The concept of a swansong resonated deeply in the nineteenth century Romantic mind. Franz Schubert wrote a poignant cycle of autuminal lieder under that title, helping ensnare the Romantic imagination with the ineffable beauty of a creature's last music on Earth. It should come as no surprise, then, that nineteenth century Romantic music historians salivated over the apparent discovery of Heinrich Schütz's swansong. Schütz's very last published collection of music (now lost) used the term Schwanengesang in its title. Schütz's own hand, furthermore, added the solemn Latin word "FINIS" (the end) in all capitals after the conclusion of the last bass song of the collection. Could this represent the very last notes written by the greatest German composer of the seventeeth century? Unfortunately for popular history, an earlier manuscript copy of this music exists, proving its existence well before Schütz's deathbed. Nevertheless, he did choose to end his very last publication with the piece, and apparently gave it special attention. The piece was Schütz's Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, the German Magnificat.
Despite serving Protestant courts and churches throughout his life, Schütz held a special place in his heart for the Magnificat, the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He composed no fewer than six separate settings of the text, one in Latin and five in German (two of which do not survive). This Magnificat, almost certainly the last he wrote, existed in manuscript form as early as 1669, before its publication in his swansong collection. It may have been the only piece in that collection set for the standard eight-voiced double choir of equal voices. Its musical style thus recalls his early Psalmen Davids, though the German Magnificat uses no preexistent plainsongs and displays a much more restrained gestural language. Most of its music proceeds in triple meter, with frequent hemiolas before phrasal cadences. The composer occasionally allows the voices to imitate one another; most often this makes the texture thinner in response to texts such as the "lowliness of His handmaiden" or "cast down from their seats." Much more often, however, Schütz's music lives within the sheer and simple succession of harmonies. The opening of the Doxology (surprisingly, the passage invoking the Trinity) briefly returns to duple meter, leading to an understated harmonic sequence. The final "Amen" also remains shockingly straightforward and simple. Schütz's hymn of thanksgiving for God's mercy ends in confidence, without undue artifice.