Monday, December 26, 2011

Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 1: Michael Praetorius

During Holy Week 2011, we ran a series called Music for Holy Week, which focused on our great heritage of Lutheran music and worship accompaniment, and which is recognized in many instances as bona fide 'high art'. The compositions of late Renaissance and Baroque era Lutherans, like Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Schein, and Johann Sebastian Bach (considered to be the greatest composer the West has yet produced), are highly valued to this day, if not by Christians on the basis of the strong theological content they artfully deliver, then by all those with a modicum of cultured taste on the basis of their artistic merit alone. It is these composers, rather than contemporary entertainers, who have established a standard of excellence that has, at least in previous generations, been pursued by the greatest talent the church could muster, and has produced musical gifts for Christ's Church that extends to, and continues to impact, the World as well:
    “But especially in sacred song has the Lutheran Church a grand distinctive element of her worship. 'The Lutheran Church,' says Schaff, 'draws the fine arts into the service of religion, and has produced a body of hymns and chorals, which, in richness, power, and unction, surpasses the hymnology of all other churches in the world.' 'In divine worship,' says Goebel, 'we reach glorious features of pre-eminence. The hymns of the Church are the people's confession, and have wrought more than the preaching. In the Lutheran Church alone, German hymnology attained a bloom truly amazing. The words of holy song were heard everywhere, and sometimes, as with a single stroke, won whole cities for the Gospel'” (Krauth, C. (1871). Conservative Reformation and its Theology. Philadelphia: Lippincott. pp. 152-154)
A Tradition of Excellence, eschewed for a more Contemporary standard
Michael PretoriusGiven the importance of the Incarnation at Christ's Nativity, the necessity of the Church's recognition and continuing announcement of it before the World, the example and high standard of excellence displayed in Lutheran works of previous generations, and the ever increasing contentedness with mediocrity in today's contemporary Church and resulting devaluation of core Christian truths, we at Intrepid Lutherans thought it would be a good idea to reacquaint our fellow Lutherans with some of these composers and the tradition of excellence we have inherited from them. In the first installment of the Music for Holy Week series in 2011 (Music for Holy Week, Part 1 – excerpts from Matthäus Passion), we briefly introduced the Lutheran composer that we will be featuring today: Michael Praetorius (~1571 – 1621). Michael Praetorius, who was no relation to two other important Lutheran composers of the same era, Hieronymus and Jacob Praetorius, was raised the son of a second generation Lutheran pastor (who had been a student of Dr. Martin Luther's), lived his adult life in the service of the Church, being educated in theology and philosophy at Frankfurt and then holding the position of court Kappelmeister in Wolfenbüttel for most of his carreer, and dedicated his service to the cause of advancing Lutheran church music. By the time of his Wolfenbüttel appointment in 1604, he had already earned acclaim as one of the most accomplished organists of his time – a title he still holds, partly by reputation and partly by indication left us in his extant works for organ (around ten). Some numbering his works at over one thousand, his total output as a composer was prolific by any standard, and creatively broad: in just the forty choral works included in his Polyhymnia Caduceatrix alone (only three volumes of a planned fifteen were published) , "every type of liturgical music from two-part bicinia to large-scale polychoral concerti for voices and instruments in the Baroque style"* is represented. His compositions weren’t limited to the intellectual expectations and abilities of court worshipers and musicians either, as he endeavored to equip the common countryside parish with such works by "writing music that could be performed, if necessary, by the humblest village choir."* His most enduring and broadly influential work, however, was written to equip composers of church music and instrumentalists with every type of information they would need to execute their art with the highest musical integrity: his three-volume Syntagma musicum – a treatise on baroque instruments, composition and performance, from historical, theoretical and practical standpoints – which is considered definitive even today. Considering this productivity, many consider his early death in 1621 to be due to illness wrought by exhaustion! Yet his legacy endures, if not in the Church (which, these days, seems ever too happy to turn its back on the past), then in the World, where relatively recent rediscovery of Michael Praetorius has confronted today's musicians not only with his dedicated energy and his creative genius, but his motivations in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to produce as he did. This rediscovery is generally credited with inspiring the Early Music revival we have enjoyed over the past two or three decades.

A Tradition of Excellence, preserved in recordings...
The following three video selections from the works of Michael Praetorius are common Christmas pieces, mostly neglected by the church today. The first is a traditional choral piece harmonized in 1609 by Praetorius, which those of us who are middle aged or older may remember hearing or singing in our youth: Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen – referring to the birth of Christ. It is certainly one of those works that can be mastered by the humblest of parish choirs. The parts are simple, the harmonies natural (mostly), and the variation of consonant sounds (hard and soft sounds alternating from front to back of mouth) make it very easy for a basic choir to enunciate and for hearers to clearly understand the words. This selection is actually two videos. The first is of the Mainzer Domchor, and for those who prefer protestant voices, I tacked on a second performance of this piece from the Dresdner Kreuzchor, which starts a few seconds after the first video ends. Recordings of this piece can be had on just about every "traditional Christmas" album. Two such albums that have become favorites in our household are: Festliche Weinacht (Ivan Rebroff und die Regensburger Domspatzen) and Die Schönsten Weinachtslieder (Dresdner Kreuzchor)

Michael Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen
performed first by the Mainzer Domchor and then the Dresdner Kreuzchor.

The second work is a rousing antiphonal piece, ideally meant to be be sung responsively between choir and congregation: Puer natus in Bethlehem. It is arranged in two languages. Latin is the language of the choir, representing the voices of heaven bearing the announcement of Christ's birth and exhorting eternal praise to God, yet it is accompanied by only a thin "incomplete" sounding string section; the congregation, on the other hand, is accompanied by resounding trumpets, timpani and organ, and singing in the vernacular (German, English, etc), responds to, affirms, and repeats Heaven's message and praise. Perhaps the best example of this piece, should the reader desire it, can be found on this very popular album: Praetorius: Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (Gabrieli Consort & Players)

Michael Praetorius, Puer natus in Bethlehem

Finally, the third work: In dulce jubilo. It is an exremely dynamic and celebratory antiphonal piece, but is led principally by the congregation, not the choir, and exchanges parts mostly with individual soloists from the choir rather than with the choir itself. This piece also calls for a full trumpet section and timpani, as one would expect heralding the birth of a King. Praetorius even advised that the trumpets be placed outside the church building, impressing upon those inside the building, and actually having the effect, that Christ's birth is being joyously heralded to all the World. In addition to the Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, mentioned above (and from which the music in the following video is taken), two other recordings of this piece which can be frequently heard in our home throughout Advent and Christmas seasons are found on the following two albums: Christmas Music by Michael Praetorius (Westminster Cathedral Choir & The Parley of Instruments) and Praetorius: Polyhymnia Caduceatrix & Panegyrica (Musica Fiata Köln & La Capella Ducale).

Michael Praetorius, In dulce jubilo

Mr. Douglas Lindee

* Direct quotes taken from the liner notes of the following album: Christmas Music by Michael Praetorius (Westminster Cathedral Choir & The Parley of Instruments).

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