From Heavenly Harmony
A Praetorius Christmas
by Ken Myers
Of the many recordings of Christmas music in my library (on vinyl, CD, or digital format), relatively few of them feature music by a single composer. Most are anthologies of works by a variety of composers and arrangers: carols, motets, chants, anthems, and extracts from Christmas cantatas or oratorios. But one composer stands out as a notable exception: Michael Praetorius. I have at least five recordings in my collection that concentrate on compositions and harmonizations of Christmas (and Advent) music by this great (if under-appreciated) late Renaissance composer.
Musicologist Walter Blankenburg expresses a consensus among his colleagues in proclaiming that Praetorius (1571–1621) was "the most versatile and wide-ranging German composer of his generation and one of the most prolific, especially of works based on Protestant hymns." In his first published work, Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion, in nine volumes, 1605–1610), Praetorius presented 1,244 compositions that explore various methods of setting Lutheran chorale melodies—the backbone of Protestant liturgical life. These and other works earned him the title, "Conservator of the Chorale." Conductor and scholar Peter Holman contrasts the achievements of Praetorius with those of the better-known Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672): "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."
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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