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Michael PRAETORIUS (1571 - 1621): "Easter Mass"

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: May 8 - 10, 2011, Stift Steterburg
CPO - 999 953-2 (© 2012) (68'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
[Introitus] Venite exultemus Domino a 9 [1]; Kyrie a 8 [3]; Gloria a 8 [3]; Collect & Epistle; [Sequence] Victimae paschali laudes a 10 [1]; [Gospel] Erstanden ist der heilige Christ a 3-8 [2]; Credo; [Chorale] Christ ist erstanden a 4 [2]; [Hymn] Vita sanctorum a 2-7 [3]; Praefatio; Sanctus & Benedictus a 8 [3]; [Verba Institutionis Coenae Dominicae] Vater unser; Agnus Dei a 8 [3]; [Sub communione] Jesus Christus, unser Heiland a 8 [2]; Collect & Benediction; [Postludium] Haec est dies quam fecit Dominus a 12 [1]

[1] Musarum Sioniarum motectae et psalmi latini, 1605/07; [2] Musae Sioniae, II, 1607; [3] Missodia, 1611

Andrea Lauren Brown, Margaret Hunter, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Mirko Ludwig, Bern Oliver Fröhlich, Nils Giebelhausen, tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; Frithjof Smith, cornett; Katharina Heutjer, violin; Frauke Hess, Christian Heim, viola da gamba; Adam Woolf, Detlef Reimers, sackbut; Regina Sanders, dulcian; Margit Schultheiß, harp; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Detlef Bratschke, organ

A reformation of the church and even more a schism in the church and the foundation of another has far-reaching consequences in various areas. One of them is the liturgy. When Henry VIII separated from the church of Rome and founded the Church of England a large part of the existing liturgical repertoire became obsolete. Composers were asked to write music on different texts in the vernacular. The same happened in Germany in the wake of the Lutheran reformation. There was also a difference. The newly-founded church in Germany was much more different from the church of Rome in dogmatic matters than the Church of England, but the liturgical reform was less radical. Luther wanted the congregation to sing and encouraged poets to write hymn texts in German and composers to set them to music. It was his close friend Johannes Bugenhagen who developed new church ordinances for many cities and regions.

The present disc includes a liturgical event as it could have taken place in Wolfenbüttel, the residency of the Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg who introduced a church constitution in 1569. Here Michael Praetorius settled in 1592/93 and in 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius. He stayed here until 1613 when his employer suddenly died. During his time in Wolfenbüttel a large part of his oeuvre was written and printed. As Praetorius composed much music for the liturgy there is enough to choose from if one wants to present a kind of liturgical reconstruction of a liturgical event. Such reconstructions are very illuminating as they show how music was used, but we seldom know exactly which music was performed. In this case we know at least how the liturgy was structured, as the church constitution has been preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.

As I already wrote Luther's reform of the liturgy was not as radical as in England. The use of Latin was not completely banned: even in Bach's time parts of the Mass were still sung in Latin. In this Easter Mass we hear the five parts of the ordinary of the Mass in Latin in 8-part settings by Praetorius, from his Missodia Sionia of 1611. In 1607 he published a collection of motets and psalms in Latin, from which the 9-part Venite exultemus Domino is taken which is sung here as introitus: "Come, let us shout to the Lord; let us sing with joy to the Lord, our salvation". This opening phrase returns several times as a kind of refrain.

Then Kyrie and Gloria are sung; the eight voices are split into two choirs, one of high, the other of low voices. These are followed by the Collect, and the Epistle, sung on a German text by a solo voice, with the "Amen" of the collect sung by the choir. The Epistle reading is from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians (ch 5, vs 7-8): "Dear brothers, sweep out the old leaven". The sequence is again in Latin, Victimae paschali laudes: "Let Christians sacrifice in thanksgiving to the paschal victim". Praetorius' setting from the above-mentioned collection of 1607 is for 10 voices. In the first four lines the name "Christus" is singled out.

The Gospel is not read, but sung: the hymn Erstanden ist der heilge Christ is an account of the events on the morning of Easter. Praetorius has set this text for 3 to 8 voices. The verses are performed here by solo voices, and their lines are highly ornamented. I don't know whether these embellishments were written by Praetorius or are improvised by the performers. The Credo is followed by the chorale, which is here Praetorius' 4-part setting of the hymn Christ ist erstanden. This is an example of a hymn which dates from far before the Reformation; its roots are in the south of Germany or Austria and was probably written around 1100. It was adopted and adapted by Luther. The Easter hymn Vita sanctorum in a setting from Praetorius' collection of 1611, scored for 2 to 7 voices, replaces the sermon: "Life of the saints, ornament of angels, likewise life of all the pious, Christ, by your death you conquered the servant of death".

Next we hear the Praefatio, again in Latin, followed by the Sanctus. The church constitution then says: "Thereafter the priest is to sing the Our Father and the words concerning the institution of Jesus' supper". Both are sung in German by a solo voice; the "Amen" at the end of the Vater unser is sung by the choir. Agnus Dei and the hymn Jesus Christus unser Heiland are sung sub communione. The collect and Benediction are sung in German, the latter in a polyphonic setting, probably by Praetorius, but no name is given here. The service then closes with a setting for three choirs of Haec est dies: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it".

One could consider this disc as a counterpart of the Christmas Mass with music by Praetorius and contemporaries which Paul McCreesh recorded with his Gabrieli Consort & Players (Archiv, 1994). There is less splendour here because no large choir, acting as congregation, is involved, nor is a large organ used for the basso continuo and to support the singing of the 'congregation'. However, the pieces for two and three choirs and the use of a mixture of voices and instruments suffice to lend this recording the festive atmosphere which one associates with a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The ensemble Weser-Renaissance almost guarantees a stylish and incisive performance, and this disc can be recommended without reservation. Once again it shows that Praetorius' oeuvre is a rich source of brilliant music. He wrote for almost any liturgical occasion, from relatively simple pieces for voices to highly elaborated sacred concertos for cori spezzati, consisting voices and virtually all the instruments in vogue at the time. He was a true master of his art and one can only hope that his output will be explored in future recordings. Especially in this case liturgical reconstructions, partly speculative as they may be, are very helpful to put his music into its historical and liturgical perspective.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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