curious titbits of information such as the fact that the alto singer played the viola da gamba solo can be gleaned from the parts.
Our performance reflected the Sondershausen forces in that we used single strings with a violone, harpsichord and organ continuo. Much of the vocal music is for solo voice, and in the choruses and chorales we used eight singers. There are some exquisite solos for the oboe, and an aria featuring solo bassoon violin and oboe. Incidentally, Bach seemed to have appreciated this aria since he later reworked it as Bekennen will ich seinen Namen (BWV 200).