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Hyperion Records

CDH55446 - Praetorius: Christmas Music
The Marriage of St Catherine of Siena (altarpiece detail) by Lorenzo (d1503)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London
CDH55446
(Originally issued on CDA66200)

Recording details: January 1986
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 2011
DISCID: 720B890A
Total duration: 48 minutes 26 seconds

'Well crafted music, sensitively performed and recorded' (Gramophone)

'Exciting and highly enjoyable' (The Good CD Guide)

'A delightful record' (Organists' Review)

‘My favourite ever Christmas recording. Lovely music, done with affection and great sympathy’ (Hi-Fi News)

‘A glorious early Baroque Christmas treat’ (Harmonia)

Christmas Music

Michael Praetorius was a hugely versatile German composer. His 1603 post as Kapellmeister in Wolfenbüttel necessitated extensive travel throughout Germany, enabling him to establish widespread acclaim as a conductor and musical advisor. Praetorius’s church music is much less known today than it should be, partly because of the sheer volume that he composed.

This beautiful selection of hymns, chorales and carols attempts to reproduce the effect of a performance under Praetorius’s direction; soloists are drawn from the choir and instruments of late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century design are used.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Michael Schultheiss, alias Praetorius, was born in Creuzburg (a small town to the north of Eisenach) in February 1571, the son of a pastor who had been a pupil of Martin Luther. Although Praetorius spent most of his hectic life roaming the courts of Germany performing, teaching and advising on such matters as organ construction, he never lost sight of his origins. He always signed himself ‘M.P.C.’ (Michael Praetorius of Creuzburg), and he devoted most of his life to furthering the cause of Lutheran church music. His vast output of printed music (apparently only a fraction of what he planned) provided his contemporaries with every type of liturgical music, from two-part bicinia to large-scale polychoral concerti for voices and instruments in the new Baroque style, while his three-volume treatise Syntagma Musicum (Wolfenbüttel, 1619) was designed to equip them with every piece of information—historical, theoretical and practical—that they might need as musicians. He died, perhaps worn out by his exertions, at Wolfenbüttel in 1621 while only in his fiftieth year. He had been, at least nominally, Kapellmeister of the Braunschweig-Lüneburg court there since 1603.

Praetorius’s church music is much less known today than it should be, partly because there is so much of it, partly because it is mostly available only in a hard-to-come-by pre-War complete edition, and partly because it has been overshadowed by Heinrich Schütz’s church music. Certainly, Praetorius’s collection of concertato chorale settings Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (Wolfenbüttel, 1619) suffers by comparison with Schütz’s great collection of German polychoral psalms Psalmen Davids of the same year until it is realized that the two composers were writing in different genres for rather different markets. While Schütz was writing freely for an expert court ensemble in an idiom derived from Gabrieli, Praetorius devoted himself to marrying the Italian Baroque style to the Lutheran chorale, and to writing music that could be performed, if necessary, by the humblest village choir. Furthermore, unlike Schütz, Praetorius apparently never travelled to Italy, but acquired his knowledge of the Baroque style at second hand from imported Italian music.

The four items from Polyhymnia on this recording show a variety of different ways of combining voices and instruments in the Baroque concertato style. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Luther’s famous Advent chorale) and Puer natus in Bethlehem (a medieval Christmas Hymn) both use a three-part solo group of voices supported by the capella fidicinia (a string choir) and a ripieno chorus that is largely confined to repeated statements of a refrain—a structural device borrowed in part from Gabrieli. But Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland also has virtuoso writing for a solo violin and cornett decorating the full sections, while Puer natus in Bethlehem uses the ancient device of a macaronic text (alternating Latin and German) to dramatize the contrast between solo and tutti. In this performance we have followed the composer’s suggestion for additional verses of the Hymn, placed between the two sections of the work. Vom Himmel hoch, like several other pieces in Polyhymnia, is a rewriting of a purely vocal motet that first appeared in Musae Sioniae (Vol. 5, 1607/8). He adds a capella fidicinia to the voices in a most effective way; it plays an introductory sinfonia and a central ritornello, and partly doubles, partly elaborates, the existing vocal parts. A different solution to the same problem is found in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern where Praetorius ingeniously takes five solo voices and instruments through a kaleidoscope of changing textures by simply silencing different members of the ensemble in turn.

In Puericinium (Wolfenbüttel, 1621), Praetorius applies the concertato manner of setting chorales for a boys’ choir; all the pieces are scored for four equal soprano voices and continuo, to which can be added ad libitum a capella fidicinia, a chorus adultorum and extra continuo instruments.

The pieces in Puericinium, many of them lively carols, are much simpler than those in Polyhymnia. They presumably reflect the composer’s desire to make the Baroque style accessible to all. All three of the pieces from the collection on this recording use the contrast between the four solo boys and the tutti to dramatize a verse/refrain structure. In the case of Quem pastores laudavere and Nun helft mir Gottes Güte schon preisen (a New Year carol set to a popular tune known in Italy as ‘La Monica’, in France as ‘Une jeune fillette’ and in England as ‘The Queen’s Alman’), the refrain is apparently freely composed.

Terpsichore (Wolfenbüttel, 1612), Praetorius’s only surviving or completed publication of instrumental music, is commonly thought of today as a source of German dance music for wind and brass instruments. Actually, he makes it clear in his introduction to the work that it is largely a repertory of ‘sundry French dances … as the French dancing-masters in France play them’, and that the first choice of instrumentation is the French violin dance-band of the period—one violin, two or three violas and a large bass violin tuned a tone lower than the modern cello. Furthermore, many of the arrangements (including all but one of the dances on this recording) are partly or wholly the work of ‘F.C.’, the French violinist Pierre Francisque Caroubel. The one arrangement by Praetorius, the reprinse (No 310) was intended to follow (as here) a group of galliards. Presumably its exuberant written-out ornamentation gave the instrumentalists a chance to shine after the dancers had exerted themselves. He states that the ornaments are ‘how French dancing-masters diminish and embellish such music’.

We have attempted on this recording to reproduce as far as possible the effect of a performance under Praetorius’s direction. The choir, using soloists drawn from among its members, is of course all-male. (It is sometimes forgotten that female sopranos were not used in German choral music until Mozart’s time.) The Parley of Instruments uses instruments of late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century design. In particular, its Renaissance Violin Consort is significantly different from the late-Baroque strings that tend to be used indiscriminately today for all music from Monteverdi to Mozart. Renaissance violins are more lightly constructed, are played with short, light bows on plain gut strings, and have a reedy sound close to Renaissance viols. The layout of the continuo instruments follows Praetorius’s detailed instructions in the preface to Puericinium and in Syntagma Musicum.

Peter Holman © 1986

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