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Michael PRAETORIUS (1571 - 1621): "Christmas Music"

The Choir of Westminster Cathedrala; The Parley of Instruments (Peter Holman, Mark Caudle)b
Dir: David Hill

rec: Jan 22 - 24, 1986, London, Westminster Cathedral
Hyperion/Helios - CDH55446 (R) (© 2011) (49'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

Dancesb [2]; Es ist ein Ros' entsprungenab [1]; Nun helft mir Gottes Güte schon preisenab [4]; Nun komm, der Heiden Heilandab [3]; Puer natus in Bethlehem (Ein Kind geborn)ab [3]; Pueri nostri concinite (Singet und klinget)ab [4]; Quem pastores laudavereab [4]; Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich herab [3]; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgensternab [3]

Sources: [1] Musae Sioniae … deutscher geistlicher … üblicher Psalmen und Lieder … sechster Theil, 1609; [2] Terpsichore, musarum aoniarum quinta, 1612; [3] Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, 1619; [4] Puericinium … darinnen 14 teutsche Kirchenlieder und andere Concert-Gesänge, 1621

The style concertato which emerged in Italy in the early 17th century soon disseminated over large parts of Europe. In Germany some composers resisted the new fashion and stood by the polyphonic style of the 16th century. Others embraced the new style, without completely doing away with the traditional counterpoint. Heinrich Schütz and Michael Praetorius both belonged to this category. Their oeuvre is very different in character, though. The main difference is their attitude towards the hymns which had become such an important part of liturgical music in Protestant Germany.

These were the direct result of Martin Luther's liturgical reforms. He wanted the congregation to sing, and to that end he wrote texts and sometimes also music - partly adapted from existing material - which were easy to learn and to memorize. Others followed in his footsteps and wrote large numbers of hymns. In his oeuvre Heinrich Schütz paid little attention to these hymns. Only now and then they turn up in his sacred works, but on the whole their role is marginal. That was very different in the oeuvre of Michael Praetorius, which is largely based on these hymns. That comes as no surprise as at several moments in his life he came in close contact with some prolific composers of hymns.

Praetorius was born in Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, where his father, who had studied with Martin Luther, worked as a pastor. As he did belong to the strict Lutherans he regularly lost his job and had to move. Two years after Michael's birth he had to move again, this time to Torgau. Here Praetorius senior became a colleague of Johann Walter, one of the main composers of hymns, at the Lateinschule. His successor, Michael Voigt, was Michael junior's first musical teacher. He matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1582, where he became acquainted with Bartolomäus Gesius, another composer of hymns.

In 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolffenbuttel as organist. His reputation was rising steadily, and in 1604 he was appointed Kapellmeister. Around 1610 he published a large number of collections of music. When his employer died his successor allowed him to work elsewhere for some time. He was in Dresden, where he met Schütz. He also worked in Magdeburg, Halle, Sondershausen and Kassel, and he visited Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth. It is probably due to overwork that his health deteriorated, which led to his death at the age of 49. His high reputation is reflected by the fortune he left, which was largely to be used to set up a foundation for the poor.

Praetorius' oeuvre is unique for its wide variety of forms ad scorings. This is mainly the result of his pursuit to provide directors of music with pieces they were able to perform with the forces they had at their disposal. Therefore we find simple four-part settings of Lutheran hymns and bicinia - largely written for pedagogical purposes - as well as large-scale polychoral pieces in Venetian style. Larger-scale works often included passages for solo voices which show the influence of the Italian stile concertato. In addition Praetorius offered the possibility to adapt his music to local circumstances. Many pieces contain ad libitum parts, which could be left out if only a small number of performers were available. This way his music could be used in large as well as in smaller churches.

The oeuvre of Praetorius is huge: he published no less than 12 volumes under the title of Musae Sioniae; the scorings vary from four to twelve voices. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is taken from one of these volumes. The largest-scale pieces are to be found in the collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica of 1619, with pieces for up to 21 voices. Four pieces on this disc are from this collection: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Puer natus in Bethlehem, Vom Himmel hoch and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. In these we find the whole array of forces which were used by directors of music at the time: passages for solo voices, episodes for ripieno voices - often used in refrains - and extended parts for instruments. These not only play colla voce but also have independent parts, sometimes as a ritornello, and Praetorius also writes embellished parts for some instruments, like the violin and the cornett.

A special collection was printed in 1621 under the title of Puericinium, which contains pieces for four equal voices, more specifically - as the title indicates - trebles. Lutheran hymns are set in the manner of the stile concertato; the voices are only accompanied by basso continuo. Here again Praetorius offers additional possibilities, like the use of a chorus adultorum, a string ensemble (capella fidicinia) and extra basso continuo instruments.

With the choice of pieces from various sources this disc provides an interesting survey of Praetorius' oeuvre. It also sheds light on the multi-coloured performance practice of his time, as various options suggested by the composer are practiced. In the three pieces from Puericinium (Pueri nostri concinite, Quem pastores laudavere, Nun helft mir Gottes Güte schon preisen) we hear not only various solo trebles from the choir, but also the full choir as chorus adultorum and additional instruments.

On the whole the performances are quite impressive. The singers and players strike the right chord here, which is not self-evident in performances of non-German interpreters. I was especially pleased by the phrasing and articulation and the accentuation of single words, which is very much what is needed in German music but sorely missing in so many performances. The German pronunciation is a bit of a problem, though. In particular some vowels are wrong, for instance the "e" which is often too sharp - as the "a" in "and" instead of the "a" in "make". In Nun helft mir Gottes Güte schon preisen both pronunciations are used at the same time - very odd. But that doesn't take anything away from my great appreciation of this disc. The singing of the solo trebles is very good, and the full choir is sounding great. The acoustics of Westminster Cathedral have been effectively used. In the pieces for solo trebles we hear the four voices from different spots.

The Parley of Instruments delivers colourful performances of the instrumental parts. They are heard independently in the dances from Terpsichore, in our time by far the most famous collection of music by Praetorius. When the music of the renaissance and early baroque was rediscovered these dances were frequently played, usually at a wide variety of instruments, from cornetts and sackbuts to recorder and viol consorts. It seems unlikely this is in line with Praetorius' intentions. These dances are mostly not composed by him, but rather arrangements of existing material, in particular by the French violinist Pierre Francisque Caroubel. Praetorius himself indicates the French origin of these dances and that implies the use of an instrumental ensemble as was in vogue in French dance music. So we hear violin, two violas and a large bass violin. As The Parley of Instruments also uses renaissance violins rather than baroque violins the sound is rather mild and close to renaissance viols.

From every point of view this is an intriguing and captivating disc. Praetorius' sacred music makes a great impression; in large scorings it can be outright overwhelming. His dance music is very entertaining, and the way it is played here offers a new impression of the character of this music. It is great that this disc is available again. I would have liked Hyperion being more specific about the singers - no names are given - and about exactly which dances are performed. Just telling the listener that 'dances' are played doesn't suffice.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Westminster Cathedral Choir
The Parley of Instruments

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