Michael Praetorius: composer, organist, theorist, Renaissance man extraordinaire

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Best known for a moment of festive perfection, the music of the German composer Michael Praetorius was, explains Paul Riley, shaped by the Lutheran era in which he lived

It’s surely no little irony that one of the most prolific composers of his age should be principally remembered – the toe-tapping dance card of Terpsichore aside – for a humble Christmastide chorale harmonisation of some dozen bars.

Spare yet serene, its effortless nobility haunts. And an abidingly-hopeful harmonic twist applied to the penultimate cadence is as magical as the season itself. Yet for all that, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (‘A rose has sprung up’) is a mere droplet in the ocean that constitutes Michael Praetorius’s prodigious output – a droplet that nonetheless caught Brahms’s ear at the end of his life when he came to compose a set of valedictory organ chorale preludes. Schoenberg fell under the spell too, wrapping it up in a delicious festive chamber miniature entrusted to harmonium, piano and strings; and it’s woven through Hugo Distler’s 1933 Christmas oratorio Die Weihnachtsgeschichte.

Ironic, undeniably, but perhaps fitting too. For the chorale in all its manifestations is at the heart of Praetorius’s work. It could hardly have been otherwise – the Reformation was wired into his DNA.

When was Michael Praetorius born?

Michael Praetorius was born in Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, Germany in possibly 1571. His father, a pastor, was a strict Lutheran who had studied under Luther in Wittenberg. The young Michael therefore knew at close quarters the teething pains of Protestantism.

Indeed, the family had to move more than once on account of his father’s uncompromising beliefs. Praetorius picked up a little music at school, but divinity and philosophy studies at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder suggest preparation for the family ‘trade’.

When did What was Michael Praetorius become an organist?

In the event, he didn’t graduate but instead, in 1587 at the age of 16, became university organist at the Marienkirche. (It’s widely assumed that he was born in 1571, but alternative dates are plausible, and 1569 might be nearer the mark if the testimony of a woodcut showing the composer as a dapper, self-assured 35 year-old is to be believed).

For some reason, he quit the post in 1590 and the trail grows cold until he resurfaced a few years later at Wolfenbüttel – today home to the Jägermeister distillery, then a lively centre for the arts ruled over by the cultured Duke Heinrich Julius, a playwright, leading light of the early German Baroque and a man with a nose for talent.

Appointed court organist in 1595, Praetorius bided his time and in 1604 was rewarded with the Kapellmeistership, presiding over a nucleus of 15 or so musicians pretty much equally divided between singers and instrumentalists. Despite significant absences, Wolfenbüttel would be home for the rest of his life.

Not that Praetorius let the domestic grass grow under his feet. ‘Have Kapellmeister, will travel’ could have been the Duke’s motto, and he almost certainly took Praetorius with him to Prague.

Moreover, Praetorius forged links with Landgrave Moritz of Hesse in nearby Kassel, throwing open an instructive window onto a topic much exercising fellow German composers: what their Italian colleagues were up to. When Heinrich Julius died in 1613 during another mission to Prague schmoozing the Hapsburgs, the Elector of Saxony pounced and lured Praetorius (‘on loan’) to Dresden, where the composer’s impressive second-hand knowledge of Italian music could be brought bang up to date – another ‘loaned’ acquisition was Heinrich Schütz, recently returned from studying with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice.

What did Praetorius write?

Of course, Praetorius’s Italianate pedigree was already long in the public domain. Shortly after becoming Kapellmeister at Wolfenbüttel he published the first of what would turn out to be nine volumes of Musae Sioniae which he completed in 1610.

Over 1,200 works stand testimony to the ways in which chorale melodies might provide the underpinning for treatments that range from the grandeur of contrasting massed choirs down to the continuo-accompanied motet and unaccompanied duo. His ambition was daunting.

Nothing short of furnishing music for all the contingencies of the church year would suffice. And in 1611 alone, four more volumes followed – the Eulogodia SioniaHymnodia SioniaMegalynodia Sionia and Missodia Sionia – amplifying the Lutheran Latin liturgy. Here, incidentally, is early evidence for the incorporation of German song verses or ‘Laude’ into the Latin Magnificat at Christmas and Easter, a practice still going strong when JS Bach unveiled his Magnificat in E flat to the citizens of Leipzig on Christmas Day 1723.

What was Michael Praetorius known for?

And as it happens, a lavish setting of the German translation of the Magnificat crowns arguably Praetorius’s greatest publication which appeared in 1619 – considered by many to constitute a worthy answer to Monteverdi’s collection of 1610 showcasing the celebrated Vespers music. Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, ‘containing forty Concertos of Solemn Peace and Joy’ composed for up to six choirs and comprising ‘all sorts of instruments and human voices, also trumpets and kettledrums’, draws exuberantly on everything he’d learned and continued to learn in Dresden.

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren overflows with Italian thumbprints including a sizeable continuo contingent, arresting echo effects, elaborately embellished vocal writing and attractive instrumental ritornelli binding sections together. Little wonder, writing of one particularly grand service, the Dresden Chaplin observed that ‘the Emperor and King listened with astonished ears’ to the way this ‘instrument of God’ marshalled his forces.

Polyhymnia caduceatrix (and its didactic companion Polyhymnia exercitatrix) returned composition to the centre of Praetorius’s concerns after a period in which an almost forensic interest in the nature of music had taken precedence. From 1614 work progressed on his great musical encyclopaedia, the Syntagma musicum – a task, he claimed, only made possible by forgoing sleep, food and drink! Three volumes made it to the printers, and the result was not only a landmark for Praetorius’s contemporaries but, much later, a fertile resource as the early music revival hit its stride in the 20th century. Written in Latin, but peppered with Greek and Hebrew, Volume One is devoted to ancient music and the church, its erudition never knowingly hidden under a bushel as Turkish circumcision rites and the music of Islam come under the spotlight.

Mindful that ‘makers and players are for the most part not conversant with the Latin language’, Volume Two’s survey of musical instruments takes pity and is written in German. The organ is particularly well served, and Praetorius weighs in against the poor remuneration of organists ‘treated as more contemptible and mean than the lowest unskilled labourer’. But there’s a rich seam of exotica too, with nods to the straw fiddle, the viola bastarda and the marine trumpet. Volume Three examines the practicalities of music-making including advice on performance practice, but Volume Four, on composition, was never completed.

His tendency toward the encyclopaedic, implicit in the rigorously organised collections of sacred music explicit in the Syntagma musicum, even extends to his one excursion into the secular sphere. Terpsichore is a 1612 compilation of 312 dance tune arrangements leaning heavily on material brought to Duke Heinrich Julius’s Court by the French dancing master Antoine Emeraud and the violinist Pierre-Francisque Caroubel. But true to form, Praetorius was hatching a larger scheme: several volumes, each named after a Greek Muse, would probe toccatas and canzonas (Thalia), Italian and English dances (Euterpe), and German song (Erato). Only Terpsichore ever saw the light of day.

Among other unfinished projects, the late Polyhymnia was intended to range over 15 volumes had death not intervened in 1621. (Occasioned, suggest some, by a decade and more of conspicuous overwork).

Yet in addition to a setting of Psalm 116, written ‘as a farewell to myself’ and published posthumously, Praetorius had one last collection up his sleeve. Championing the freshness of solo boys’ voices set against larger forces, and with five numbers stylishly servicing the period from Advent to New Year, Puericinium has an eloquent simplicity that complements Polyhymnia’s rich complexity. This can be heard not least in the wide-eyed, bubbly setting of the Nativity-celebrating Quem pastores laudavere, a joyful rejoinder to the hallowed poise of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Together they remind us that composer, scholar and (alongside Heinrich Schütz) unofficial guardian of the Lutheran musical conscience, Praetorius might well be a man for all seasons – but he’s one for Christmas above all.

When did Praetorius die?

In 1621 Praetorius died, possibly on the day of his 50th birthday, and is buried beneath the organ in St Marien in Wolfenbüttel.

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