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The Three Mayors...   

Michael, Hieronymus, and Jacob Praetorius in the digital age

Shakespeare was writing his first plays (1590s). The King James version of the Bible was about to become the new version of that august work (1611), and by 1620 a religious sect took three ships to the new world to settle there and give us a national holiday each November. The piano would have to wait about another hundred years to be born (1700). So would J. S. Bach (1685).  Meanwhile Bach's ancestors were practicing the family trade and passing on their knowledge to the next generation in an unbroken line so that by the time J. S. arrived he had would have quite a tradition from which to draw.

     It is this same sense of tradition that connects at least two of the fellows you are about to meet. Their Latin name is Praetorius. Did I mention that Latin was still the in-thing at the time for scholars? It wouldn't be for long. That and many other things were changing around 1600. Even music was being propelled into a new era, although these guys apparently didn't know it yet. Regardless of their embrace or rejection of the "latest trends" in music, they were storing up a wonderful musical legacy which, after four-hundred years, has been (temporarily) bequeathed to us.

Michael Praetorius
(not Hieronymus)

Before I get into trouble with early music historians I should point out that Michael was probably not (definitely not, according to some of them) related to the other two Praetoriuses (Praetoriei?)

Jacob and Hieronymus, however, happened to be father and son. And son and father.  Hieronymus had a father named Jacob who was also an organist, but it is his son Jacob whose music (was/will be) on the left. There were a lot of church organists in the family.

In a larger sense, all three of them, Hieronymus, Jacob, and Michael, are part of the family of north German organists of the 16th century.  Being an organist certainly ran in the family in those days. It was a family guild of sorts. You didn't decide to go to college and major in organ playing, or go take a few easy lessons and try to find yourself a place to play. The "Praetorians" had a family tree of organists going back about four generations.

Hieronymus was the first to be born. He arrived in August of 1560 and promptly began learning the trade from his father Jacob. Hieronymus didn't travel much--he was born in Hamburg, and he mainly stayed there, except for a trip to Cologne to learn more about organ playing from somebody besides his father, and to get his first gig in a town called Erfurt. Then he returned to Hamburg, to a church called St. Jacobi, where his father was the principal organist. He became the assistant, until his father died in 1586 and Hieronymus replaced him.

Hieronymus's only other trip that we know about was to a "Congress of Organists" held in 1596 to dedicate a new organ at Groningen. Fifty-four organists from all over the German states took part in this convention. It is nice to see folks getting together to talk shop and learn the latest methods way back in 1596. It may have been a great chance for Hieronymus to hear some of the Venetian Polychoral music that was the new craze. Hieronymus met Michael Praetorius and Leo Hassler, a couple of celebrities, and went dutifully back to St. Jacobi to be its organist until he died three decades later. Guess who took over his job?





Wrong. Son Jacob got a job at a different church in 1604, so they had to find somebody else.

Jacob had the good fortune to study with one Jan Sweelinck, one of the era's leading organist-composers, and went to to teach many others, forming another link in that unbroken line of tradition, and adding another influence to the prevailing style.

The world was a very different place in 1600, when young Jacob Praetorius came of age, but one thing a contemporary mind will not have trouble understanding--there are two very different views of his organ playing. One of these comes from a man named Johann Kortkamp, who wrote in his chronicle of organists  that Jacob played "with majesty and devotion" and that he "was capable of animating people's hearts." (we should all be so lucky!) Writing over a half-century after Praetorious died, he goes on to say that "this amiable man should be remembered for his sensual and artistic playing."

Which, of course, didn't stop Johann Mattheson, another major musical figure of the time, from writing (about thirty years after Kortkamp's assessment) that Praetorius "was always very solemn and somewhat odd." What is majestic to some is odd to others, apparently. But it is no matter. In Mattheson's estimation, Praetorious shows "extreme amiability in all his activities," and in addition to his efficient finger technique ("he carried himself without any bodily movement, giving his playing an effortless appearance"), his pieces are difficult to play "and more elaborate, which put this composer above everyone else." It was an age in which complexity was much more exalted than it is now (at least by fellow organists!), though, like most complexities of past eras, Jacob Praetorius's pieces do not now strike us as particularly difficult.

It is also no surprise that in the above criticism, Jacob is being compared to another of Sweelinck's students, and, apparently, being judged the better. We couldn't have a tie, could we?

Jacob, naturally, remained at the church he served until his death in 1651, by which time he had been their organist for 47 years.

Michael apparently decided to break the mold of these north German organists. Instead of remaining in one place practically all of his life, he traveled a great deal, so much so that one recent writer suggests that he "spent his energies prematurely by an excessive amount of composing...as well as by an inordinate love of travel" [!]  Another star burnt out early by shining too brightly, evidently. If some kind of explanation is required for why he only lived to be fifty (in an age when that wasn't all that odd) than this will have to do, apparently.

Michael's travels took him to exotic locales like Prague, Dresden, and Leipzig, where he hobnobbed with many of the current celebrities. Whether all that networking paid off or not, today he is the best known of the three Praetorii, though his best known single piece of music is not one of the organ works on the left, but a Christmas carol known as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." As for "excessive composing," there are not really all that many of his organ works left. My 'complete' edition lists ten.

What about these organ works? They were written for the church, of course, long an authoritarian institution, which wouldn't let just anything be played for its worship services. In fact, the church determined which hymns were to be sung on which Sunday throughout the church year, a cycle that ran from Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) until the last Sunday of Kingdomtide (that long dull period that runs generally from late May through November).

Like much of what organists play in church today, the Praetorius's based their organ works on existing hymn tunes, and with good reason. It was often customary during a Mass for the organ to alternate with the choir during the chanting of these "hymns;" plainchants, really: single-note devotions which had no prescribed rhythm. These had been born in the Medieval Period, before time was something you could divide into minutes and seconds. Consequently, no thought was given to having quarter-notes and half-notes.

By the time of our heroes a lot had changed. The authority of the ancient hymns was still paramount; however, before the time of the Renaissance, nothing had been allowed to disturb their original impact in any way; now, composers were making them the basis for complex multi-voice compositions, and engendering the wrath of many conservative clergymen.

Listen to the original plainchant on which one of his works is based. I bet it won't be obvious when you listen to the piece itself. The reason is that usually the chant is parceled out slowly in the bass (played with the pedals) while the faster-moving parts swirl above it, drawing our ears' attention to the part that the composer has created himself, rather than the part that was prescribed by the ancient tradition.

Often, but not always, the original chant is present in "slow motion" in the bass. Sometimes, as in Hieronymus's second or third "verses" it is there more subtly (if at all); remember, the organ frequently played in the interludes between the verses of the hymn. If a hymn had four verses, like in the case of Hieronymus's setting of "Veni, Creator Spiritus," it makes sense that there would be three organ pieces to go between them. It also makes sense that the composer would get tired of composing everything the same way, and would look for other ways of setting notes against one another to create that euphonious harmony that was so prized.

In the case of "Summo Parenti Gloria" the title is actually the eighth verse of the Christmas hymn "A Solus Cardine." It is the only one present in my edition--I wonder if this piece was actually supposed to replace the eighth verse to give the choir a break, or if the other pieces got lost (nobody had to run to the football game back then so they could sing eight verses if they wanted to).

The Middle Ages did not prize individuality in music; or in anything else. Music was a craft; there were rules, and well-defined procedures for doing it well. Although the three "Mayors" (which is what Praetorius means in Latin) lived near the end of the Renaissance, a time which thought more highly of individual accomplishment, it did not necessarily cater to individual style! And, the church would not have been at the forefront of musical progressivism if it could help it. Thus, we should expect the three organists' music to sound pretty much the same. However, they still had personalities back then, whether they were extolled or not, and there do seem to be some subtle differences between them.

Hieronymus seems to enjoy flourishes more than the other two; although, Michael gives him a run for his money near the end of Summo Parenti Gloria. Hieronymus seldom can wait for the end of a piece (like about 17 seconds into the third verse of Veni, Creator Spiritus). Jacob is the same way. Most often, a piece in this North German style will begin with very slow notes and it takes a few measures to get moving, like a very heavy conveyance trying to gain momentum. Often the faster notes are saved for the end of a piece or sections of it, but sometimes it sounds like a composer just decided to haul off and shoot up or down the scale for the sheer heck of it.

Michael's pieces tend to be longer, and there are fewer of them, which is odd considering how prolific he was in general. Michael's pieces are sometimes individual works as well, where Hieronymus preferred sets of pieces (remember the interludes?). Hieronymus hailed from Hamburg, and Michael lived in Frankfurt for a time (when he wasn't moving)--perhaps, therefore,  this is a reflection of the prevailing taste in different cities. Or perhaps he just loved epics. His "When Jesus Came to Jordan" is twelve pages in print and 18 minutes long (by my tempo).  I'm not sure what made him spin that particular subject to that length but he seems to have felt the need to climb a musical mountain so I did too. If you aren't in a big hurry, the piece can carry as effectively as any piece of that period what often seems to be that long ago era's message to us: an unhurried, reflective, and, by turns, dancelike and exultant evocation of the mysterious, in an era when man was becoming increasingly conscious of his own powers, but the universe still seemed a very big place.

Slow down a little and enjoy the mystery.

(You can hear some of their music here in the archive.)

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