Something Old / Something New

A Tale of Two Praetorius(es)

No, they’re not related, but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) co-existed in Germany, composing mainly Lutheran sacred music as the Renaissance was giving way to the Baroque. Each is the focus of some recent recordings.

If ever you hear the name “Praetorius” mentioned in a musical context but without a first name, the subject is Michael. Not only did he write a book about musical instruments and music theory that continues to be used by historians, but he collected and published two songs that remain in the canon of Christmas carols: “In dulce jubilo” and “Est ist ein Ros entsprungen” (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming).

Since Michael Praetorius valued old music, let’s start with the recent appearance of a classic recording on streaming platforms. Any true-blue early-music fan will know the name David Munrow. He helped to invent the field with tireless scholarship into lost works he dug up, playing them on instruments nobody had ever heard of. In 1967 he co-founded the Early Music Consort of London with fellow brilliant nerd Christopher Hogwood. Sadly, Munrow died in 1976, and the group disbanded.

This 1974 album, Praetorius – Dances and Motets (Erato), primarily contains some of Michael P.’s so-called Dances from Terpsichore. These are short instrumental pieces taken from Praetorius’ 1612 collection 300 newly arranged tunes. Instrumental music was just starting to leave its centuries-long state of not being considered important enough for the best composers to bother with, so Praetorius wouldn’t have felt ashamed to offer arrangements of pre-existing melodies rather than original music.

“Passamezze” is one of the Terpsichore dances, a duple-time number featuring brass, woodwinds, and drums. Although Praetorius wrote out the arrangements, he did not specify which instruments should play what. Therefore, any instrument that can play the pitches on the score are welcome to play. (Scoring for specific instruments would have been a new concept at the time, and still rare.)

Munrow and his band have a slightly heavy-handed sound here, I admit. But keep in mind that these early brass instruments were completely unfamiliar to modern players, so they hadn’t figured out how to control them for an elegant turn of phrase. Munrow’s experimenting allowed for the virtuosity of the following generations.

 

The Munrow record also includes some motets. For Praetorius’ generation, “motet” had come to mean a religious choral work with instruments. While motets were an old genre, instruments had been included in their scores only since the Gabrielis (Andreas and his famous nephew, Giovanni) started adding brass and basso continuo to the motets they wrote for San Marco in Venice. That would have been when Praetorius was a kid.

“Resonet in laudibus” is a seven-voice motet. Praetorius is not the first to set this popular Latin sacred song as polyphony, but he’s the first important composer to add instruments. You may recognize the basic melody as a Christmas carol. The solo singers in this thoughtful performance are Munrow himself and Peter Hurford, who is also leading the choir of St. Albans Cathedral.

 

Among M. Praetorius’ largest selections of works are the chorale concerts, sometimes misspelled as “choral concerts” because of confusion with the German. In English, a “chorale” is a sacred song used in Lutheran worship. And “concert” indicates that the piece uses both voices and instruments. Praetorius’ chorale concerts feature between 10-20 vocal parts, including chorus and soloists.

The ensemble Gli Scarlattisti, led by Jochen Arnold, has a recent recording of chorale concerts called Michael Praetorius: Gloria sei dir gesungen (Carus). “Komm, heiliger Geist” features soprano Anja Bittner and other unnamed soloists. Unfortunately, it’s rich material clumsily performed; the instruments seem to be playing under a different conductor from the singer, if not actually in a different church!

 

You’re better off choosing another new recording instead: Michael Praetorius: Erhalt uns Herr bey deinem Wort – Lutheran Choral Concerts (CPO label, for Deutschlandfunk Kultur). This is by the Bremen-based ensemble Weser-Renaissance. The chorus, vocal soloists, and instruments — strings, winds, and keyboard – are directed by Manfred Cordes.

To contrast with the messy track by Gli Scarlattisti above, here’s “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein,” a piece in a similar style that also features soprano. My only quibble is that they’ve chosen not to use brass instruments, which were so popular in German church music at the time. But, as I mentioned, it is a choice; Praetorius didn’t specify. (This album has no tracks on YouTube, so please use Spotify.)

In an impressive feat of thoroughness, the ensemble Wester-Renaissance has just released another new Praetorius album on the CPO label. It features music of Hieronymus, the other Praetorius. Hieronymus P. spent his entire life in Hamburg, about 140 miles north of Michael P.’s home in Wolfenbüttel. Although he was a quite gifted composer, he never reached Michael’s level of fame, either during their lifetimes or subsequently.

But some early-music artists are working to remedy that. Weser-Renaissance’s Missa in Festo Sanctissimae Trinitatis (Mass for the Festival of the most Holy Trinity), with Volker Jänig on organ, reconstructs a complete mass as it would have been done in early 17th-century Hamburg.

The Gloria from this Mass proves Hieronymus to be a composer of refined skill in that concerted church style inspired by the Gabrielis. It also shows off Weser-Renaissance’s smooth, confident sound and well-crafted phrasing:

Apparently 2018 was the Year of Hieronymus Praetorius: There’s not one, but two new recordings of his music! His Missa Tulerunt dominum meum was recorded for the first time ever by Siglo de Oro for Delphian Records. This British choir has only been around since 2014, but they’re already a group to watch. Under the direction of Patrick Allies, they sing a cappella on this album; unlike the Missa in Festo discussed above, this one was composed in the old pre-Gabrieli style, without basso continuo or obbligato instruments.

Again, the Mass is presented within the context of other music that might have been sung during the service, including motets by H. Praetorius, Lassus, Hassler, and others. There’s one live promo video featuring the Kyrie:

 

But you’ll want to play the whole beautiful album on Spotify:

Siglo de Oro’s website sports the slogan “Bringing unusual and neglected music to life.” Hieronymus Praetorius certainly qualifies, but if this two-a-year trend keeps up, his fame may someday catch up to Michael’s.