February 15th marked the 400th anniversary of Michael Praetorius’s death. It passed without fanfare or flourish, though this musical titan was a master of both. His gifts served the devotional, but, from the intimate to the monumental, his music radiates exuberance and erudition.
The earliest biographical accounts of Praetorius, both written a hundred years after his death and both of questionable accuracy, claimed that he died on his fiftieth birthday, thus neatly folding future century and half-century commemorations of his birth and death into a single date. Whatever the chronology, his is a life and legacy worth celebrating.
(Celebrations in the small German city of Wolfenbüttel where he produced most of his vast corpus of music have been deferred until April, by which time it is hoped that the pandemic will have waned.)
Born in Creuzburg near the birthplace of Martin Luther, Praetorius’s father was a pastor and strict follower of the Reformer. The family moved several times in the wake of theological squabbles and the elder Praetorius’s removal from a series of pulpits. Son, like father, saw his musical mission in theological terms. The composer’s initials M. P. C. stood not just for Michael Praetorius of Creuzburg, but for Mihi Patria Coelum—heaven is my homeland.
In the woodcut portrait adorning his first published volume of sacred works, Musae Sionae of 1605, Praetorius meets the eyes of powerful and poor, Kurfürst and chorister, alike. He wears the clothes of a gentleman with rings on his fingers and medals from his princely patrons draped across his sumptuous waistcoat and dangling from his fancy belt with its presumably silver buckle. He sports the fanned goatee and artfully wild hair of the still-young century’s fashion. Here is a fully accessorized artist well on his way to accumulating considerable wealth, a pair of elegant and unnecessary gloves flaunted in his left hand, while his right presses open an oblong music book. The tools of the craft that produced this erudite canon—and secured his legacy and financial success—are nearby. The inkwell with loaded quill pen on the desk at his side awaits composerly action and informs the viewer that more music could and would be dashed off by his brilliant mind and diligent hand.
Dash Praetorius did. The debut Musae Sionae volume of the 1605 was followed by eight more in the same series over the next five years. In the decade-and-a-half until his death Praetorius issued a dozen other publications for musical forces ranging from a single voice with sparse instrumental accompaniment to as many as twenty-one independent polyphonic lines. Across diverse genres for a variety of ensembles, he encouraged adaptability in performance depending on the resources available in German courts and cities. The important thing was to bring the music to sounding life, to make it move performers and listeners—that division not a hard-and-fast one, as congregations were often encouraged to participate when Praetorius introduced folk tunes and hymn melodies. In the third volume of his magisterial treatise of music theory, Syntagma musicum, Praetorius allowed himself nearly thirty pages to list his own works, among them several now-lost theological tracts. Plans for a fourth volume of the treatise, which would turn from the earlier installments’ concern with genres, terminology and instruments to the mechanics of composition, were never realized.
The woodcut seems to portray a man of diminutive stature, at least by modern standards. Yet Praetorius was a towering figure. He was first employed by one of the great musical patrons of his or any age—Heinrich Julius, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. This art-loving prince had his court in the city of Wolfenbüttel (home to the world’s largest library in the seventeenth century) and it is there that Praetorius is laid to rest beneath the magnificent organ designed by him and completed the year before his death.
In 1596, at the beginning of his tenure as court organist for of the Duke, Praetorius had served as the local musical host at the dedication of a huge and opulent new organ in the Duchy. This conclave brought more than fifty leading musicians from across a swath of Germany that extended from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. The young man welcomed this elite and was in turn welcomed into its ranks. Among Praetorius’s vocal works he also published a handful of monumental organ chorales whose scope relies on the dexterous skill and expansive ingenuity he would have demonstrated for his new-found colleagues in 1596. These are the first full-blown organ works published in Germany, and with them Praetorius proudly realized his own ambitions at what he called the “instrument of instruments.”
By the time of Heinrich Julius’s sudden demise in 1613, Praetorius had also been in the employ of the powerful Saxon Electors in Dresden. The musician was also in demand across north Germany as an organ expert and as what we might now be called a conductor, though the term of his day was Kapellmeister, a role that entailed the whole spectrum of musical obligations whose fulfilment demanded wide-ranging talent and expertise in composition, performance, education, and spiritual and organizational direction.
As a devout Lutheran, Praetorius dedicated his vocal music—an astounding 1,0000 works—to the chorale. These shared melodies provided the principle means for involving the believers in the liturgy as they hadn’t been in the Catholic past. Praetorius best-known piece is of modest proportions that convey a tender devotional sincerity. Lo, ist ein Ro’s entsprungen (rendered in in Theodore Baker’s 1894 translation into Victorian English as Lo, how a rose e’er blooming) is now a stalwart of hymnals across many languages and has long been a staple of global Christmas culture from carol services to shopping malls. That a composer of such diverse, prolific output should be most remembered (if at all) chiefly for this now over-roasted German chestnut has as much to do with the vagaries of history as the workings of capitalism. Even if one might complain that this droplet alone was plucked from the ocean of Praetorius’s oeuvre, there is no denying the endearing warmth of its sonorities and the poignant deployment of dissonance: here was a direct path towards touching expression that literally embodied his religious faith in the chorale as musical covenant between composer, congregation, and God.
As a court musician, Praetorius had duties outside chapel, and it is another irony that such fame as he still enjoys derives also from an Archiv release from 1960, Dances of the Renaissance, which introduced to antiquarians and future counter-culturalists alike the unkempt sounds of krummhorns, curtals, racketts, and other unlikely instruments pictured in the second volume of Praetorius’s Syntagma musicum. (Never mind that if Praetorius has to be assigned to one arbitrary epoch or another, it would rather be to the baroque.) What better way to pep up the blandness of the last Eisenhower year than with raucous dance tunes from the swinging seventeenth century? The record was still popular in the 70s, and I remember crashing around the living room with my siblings to Praetorius’s bourrées and branles.
Praetorius’s contributions to that classic LP were drawn from his 1612 collection Terpsichore, his take on the repertoire imported by French dancing masters and violinists then working at the Wolfenbüttel court. Typical of his encyclopedic aspirations, Praetorius planned to extend this series to eight volumes with English and Italian dances learned from other foreign musicians busy in his part of Germany. Though Praetorius never left his native land, he was a cosmopolitan in and through music.
Secular soirées notwithstanding, Praetorius’s labors remained bound to the church. But here, too, his influences were broadly European, drawing especially on the latest Italian concerto style fashionable in St. Mark’s in Venice and brought across the Alps by Praetorius’s Dresden colleague, Heinrich Schütz.
Praetorius’s genius for collaboration and elaboration involving rigorous counterpoint and instrumental virtuosity, professional musicians and congregations is to be marveled at in another, later Archiv release from 1994—a selection of Praetorian works (along with a few by contemporaries) assembled by Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort as a Mass for Christmas Morning as it could have been celebrated around 1620. (You won’t hear that blooming rose on this disc). This rigorously researched and imaginatively re-enacted service was staged and recorded in the cavernous Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark and makes use of the local congregation for the chorale singing, and, even more crucially, the magnificent organ whose oldest pipes date from the middle of the sixteenth century, but which has fascinating additions from a hundred years later, thus framing Praetorius’s lifespan.
On this recording Praetorius’s joyful art is heard in all its kaleidoscopic colors: instruments with strings (both bowed and plucked); reeds and brass consorts; and literally above it all in the highest of many balconies, the “instrument of instruments.” An ever-changing array of musicians delivers the Good News: soloists sing with ardent clarity and ornament; duets are lofted on arcs of instrumental encouragement; chorale forces multiply and thin out, massed acclamation giving way to intimate prayers and everything in between; folk tunes are woven into fabrics as rich as twelve polyphonic voices. And yet in all this variety there is an artistic unity born of belief, craft and imagination.
Praetorius’ all-encompassing diligence is often cited as the reason for the collapse of his health in his last years: his earthly lifeblood had been sapped by unceasing labors. Death was never truly unexpected in his day, but it still came too early, many projects underway, much potential untapped. But he left more than enough.
In February of 1621, the Thirty Years’ War was just underway, and it would inflict great suffering on the regions of German where Praetorius had made so much magnificent music,s its performance also a casualty of the epic conflict. Praetorius’s large estate—a testament to his productivity and resourcefulness—went to establish an educational foundation. Gone to his heavenly homeland, Praetorius wanted to ensure that music flourished down below, in times of war and, when it finally, fitfully came, in peace.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)