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Volume 16, Issue 4: Musica

Praetorius Mass for Christmas Morning

Duck Schuler

In the last issue of C/A I recommended that families listen to Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt as a way to get their children interested in good music. Let me now recommend another kind of listening which should be as enjoyable but teach something a little different. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players have produced a recording called "Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning" (DG Archive 2AH 439250). It is an attempt to recreate a Lutheran worship service as it might have been celebrated in the year 1620 using primarily the music of Michael Praetorius as well as music by Samuel Scheidt and Johann Hermann Schein.

Praetorius was the quintessential German Lutheran Kapellmeister, composer, organist, and music theorist. He organized his compositions in such a way that they became catalogues of musical style. His nine volume Musae Sioniae is a compendium of the Lutheran chorale and other liturgical works in all their varied forms. It is organized so as to fit the church calendar or systematized according to the style of composition. Most of the compositions for this recording come from his Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (1619) in which he explores all the possibilities of the polychoral composition that was to become the hallmark of the Baroque concertato style (combining and contrasting of instrumental and vocal forces). Polychoral music employs two or more choirs of different ensembles that are placed in various locations throughout the church in order to create a stereophonic effect upon the listener. The choirs may consist of instruments such as cornetts and trombones, recorders and flutes, or oboes and bassoons; or the choirs may be all high voices, all low voices, mixed high and low voices, or soloists. The music gives the impression of a kaleidoscope in its constantly changing sounds and timbres as it moves from choir to choir.
The music is immediately engaging but so rich that it demands many hearings in order to receive the full thrust of its beauty and meaning. When first listening to this recording (and any good piece of music), listen to it actively with no other distractions. Read the liner notes first, study the translations and listen closely to how the music fits the words. This is not always easy to do, but it will increase the enjoyment of the music many times over. If possible, get a hold of the score at a library and follow along.
The drama of the 1620 service is really no different than that which Luther established in his German Mass and Order of Service, (1526) and which is still observed in some Lutheran churches today.1 Listening to the recording is like walking into a 17th century church and worshiping with saints of that time.
A few highlights include the "Introit," "Gloria," an organ voluntary, and "Recessional." The "Introit" (entrance) hymn "Puer Natus in Bethlehem" is a polychoral composition for three choirs. The first choir includes two soprano soloists, a bass soloist, a variety of plucked stringed instruments (harp, theorbo) and organ. All of the instruments used on the recording are reproductions of 17th century instruments providing a delightful sound treat to the ear that cannot be had by listening to modern instruments. The second choir is bowed string instruments and harpsichord, the third choir is mixed voices, recorders, shawms, cornetts, trombones, violone, and regal_the loud choir. The music begins with choir 2 playing a quiet sinfonia. This is followed by choir 1 which introduces the melody of the German Christmas carol. Then choir 3 comes in with a snappy ritornello (a theme that returns over and over again) with the words, "sing, rejoice, triumph. All honor to our Lord, the King." The choirs continue to alternate throughout as the music builds to the final climax in the last verse.
The "Gloria" (see my article in C/A 16.1 for information about the Gloria in excelsis) is the German version of the melody by Nikolaus Decius. Praetorius sets this version with six choirs of varying instruments, voices, timbres and dynamic abilities. One of the most notable parts of the composition is when the soprano and bass soloists sing "We Praise Thee." The vocal gymnastics are incredibly well performed and the listener is taken up with the musical praise to Christ in a most unique fashion.
The organ voluntary is Praetorius' rendition of Psalm 103, "My Soul Now Bless Thy Maker." It is played on the organ of the Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark, which was originally built in 1554-55 and, after many rebuildings, was restored to its 1655 condition by Marcussen & Son. The sound of the organ and the playing of it by Timothy Roberts are a treat that is rare to find. The ornamentation written into the music by Praetorius shows what a magnificent organist he probably was.
The "Recessional" hymn closes the recording with a gloriously orchestrated carol "In Dulci Jubilo." Set for five choirs, McCreesh pulls out all the stops. He has all the instruments play with their respective choirs, then all together. Choirs, strings, winds, trumpets and drums close this festive recording.

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