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Michael PRAETORIUS (1571/2-1621)
Erhalt uns Herr bey deinem Wort - Lutheran Choral Concerts
Veni Sancte Spiritus: Halleluia, Komm Heiliger Geist a 11 [5:33]
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sih darein a 20 [11:58]
Vater unser im Himmelreich a 18 [22:47]
Nun frewt euch lieben Christen gemein a 12, a 4 & a 2 [15:36]
Mit Fried und Frewd ich fahr dahin a 13 [9:46]
Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort a 17 [7:54]
Weser-Renaissance Bremen / Manfred Cordes
rec. 1-3 February 2016 at Stiftskirche St. Mauritius and St. Viktor, Bassum, Germany [DDD]
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 064-2 [74:04]

In his time Heinrich Schütz was generally considered the father of German music. That label was certainly justified. However, it is remarkable that the Lutheran hymn, one of the dominant factors in the music of Protestant Germany, plays a relatively minor role in his oeuvre. This is not the place to speculate about the reasons for that. The present disc focuses on a composer whom Schütz knew well: Michael Preatorius, who from 1613 to 1616 worked at the court in Dresden. Few composers have done so much for the dissemination of the Lutheran hymn as Praetorius. He was also one of the main promoters of the Italian style in Germany.

Praetorius was born in Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, where his father, also called Michael, who had studied with Martin Luther, worked as a pastor. He did belong to the strict Lutherans, so he regularly lost his job and had to move. Two years after his son's birth, he had to move again, this time to Torgau. Here Praetorius senior became a colleague of Johann Walter, one of the main composers of hymns, at the Lateinschule. His successor, Michael Voigt, was Michael junior's first musical teacher. He matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1582, where he became acquainted with Bartolomäus Gesius, another composer of hymns. In 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel as organist. In 1604 he was appointed Kapellmeister. When his employer died, his successor allowed him to work elsewhere for some time. He worked in Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle, Sondershausen and Kassel, and he visited Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth. It is probably due to overwork that his health deteriorated, which led to his death at the age of 49. His high reputation is reflected by the fortune he left, which was largely to be used to set up a foundation for the poor.

Praetorius was one of the first who embraced the Italian style. In the third part of his Syntagma Musicum, a kind of encyclopedia of instruments and compositional styles, he shows a thorough knowledge of Italian music. In his own compositions, he mixed the German contrapuntal tradition with the Venetian polychoral style, and in his latest collections with the stile nuovo, with its monodic vocal writing and instrumental virtuosity. By applying these elements in his settings of hymns, he played a crucial role in the introduction of the Italian style in music for the church. He also showed that hymns were not something of the past but rather part of an ongoing tradition, and could be adapted to the latest trends.

With the exception of Terpsichore, a collection of dance music, Praetorius only composed sacred vocal music. No fewer than 22 editions came from the press between 1605 and 1621. Nearly all of them are arrangements of Lutheran hymns. The scoring varies from simple harmonisations to polychoral concertos for voices and instruments. One of the editions, called Puericinium, includes pieces especially written for boys' voices. Obviously at that time sacred music was never intended to be sung by women. The specific reference to boys' voices indicates that this collection had an educational purpose and was to be used in schools. These pieces are relatively simple and not technically demanding. That is very different in some of the larger scored concertos, which are the subject of the present disc.

The upper part in the first version of Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein, for instance, includes some very high notes. This is one of the pieces for which Luther not only wrote the text, but also the melody. This hymn from 1523 received a different melody in 1529. Here we hear two different arrangements of the first melody. The stanzas 1-2 and 8-10 are sung in a version for twelve voices, stanza 5 is performed in a setting for two sopranos and basso continuo, whereas the remaining stanzas (3-4 and 6-7) are included here in four-part harmonisations. The latter were certainly intended in the first place for use in schools.

These hymn arrangements show some similarity to the chorale variations by representatives of the North German organ school, which was also under the influence of the Italian style. The chorale is varied both in melody and in rhythm. We find here the same kind of embellishments—but then adapted to the human voice—as in these organ works. The fact that a melody of a hymn is the same for different texts reduces the possibility of text expression; that was not common in the 16th century anyway. But in his arrangements a composer can single out some words or phrases with musical means. An impressive example is the large-scale concerto for 18 voices Vater unser im Himmelreich, Luther's versification of the Lord's Prayer. Praetorius has arranged all eight stanzas, divided into four pairs. Every pair is followed by Luther's extended version of the "Amen" as a ritornello: "Amen! that is: So let it be! Strengthen our faith and trust in thee. (...) We say Amen, now hear us, Lord!" This concerto offers a sampling of the means a composer of that time had at his disposal, and Praetorius uses them brilliantly.

Luther did not completely break away from tradition. He wanted to keep what was good, provided it was in line with his own doctrine. The piece which opens the programme is an apt example. Veni Sancte Spiritus: Halleluia, Komm heiliger Geist includes two melodies: the first, on the original Latin text, was strongly adapted to Luther's German translation. The inclusion of both melodies allows a direct comparison between the two.

The Book of Psalms took a central place in the Reformation. Luther rated it very highly, calling it a "little Bible", a synopsis of the whole Bible. But whereas his colleague John Calvin preferred a versification of the Psalms—which resulted in the Huguenot Psalter, set polyphonically by, for instance, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck—Luther only paraphrased some of the Psalms. One of the most famous specimens is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, a paraphrase of Psalm 46 and often called the "national hymn" of Lutheranism. Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein paraphrases Psalm 12. As Carsten Niemann writes in his liner notes, it includes some clearly "war-like" elements. It is about the threats from the enemies of the true faith: "With frauds which they themselves invent thy truth they have confounded. (...) For this, saith God, I will arise, these wolves my flock are rending." Several stanzas include fanfare motifs. The hymn ends in a triumphant mood, clearly illustrated in the music.

Luther also made versifications of the Canticles, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. The latter is represented by Mit Fried und Freud, a hymn in four stanzas, which Praetorius arranged to a sacred concerto in 13 parts. One of the performing forces is a so-called cappella, a group of ripienists which at certain moments comes in to support the solo voices. This widespread practice at the time in Germany was also frequently used by Heinrich Schütz. Originally intended for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, it was often sung at the occasion of funerals. Despite its scoring it has a certain intimacy, inspired by the text. Praetorius emphasizes the aspect of joy.

Various hymns by Luther are still sung today in churches across the globe, both in German and in translations. In some cases elements from the text are removed, because they are too closely connected to Luther's own time. That is certainly the case with Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort. The first stanza says: "Preserve us, Lord, with your word, and control the murderous rage of the Pope and the Turks, who would want to cast down Jesus Christ, your son, from his throne." It has three melodies, because Praetorius set a version with two stanzas added later to the original hymn by Luther from 1541. The version performed here is based on Johann Walter's publication of 1566. The two added stanzas are Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (Grant us peace graciously) and its sequel Gib unsern Fürsten (Give our rulers and all lawgivers peace and good government).

Among all the discs which have been released as part of the commemoration of 500 years of Reformation, this is probably the best. It focuses on the more lavish part of Praetorius's output. The composer's oeuvre is so large and varied that one could easily put together a completely different programme, for instance with more straightforward and technically less challenging pieces. This disc is an impressive testimony of Praetorius's brilliance as a composer of sacred music. It is also a model of a performance that brings out the emotions which Luther and his followers, among them Michael Praetorius himself, must have felt while writing and singing these hymns. The composer himself emphasized that it was the underlying theology which was his main motivation. Weser-Renaissance rightly acts as his most humble servant.

In short, this is the way German sacred music of around 1600 has to be performed. This disc deserves the label Recording of the Month and will certainly be one of my recordings of the year.

I have just one critical note to make: the English texts are paraphrases rather than exact word-for-word translations. That is very regrettable because of the close connection between text and music. I advise the listener to search for more precise translations on the Internet.

Johan van Veen



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