10 Pieces by Michael Praetorius: Performances and a Biography
A Prolific and Important Composer
Michael Praetorius was a German composer who lived from approximately 1571 to 1621. He has left us a wonderful collection of music scores as well as detailed information about the music theory, practice, and instrumentation of his time. Praetorius created sacred and secular music. The music is very enjoyable and the factual information is a valuable resource for historians.
Choosing some of the composer’s pieces for this article was a difficult task because so many great performances are available. I’ve chosen ten out of the many that I enjoy. There are eleven videos in the article because in one case I think both versions of the piece are excellent. The article also includes a brief description of the composer's life and some facts about the performers.
A Brief Biography of Michael Praetorius
Praetorius was born in Creuzberg, a town that is today located in the state of Thuringia in Germany. He was born in 1571 or close to this year. His father was a Lutheran pastor. His birth name was Michael Schultz (or perhaps Schultze or Schultheiss). According to Oxford University Press, “Praetorius” is a Latinized version of the composer’s family name.
The link between the family's original name and the new one may seem puzzling. The German name "Schultz" came from the title of the head man in a village. In Ancient Rome, a praetor was a magistrate. This may explain the connection between the names.
Michael Praetorius studied divinity and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. Despite these studies, he chose music for a career. Not long after his graduation, he got a job as organist and kapellmeister (music director) for the Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg. He was employed by royal courts for most of his life. This didn’t prevent him from travelling around Germany, where he was influenced by Italian music. He composed instrumental and vocal pieces and wrote about music.
Praetorius died in 1621, reportedly on his fiftieth birthday. He’s buried in a vault beneath the organ in St. Mary’s Church in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Much of his music and writing is still available. He created many excellent musical compositions. Some of the pieces attributed to Praetorius today were collected and modified by him instead of being entirely composed by him, however.
The Renaissance period lasted from around 1400 to 1600. The Baroque period lasted from approximately 1600 to 1750. These dates mean that Praetorius lived during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
Some Important Works
The composer’s publications have given us a very helpful insight into the music of the seventeenth century. His Musae Sinoniae (1605–1610) contains over a thousand vocal pieces. Terpsichore (1612) contains over three hundred dances from various countries. Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (1619) is a collection of sacred music and hymns.
The composer was a diligent writer as well as a musician. His Syntagma Musicum is a three-volume illustrated encyclopedia of music that contains a wealth of information. It was published over several years towards the end of the composer's life. Praetorius planned to create a fourth volume but never achieved this goal.
Dances From Terpsichore
Terspichore is an enjoyable collection of dances. An ensemble known as Voices of Music plays six of the dances in the video below. The group is an early music ensemble based in San Francisco. It performs Renaissance and Baroque music. One of its goals is to educate the public about the historical music that it plays.
The ensemble has chosen appealing tunes to present in the video. In order of appearance, the pieces are a ballet, courante, spagnoletta, volta, pavane, and bourée. The term "ballet" arose from the Italian word ballare, which means "to dance". In early music, the term doesn't have exactly the same meaning as it does today. The nature of a ballet has changed over time.
Ein Ist Ein Ros' Entsprungen
The title of this song means roughly "A rose has sprung up". It's associated with the Christmas season, especially Advent. The lyrics of the song refer to the lineage of Jesus and the role of Mary as the mother of Christ. The song is often sung in an English version entitled "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming". Though the rose is often assumed to represent Jesus, some people think that it may have originally been meant to represent Mary.
The version of the song below is sung by the Gesualdo Six, a vocal consort from the UK. The group was formed in 2014 and often performs early music, though not exclusively. Their name comes from the last name of the prince and composer Carlo Gesualdo (circa 1566–1613). The group was created to sing one of Gesualdo's works in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on Maundy Thursday. This day occurs just before Good Friday in the Christian tradition and commemorates the Last Supper.
The performance below was held in Ely Cathedral in England. A representative of the cathedral published the video and says that the men are singing under the medieval Octagon in the building. This is an ornate, octangular decoration in the ceiling of a tower. The octagon can be seen from inside the cathedral.
The King's Singers
I love the version of the song above, but I also enjoy the one created by The King's Singers that I've included below. The group was created in 1968 by six graduates of King's College, Cambridge. The members traditionally sing a cappella (without an instrumental accompaniment).
The members of the group change over time and come from various institutions today. None of the original members belong to the ensemble. There are still six men in the group, though only four perform in the video below. The ensemble chooses songs from a variety of genres.
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein
Sometimes a literal translation from one language to another results in a loss of meaning. One translation of the title of this piece that seems appropriate is "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice". The piece was composed by Martin Luther in 1523 and was originally a hymn. It was modified by Praetorius.
The beautiful performance below is the version created by Praetorius. It's significant because it's played on the famous Compenius organ located in the Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark. The organ was built in 1610, which was during the lifetime of the composer. It was refurbished in 1988 by Mads Kjersgaard.
The organist in the video is Jean-Charles Ablitzer. He's accompanied by William Dongois playing the cornett, an early music wind instrument that is not the same as the modern cornet. A photo of different types of cornetts is shown above.
"La Canarie" is another dance from Terspichore. The title of the piece refers to an energetic dance from the Canary Islands. The dance became popular in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Canary Islands are an archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Today they belong to Spain.
The musician in the video below is Eduardo Antonello. He plays multiple instruments–in this case, the harpsichord, viols, recorders, the drum, and other percussion instruments. Using modern technology, he's able to play all the parts of the piece and then join them together so that he appears to be an ensemble.
Ballet des Coqs
"Ballet des Coqs" (Ballet of the Cocks) also comes from Terpsichore. Many songs can be chosen when a collection contains more than three hundred pieces. Though I haven't been able to find much information about the ballet, the lively passages with brief pauses between them remind me very much of a chicken pecking at intervals as it explores its habitat.
The music in the video is performed by two ensembles: Piffaro and Sonnambula. Piffaro bills itself as a Renaissance band. Sonnambula says that it's a "historically-informed" ensemble. One of its goals is to perform little-known early music. Both groups are based in the United States.
A bransle is another type of dance. Bransles were often performed in a circle but were sometimes performed by a chain of dancers. They involved sideways or swaying movements. They were enjoyed by the general public before they became court dances. The example below is yet another piece in Terpsichore. Multiple articles could be written about the collection.
The bransle is performed by an ensemble known as Doulce Mémoire, which specializes in playing Renaissance music. The group is large and is based in France. It consists of musicians and singers and has been in existence for more than twenty-five years.
Verleih uns frieden gnädiglich
The title of this piece can be translated as "Give Us Peace Graciously". It comes from Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica. The collection is said to consist of music of "solemn peace and joy", which I think matches the mood of the piece below very well. I find it moving as well as solemn.
The piece is performed by a group called La Capella Ducale combined with a group called Musica Fiata. Capella Ducale is a German vocal ensemble founded in 1992. It's a supplement to the larger Musica Fiata, which was founded in 1976. The larger group performs music from the sixteenth and seventeenth century on historical instruments. The ensembles are directed by Roland Wilson.
The title of this song can be literally translated as "Sing Songs Only Begotten". It comes from the Musae Sioniae collection. The cheerful song celebrates the baby lying in a manger who will redeem us.
The singer is a musician named Julie Gaulke. On her website, she says that she enjoys making multitrack videos. In the piece below, she has sung each part of an ensemble production and then used computer technology to join the parts together.
Hallelujah: Christ Ist Erstanden
"Hallelujah: Christ Is Risen" is a powerful song of celebration, as its name suggests. It comes from Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica. While the song above rejoices in Christ's birth, the one below celebrates the idea that he has risen from the dead.
I planned to end the article with this song until I discovered the one below it, which is even more triumphant in nature. The performers in the "Hallelujah" video are once again Musica Fiata and La Capella Ducale. I think they do a beautiful job with the piece.
In Dulci Jubilo
The title of this piece is often translated as "In Sweet Jubiliation". The Christmas carol "All Christian Men Rejoice" is based on the piece. It's another song from Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica. The word jubilation in the title is very appropriate. The piece is dramatic and celebrates the birth of Christ.
The full name of the group that performs the piece is the Gabrieli Consort and Players, though it's sometimes referred to as simply Gabrieli. Based on a photo of the ensemble, this is a large group. The group's website says that Gabrieli is a "choir and period instrument orchestra". They play music from the Renaissance period to the current one. The ensemble is directed by Paul McCreesh and has been in existence for thirty-five years.
I like the Gabrieli version of the song very much. The other versions that I've heard haven't appealed to me. They have been too "over the top" for my taste. The one below gets the balance between celebration and loudness (that in some versions verges on noise) just right for me.
Beautiful and Memorable Music
Praetorius is one of my favourite early music composers. I haven't found a song created or modified by him that I dislike yet, apart from some versions of the last song, as I mentioned above.
Many more pieces by Michael Praetorius can be found online and in music stores. In addition, other versions of the pieces that I've included exist. A listener may like these versions as well and perhaps even prefer them. Exploring the music of Praetorius is interesting, enjoyable, and often educational. The musician has left us a wonderful legacy.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Crampton