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Michael Praetorius from Choir Loft and Organ
Accented by two virtuosic works for organ, this program of dramatic chorale settings for multiple choirs with continuo and grand organ by Michael Praetorius (c. 1571–1621) captures the extraordinary musical vision of this early North German master of the colossal Baroque. The pieces chosen follow the form and substance of Luther's Deudsche Messe (German Mass): the Introit “Nun freut euch lieben Christen g'mein” is followed by the eight-part Kyrie; the Gloria is “Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Her”; “Erstanden ist der heilge Christ” and “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” take the place of gradual motets; “Wir gläuben all an einen Gott” is the German Credo; “Herzlich lieb hab ich dich” represents the Offertory, “Jesaia dem Propheten” the Sanctus, “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” the Agnus Dei; and finally the communion hymn, Nunc dimittis, is represented by the grandiose “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin.”
In 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546), theologian and founder of the Lutheran Church, nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of his Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The theses, giving notice of his wish to debate the Church's practice of selling indulgences, quickly started his reformation of the church and prompted the Roman Church to counteract with the Council of Trent and the counter-reformation movement. More importantly in this context, Luther started a new tradition of music in the church, and provided a German liturgy—the Deudsche Messe published in 1526. He considered music to be “the excellent gift of God” and believed that the knowledge of music was of utmost importance in the education of young people and for worship. He encouraged congregational participation in the service through the singing of vernacular hymns, and to create a body of Protestant hymnody, he adapted Latin and earlier vernacular texts and secular folk songs, together with their melodies, and wrote original hymns as well. At least 36 texts are clearly attributed to him.
Luther imposed no restrictions on the performance of elaborate concerted music in the church. Through his encouragement and example, there emerged both a great body of German hymns—the “chorales”—and a still vital tradition of church music utilizing these chorales in many forms. He supervised the first collection of polyphonic settings of the melodies in Walter's popular Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524). All but one of today's pieces are based on chorales—tunes that were familiar to all churchgoers and that everybody associated automatically with the corresponding text. Praetorius knew that everybody would recognize his raw material and counted on that for audience appreciation of his compositions. Our contemporary non-Lutheran appreciation is thus different, for we perceive the compositions as magnificent buildings with decorations, friezes and gables, but without being able to recognize the material that makes up the sustaining structure.
From Luther there was no going back—in the 17th century the musical scope of Lutheranism continued to widen rapidly. Michael Praetorius, featured in today's program, followed in this tradition, becoming interested very early on in Protestant hymns and their melodies. His musical character, however, is only understood if one first sees him as the academically cultivated Lutheran Kantor he was. Fundamental to Praetorius is his life's work with divine service, especially with the hymn, is fundamental, as is also his aspiration to a universality incorporating all aspects of music into his ideas and practice. Born in Thuringia as Michael Schultheiss (Latinized as Praetorius), he was the son of a Lutheran pastor. At age 24 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel as an organist, and in 1604 he also assumed the duties of court Kapellmeister. Upon the death of his patron in 1613, Praetorius entered the service of the Elector Johann Georg of Saxony at the Dresden court, where he would remain until 1616, when he returned to Wolfenbüttel. While in Dresden, he also served as Kapellmeister to the administrator of the Magdeburg bishopric and prior of the monastery at Ringelheim. Praetorius returned to his old position in Wolfenbüttel, but due to regular travel and failing health, was not reappointed in 1620. He died a wealthy man the following year, and directed that the greater portion of his fortune go to organizing a foundation for the poor.
Praetorius's musical style was strongly influenced by the Germans Schütz and Scheidt, and by the latest Italian music, which he came into contact with in Dresden in the 1610s. His creative power was impressive and his output is astonishing (the list of works he had already written as well as those he still planned to write consumed 28 pages of his treatise Syntagma musicum of 1614–15). Most of Praetorius's sacred music is based on Protestant hymns (chorales). His work clearly forms the climax in the history of Protestant church music of alternatim (the practice of alternating the performance of sections of works for different forces). All the works on today's program, except for the Kyrie, come from the collection Musae Sioniae for 4–16 voices of 1605/11—a ten-volume monumental collection of over 1,200 settings of Lutheran chorales taking about twenty inches of shelf space, and the only collection of his containing Latin works.
The introit “Nun freut euch lieben Christen g'mein” (Dear Christians, one and all) for SATB, soloists and organ is based on the tune by the same name found in Joseph Klug's collection Geistliche Lieder (sacred hymns or songs) published in Wittenberg in 1529. The music is based on a pre-Reformation folksong “Nun freut euch, Frauen, unde Mann.” The chorale is one of Martin Luther's own composed for Christmas. It first appeared in 1523 and later in 1524 with the title “A Christian hymn of Dr. Martin Luther, setting forth the unspeakable grace of God and the true faith.” This hymn is considered the greatest confessional hymn of the Lutheran Church, and it beautifully mirrors Luther's inner spiritual development. It later became the standard tune for the German version of the “Dies irae.” Praetorius's setting features different textures for the various verses—the first is sung in unison, the second by the four-part choir in fairly chordal fashion, the third by ATB, the fourth is again a four-part chordal harmonization, as is the sixth and last, while the fifth for SAB explores more virtuosic possibilities and alternates between duple and triple meters.
The “Kyrie” is the first movement of an eight-part mass (for SSAB ATTB) and does not seem to be based on any known melody. It employs two unequal choirs, the first heavily weighed towards the treble range, the second with no sopranos at all. This setting is in the Venetian polychoral style of antiphonal and homophonic choirs (choirs responding to each other with virtually no contrapuntal movement within the parts, like blocks of chords tossed to and fro). Each movement gets progressively more lively and rhythmically interesting, with the second Kyrie featuring staggered entrances and the shortest note values in the piece.
The Gloria—“Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Her” (All glory be to God on high for SSAB ATTB)—is based on a chorale by Nikolaus Decius (c. 1485–after 1546), a North German monk and early convert to Lutheranism. After studying at Wittenberg, he was sent by Luther to Stettin in 1524 to preach the reformed religion in the Duchy of Pomerania. Around 1521 Decius wrote the earliest hymns of the Reformation: three Low German texts replacing the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei of the Latin liturgy. His paraphrase of the Gloria in Excelsis, “Aleyne God yn der Höge zy eere,” was first published in 1525. A High German version of the hymn appeared in 1539. The melody is an adaptation, probably by Decius himself, of the plainsong Gloria from the “Missa in tempori paschali” of the Roman Catholic Church. Praetorius also set this tune in a simple four-part chordal setting for church services, published in the Hamburg Melodeyen Gesangbuch of 1604. The triple meter and bouncy character of the tune has caused it to be referred to as “the Lutheran waltz.” Today's setting for double unequal choirs employs a variety of techniques, from imitative duets to eight-part chordal movement, from full imitative texture to antiphonal choirs. Alternation of duple and triple meters also adds variety.
“Erstanden ist der heilge Christ” (Jesus Christ is risen today), for SSAB ATTB is the German version of the famous 14th-century Latin carol “Surrexit Christus hodie.” Possibly of Bohemian origin, it may have been part of a mystery play for Easter. It functions in the present context as a gradual motet, together with the following piece. Praetorius's composition introduces first the bare chorale tune, followed by an eight-part harmonization. The following verse (at “Es gingen drei heilige Frauen”—there were three women) is sung by a sequence of several different small groups, intended for soloists. The composition concludes with the last verse, again set in homophonic eight-part texture.
The chorale on which “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” is based is the greatest hymn of the Reformation and is often taken as a musical symbol of Lutheranism. It is an office chorale to precede the Credo. The earliest extant source for Luther's text of this is Michael Blum's Enchiridion geistlicher gesenge und Psalmen (Leipzig, 1528 or 1529). The tune appeared with the text in Klug's Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, 1529) mentioned above. Works based on this same tune include Praetorius's five chorale preludes for the organ and J.S. Bach's magnificent cantata. In the late 19th century, the tune also found its way into Felix Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony (“Symphony in celebration of the Church Revolution”). The setting in today's program is another of Praetorius's majestic compositions for double unequal choir. The choirs engage in dialogue, counterpoint, and playful fight. Between verses one and two, the organ plays Praetorius's chorale fantasia on the same tune, one of five such organ fantasies written by the composer. The second verse of the chorale is set in loosely canonic fashion, with alto and bass in unison, followed by sopranos and tenors in unison.
Another chorale fantasia is included within the performance of “Wir gläuben all an einen Gott” (We all believe in one true God), a German Creed. Prior to Luther's time there existed a medieval one-stanza versification of the Nicene Creed, which Luther turned into three, devoting a stanza to each of its three articles. The hymn first appeared in Walter's Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (Wittenberg, 1524) mentioned above. Its position in the collection seems to indicate that Luther thought of this at first as a Trinity hymn. In 1525 the Erfurt Enchiridion put it under the heading “The Patrem, or the Creed,” and in his Deudsche Messe Luther prescribed that it be sung in the service as the creed. It was later included in the collection of burial hymns published by Klug in 1542. The tune is that of the single-stanza medieval hymn of which a version also appeared in Walter's Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn. Praetorius again first presents the unadorned and unharmonized chorale tune and verse. After the organ chorale fantasia, the next verse is set for four parts in a simple, almost chordal texture. The third verse starts with a very virtuosic and imitative passage, followed by an antiphonal section.
“Herzlich lieb hab ich dich” (Lord, Thee I love with all my heart) represents the offertory. The text by Martin Schalling (1532–1608) was written around 1567 “for the dying” and first appeared in 1571. Based on Psalms 18 and 73, it has been described as “a jewel of the Church from the heart of Schalling.” The composer of the tune is unknown, though the music first appeared in Strassburg in 1577. J.S. Bach's St. John Passion heartwarmingly and thrillingly concludes with a choral rendition of the third stanza of this beautiful chorale. The choral setting by Praetorius, again for two choirs, exploits all techniques for double choir. It also includes a number of Italianate madrigalisms, such as an acceleration of rhythm and an increase of flourishes for “erfreute mich” (makes me happy) even though it turns ironic since the text actually says “nicht erfreute mich” (does not make me happy). Notice also the grandiose full-texture invocations “Herr Jesu Christ”. The third verse (at “Ach Herr lass dein liebe Engelein”—Lord, let at last Thine angels come) is set in an appropriately angelic tone, as if a child were speaking.
“Jesaia dem Propheten” (Isaiah, mighty seer) is Luther's German Sanctus. It is a metrical paraphrase of the Latin text, based on Isaiah 6:1–4. It appeared first in his Deudsche Messe to be sung after the consecration of the bread. The tune, in the Lydian mode, represents a rather free adaptation of a plainsong Sanctus for the Sundays of Advent and Lent. Luther masterfully adapted the notes to the text, including some tone painting (such as the melody rising on “around whose throne shone” and the melodic height on “Holy is God”). Praetorius presents first an unadorned version of the tune with organ accompaniment, adding a second part, then a third, and finally a fourth. Then again an unadorned verse concludes the first text section. The following Hosanna is scored for five choral parts and is strictly homophonic.
“Christe, du Lamm Gottes” is a simple four-part chorale setting of the Agnus Dei.
“Mit Fried und Freud” (In peace and joy I now depart) for SATB SATB is a hymn whose text was written by Luther for the congregation to sing. The tune appeared in Walter's 1524 Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn in Dorian mode, and opinion differs as to whether it was written by Walter or Luther. Though conceived for the Gospel appointed for the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2, it was also sung as a funeral hymn and was included in Klug's collection mentioned above. Its rhythmic pattern is reflective of the 16th-century polyphonic cantus firmi. The piece by Praetorius is a grandiose double-choir imitative setting, making use of all choral techniques and textures, from the majestic full texture to call-and-response, to antiphonal chordal movement and more. It is a fitting conclusion to this program which presents pieces ranging from the simplest plainchant to the most brilliant and sparkling choral ensemble.
—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2000
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