EASTERN EARLY MUSIC FORUM
Epiphany Party 2005
Praetorius and Travel
The Methodist and
Tutored by Philip Thorby
N mid December last year a BBC Radio 3 announcer, commenting on a concert of choral music for Christmas, said that one always really knew that Christmas had finally arrived when one heard the carol 'Es ist ein' Ros', by Michael Praetorius being sung. This piece has indeed a beautiful simplicity and tranquillity which the BBC Singers brought out in their ensuing performance, suitably varying the texture with the judicious use of solo and ensemble vocal combinations.
AFTER January 2003 I also started to think that the New Year, certainly the new musical year, could only really be heralded in with the 'Beccles Experience' or, in other words, the EEMF Epiphany party, and so it was a particularly favourable conjunction of the stars that meant the festive period starting and ending with the music of Michael Praetorius (1571 to 1621), a thoroughly practical musician who would, I am sure, have felt completely at home with the forces assembled that blustery winter's day in the Methodist chapel in Suffolk.
MY own acquaintance of his music had been through Terpsichore (the volume of dance music as arranged for 5 recorders) and through also having recently sung a joyful and rhythmic Magnificat, 'In Dulci jubilo' and 'Joseph Lieber' in a pre-Christmas concert with the Cantus Singers of Cambridge, and so I was curious to learn more about him and to explore more of his output.
SO who was this man, this Michael Schultheiss (apparently the German for 'mayor,' which in
Latin is 'Praetorius')? His history is as follows.
The son of a pastor, he became organist at the Marienkirche,
Frankfurt an der Oder, in
1585. Ten year later he took employ with the Bishop of
Halberstadt as organist, proudly demonstrating the
new organ at his disposal to other famous organists. He became Kappellmeister in Wolfenbuettel
when his master received a dukedom and his fame as conductor, organist and
generally practical musician spread as he himself travelled across
AND what of his music, and its making, in 2005? Philip Thorby conducted the assembled forces, most ably assisted by Clifford Bartlett on keyboard (and who also provided the music), and off we went on a musical exploration. With a combination of voices, viols and assorted wind instruments including recorders, sackbuts and curtals, we tackled a number of short pieces by Praetorius for 1, 2 and 3 choirs. Philip explained that a 'choir' to Praetorius meant just a group of singers or instruments, who could be dispersed to different parts of a church to sing different elements of the music. A seven part choral piece could end up being performed with a solo voice and 6 different types of instruments playing the other lines. I find this pragmatism of Praetorius rather appealing. Give him a space and, however many voices and instruments of whatever persuasion he could find, Praetorius would deploy them to suitable advantage.
HOW do we know this? Well, besides being a virtuoso organist, a builder of organs and composer, he was also a writer and recorded his thoughts on practical musicianship in a three volume musical treatise, the Syntagma musicum, which explained practices of the time. He also described and illustrated the instruments available, including some that seem too fantastical to have actually existed. Philip described how Praetorius once gave the official theory behind playing certain fingerings for a piece but ended with the comment (to paraphrase): "Having said all that, just play it with what's available, even if it's just your nose".
PRAETORIUS'S contemporaries included Schuetz and Scheidt and the Italian composers writing in the early 1600s. His sacred compositions are mainly based on Protestant hymns or chorales and his total output was prodigious, around 40 volumes being listed in the Syntagma musicum. Among the pieces we tackled were :
Gott der Vater wohn uns bei (SmSAT AA/TBarB)
Mitten wir im Leben sind (SATB SATB)
Jubilieret froehlich (4 viols, 4 fl/bsn SSSS SATB)
Magnificat a 12
Singet und Klinget a 7 & 11 (4 string, SSSS ATB)
PHILIP concentrated on phrasing words and rhythm, picking us up on weak consonants for important words as well as bringing out key words. For example in 'Jedermann gibt zuerst den guten Wein' (Everyman doth at the beginning set forth good wine) the emphasis must be laid on 'guten'. The word 'Wein' is a given in the story but the drama lies with 'guten'. In some passages the composer introduced elements of the text in different lengths and combinations, only presenting the whole phrase right at the end, a rhetorical device that performers needed to be aware of and exploit.
THE musical texture was varied between voices and instruments and a practical approach suggested by Philip was for instruments not to play certain passages simply because they couldn't turn the pages at that point - perhaps a modern equivalent of alternatim! My own feeling (and judging from comments made by others) is that bringing out strong rhythms and differences in texture is essential in performing Praetorius to make it come alive to the modern ear, which otherwise can sometimes be a little unsure of what he is trying to achieve. It seems that Praetorius worked best when using existing melodies and then working on his own version of these. In a subsequent conversation Clifford mentioned that 'Vater Unser', a chorale setting of the Lord's Prayer, was worked on at a previous Beauchamp music week and found to be of stunningly good quality. Incidentally I understand that this year's Beauchamp's school will be a week of Praetorius, Scheidt and Schein.
WE also had a chance to experience some other seventeen century music, notably a lovely 'O magnum mysterium' (SATB SATB) by A. Scarlatti, which pointed the difference between German and Italian expression. Three of Vulpius's seasonal Sprueche (texts giving the theme of a day's service) showed the more sober manner of German polyphony. Praetorius's music may be considered as variable, ranging from good workmanship to structurally brilliant.
THE theme of the food to accompany was
actually 'Praetorius and travel', and as Jennie
Cassidy was unable to cater for the party as she usually does, due to the
recent arrival of a daughter, members were invited to
bring contributions. I must say it was a splendid spread. Among the creations
from different parts of the continent that I tried were a tasty flan (provided
by Adrian Alexander), crusty quiches and delicious salads. Had Praetorius been present in body as well as spirit I'm sure he would have chosen some of the magnificent German
sausages on offer. It is unlikely that he would have actually travelled to
England to have tried apple crumble (probably more of a strudel man) but he
could have tried some wonderful tiramisu (if he moved quickly enough), and an
amazing apple snow (I think it was called) and even a little Greek apricot and
almond number from the kitchen of Michael Sharman. The
IT was also good to catch up with people whom I had met at previous EEMF events. I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow bass about memorising Schubert Lieder, and compared notes on Monteverdi with others. So thanks to the organisers, Philip, Clifford and, of course, all the washers up for a really good Epiphany party and some excellent music making.
Extracted from EEMF Newsletter 58, February 2005