top of page

The Most Illustrious

The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

Christine Tolstoy

"Of the many composers resident in northern Germany during the first years of the German Baroque, the most illustrious was Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)."


Chance and circumstance made him the ideal mediator between North and South, Renaissance and Baroque.

not yet released.png

Of the many composers resident in northern Germany during the first years of the German Baroque, the most illustrious was Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). Prae­torius lived to see himself acknowledged as one of the leading Kapellmeisters of Protestant Germany, but the passage of time has added yet another dimension to his fame: he was to the Protestant North of Germany what Hans Leo Hassler was to the Catholic South, the master who laid the foundation upon which future generations of composers, from Schutz, Scheidt and Schein (the three celebrated S's of German Baroque music) to Johann Sebastian Bach were to raise a glorious edifice. Praetorius was a man of tremendous energy, a prolific composer with literally thousands of compositions to his credit. Nevertheless he is probably best known today as the author of an encyclopedic three-volume treatise designed to cover the entire corpus of musical knowledge, historical, theoretical and practical, a work which historians consider the most important musical treatise of the early German Baroque.

Time and place conspired to make Praetorius a pivotal figure. He was born at a time when the last of the great Renaissance composers were still writing the influential works of their maturity and lived to see the first years of the German Baroque. He spent much of his life. furthermore, at the court of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbiittel, halfway between Hamburg, the bastion of North German organists. and Dresden, the Central German seat of the resplendent Elector of Saxony. Chance and circumstance made him the ideal mediator between North and South, Renaissance and Baroque.

The German Renaissance was a curiously inconclusive period. It began brilliantly enough with the early and successful adoption by German composers of the new Franco-Flemish polyphony which was sweeping Europe during the latter fifteenth century. But German intellectual life was radically interrupted when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517. Even after Luther's death German composers continued to suffer from a paralyzing ambiguity of purpose, and neither Protestant nor Catholic Germany produced any composers of importance until the latter part of the sixteenth century, when the German Renaissance gradually resumed its course. As a result, while Italy was entering upon the Baroque, Germany was still working out the implications of the Renaissance, and the musical tradition which the young Praetorius inherited from the past must have seemed to him, despite its age, still vigorous and full of possibilities. It consisted of two very different strains: simple and expressive music whose only function was the praise of God, and the Franco-Flemish imitative polyphony fashion­able in Catholic Germany, a sophisticated and worldly art as suitable for secular as for sacred music.

Praetorius' devotion to the Lutheran chorale never wavered. His first publication was a nine volume collection containing a staggering 1,244 chorale settings, and throughout the rest of his life he wrote very little that was not somehow or other based upon Protestant chorales. As for his interest in Franco-Flemish counterpoint, he himself, in the preface to one of his early works, acknowledged his debt to Lassus and Victoria, late Renaissance composers in the Catholic style who lived on into Praetorius' lifetime. To this twofold legacy from the past Praetorius, restless, creative, and indus­trious as only a Teuton can be industrious, gradually added the best of every new musical style which came within his ken.

It was in Praetorius' lifetime that German composers first began to make pilgrimages to Italy in search of new musical styles and techniques, but Praetorius to his regret never had the opportunity of studying with an important Italian master. Luckily he lived in the very heart of Germany, easily accessible to influence from both north and south. Luckily, too, he did not live to see Germany torn apart by the long, confused, and bitter struggle known as the Thirty Years' War, a violent religious and political conflict between petty Protestant princes and the Catholic Hapsburg Empire. In Prae­torius' time, on the contrary, the political decentralization of Germany was a positive influence, the source of a stimulating diversity. Weddings, funerals, and magnifi­cent ceremonial occasions at the courts and chapels of a host of Electors, Dukes. and princes of every degree, as well as services and celebrations in Germany's many cathedrals and parish churches, provided work for an army of composers, Protestant and Catholic, Germanic and Italianate, conservative and innovative. The possibi­lities for cultural cross-currents were enormous, and Praetorius seemed to sum them up in one man.

The companion to this essay "Three Claims to Fame" described the difficulty of reviewing the organ music of Michael Praetorius, since there's a little more than one hour of it - and this essay does a fine job of describing Praetorius as a transitional figure, or a hybrid figure who was musically able to combine the Protestant and Catholic music traditions of Germany during the Renaissance.

But...what about the music? There are clues in "Three Claims", which lists what David Greene believes are Praetorius's "three claims to fame" and in the word used by every research resource to describe Praetorius, which is "prolific". As an added note, browsing through available recordings, you'll find Praetorius's music is often packaged as if he were Mr. Christmas, having arranged the equivalent of a German Baroque version of The Christmas Song with his work "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming)", which is a staple of organ and choral Christmas music. It's also included on hundreds of pop Christmas records as well - particularly since there's an English language version of this work, making it second to Silent Night as a German hymn/Christmas standard. (Maybe we will change David's essay title to "Four Claims").

So we'll separate our recommendations into two main categories - Praetorius's chorales for voice, described above as a marvelous joining of a Protestant and Catholic musical tradition, and his Terpsichore, a charm-laden and often exhilarating collection of folk music. (See "Three Claims to Fame" for our recommendation for organ music - and a great YouTube video on that subject.)

In regards to Terpsichore, Praetorius' collection of folk song arrangements, the hands down heavyweight champion recording is L'Oiseau Lyre's version featuring the New London Consort. Great sound, exceptional performances, and lively. Some recordings make this music sound like you're trapped at an endless Renaissance Faire/flea market. This recording actually throws itself into the works, instead of giving them the back of the hand. You will return to this recording often, as it is consistently enjoyable.

The aptly named Praetorius Consort offers one of the few other Praetorius only releases (usually his dances are mixed with other upbeat folk tunes from the Renaissance).

David Munrow was one of the pioneers of the historical instrument movement - and this release bridges the two categories. We have some delightful selections from Terpsichore, and also some fine motets from the main collections of Praetorius.

With the chorales and vocal work, here's a landmark recording that combines scholarship with performance practice - this is a bit hard to completely describe, but as an overview of Michael Praetorius' music, this is a fine starter that will continue to reward if you decide to learn more. Also included are the various composers (mentioned in this essay) who influenced Praetorius.

There's a lazy but fulfilling way to make this simple - here's a collection from the Arkiv label that offers a starter kit, all in one. Well...they do include music by the other members of the Praetorius compositional family. The instrumental music gets short shrift - less than 12 minutes total (again, see above and you won't need this for that). But the vocal music does give you a sense of the utter genius of Michael Praetorius.

His early life could hardly have been more uncompromisingly Protestant. The son of a Lutheran pastor, trained in theology by Luther himself, Praetorius grew up under the watchful eyes of two elder brothers, both Lutheran pastors. His early training, needless to say. was not in music but in Lutheran theology and philosophy. When his brothers died and Praetorius found himself alone at the age of 15 or 16, however, he immediately took a job as organist, and by the age of 24 had secured an excellent post as organist to the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbiittel. His very first publication shows that he was already. in imagination at least. roaming far beyond the confines of his Lutheran background: though the majority of compositions are based upon the Protestant chorale, the first four volumes are for double choruses in the Venetian manner, an idea which must have reached Praetorius by way of Catholic South Germany.

In later life Praetorius' contacts with Central and South Germany increased dramatically. When his patron died, the powerful Elector of Saxony did not even wait for the funeral before requesting the loan of the famous Wolfenbittel Kapellmeister's services for the court at Dresden. From this time on, Praetorius was much in demand as a musical consultant for splendid sacred and secular ceremonies. and it was during these years that he was finally able to take full advantage of Germany's cultural richness and diversity. A self-taught composer. he found himself in the company of Heinrich Schutz, pupil of the world famous Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, and Samuel Scheidt, pupil of the enormously influential Dutch organist, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. It was the closest Praetorius ever came to either Venice or Amsterdam, but he was accustomed to making the most of his opportunities. Within a surprisingly short time he had added to his heritage from the past (the Protestant chorale and Catholic Franco-Flemish polyphony) and an elegantly ornamented soprano line over a continua bass. The result was the German Baroque.

Praetorius' collected works, printed year by year under the aegis of an indulgent and art-loving prince, provide a fairly clear chronological picture of the oeuvre. His output was colossal, and with a thoroughness which was truly German, and a grandeur of vision which was in every sense Baroque, he organized it according to a series of bass. The result was the German Baroque.

Praetorius' collected works, printed year by year under the aegis of an indulgent and art-loving prince, provide a fairly clear chronological picture of the oeuvre. His output was colossal, and with a thoroughness which was truly German, and a grandeur of vision which was in every sense Baroque, he organized it according to a series of two keyboards, but this repertoire, though in all probability it actually existed, never reached print. Those organ works which do survive, however, are typically colossal. The organ hymns on Lutheran chorales, for example, are of enormous length, two to four times longer than the usual organ piece. Their towering sonorities, furthermore, suggest that they were written for an organ of extraordinary size, possibly one of the instruments with three keyboards, pedal, and thirty to fifty-five stops described by Praetorius in the Syntagma musicum. Finally, Praetorius' organ works are out­standing for their importance to the history of music. Samuel Scheidt's Tabulatura nova is often cited as containing the first examples of that quintessential German Baroque form, the organ prelude, but it is Praetorius' immense organ hymns which are the true font of the genre which was to inspire Johann Sebastian Bach. Written late in his life but early in the Baroque, Praetorius' mature works combine an awesome virtuosity of compositional technique with a powerful freshness and originality. He was favored by time and place and endowed by nature with inexhaustible energy, but it was his intellect, which allowed him to combine the legacy of the past with the promise of the future, and his talent, which imparted coherence and beauty to the whole, which made him one of the priflcipal founders of the German Baroque.

Christie Tolstoy is a harpsichordist, and an editor of bel canto operas.

bottom of page