Wednesday 18 December 2019

Mass for Christmas Morning: the richly imaginative music of Michael Praetorius performed by an ensemble ranging from nine-year-olds to seasoned professionals

Schloss Wolfenbüttel, where Michael Praetorius lived and worked; copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1654
Schloss Wolfenbüttel, where Michael Praetorius lived and worked; copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1654
Michael Praetorius Mass for Christmas Morning; Gabrieli Consort & Players, DREt Youth Choir, DRET Primary All Stars, Paul McCreesh; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Venetian poly-choral techniques combined with Lutheran chorales in Praetorius' richly imaginative music in a reconstruction performed by Gabrieli and young singers from the David Ross Educational Trust

Michael Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
The richly inventive choral music of the German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) is not as well known as it deserves to be. Yet Gabrieli's 1994 recording of Mass for Christmas Morning, based on Praetorius' music, remains the group's best-selling disc. I have to confess that it is recording that I have long treasured, so it was a great pleasure to be able to appreciate the music live as Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli performed their reconstruction. They are undertaking a tour, and their Polish performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, and they will be off to Versailles and Rotterdam.

But lucky for us, on Tuesday 17 December 2019, Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players, the DRET Youth Choir and DRET Primary All Stars (two groups drawn from the David Ross Educational Trust) in Mass for Christmas Morning at St John's Smith Square as part of the Christmas Festival. The reconstruction featured music by Michael Praetorius including the Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa ganz Teudsch in the 1619 publication Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrics, with other material coming from the same publication and also from Praetorius' Musae Sioniae V and Urania.  The Creed was in a version by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), whilst we also heard the Padouana a 5 by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)

Michael Praetorius spent most of his working life at Wolfenbüttel, working for the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. But a great influence in Praetorius' music in later life was the period that he spent in Dresden between 1613 and 1615, when he met Heinrich Schütz and was introduced to Venetian poly-choral music. Praetorius was notable for the way he developed musical forms based on Protestant hymns, and his earlier music had had a strong Italian influence and the most elaborate works from his later period include spectacular poly-choral works. Yet Lutheran congregational singing was also a significant factor in the music and most of Praetorius pieces, even the most elaborate, are skilfully written so that various groups can be included, the Town Waits, the school children, the Collegium Musicum of amateur musicians as well as the professional Kantorei. This was real inclusive music making, on a grand scale as befitted the Ducal court, yet allowing full congregational participation.

At St John's Smith Square we heard a reconstruction of a Lutheran mass as it might have been staged in Wolfenbüttel in around 1620, using the 1595 Wolfenbüttel Order of Service, which owes much to Martin Luther's Wittenberg liturgies. This is a communion service, with Kyrie, Gloria, Creed and Sanctus (though the texts are not necessarily literal translations of the Latin), with the usual consecration, interspersed with the congregational hymns, four in all, and motets during communion. Around 80 minutes of music in all, and what impressed was the way the Praetorius could move from a gloriously elaborate poly-choral, multi-instrumental piece such as the four-choir version in In dulci jubilo with its use of trumpeters and drums (where McCreesh took advantage of Praetorius' suggestion that the material be re-arranged to suit performance needs, and here included all his performers in a final flourish), to profoundly simple pieces such as the touching (and still well-known) harmonisation of Es is ein Ros entsprungen.

Frederick Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg
Frederick Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg
who might have heard a mass like this
in Wolfenbüttel in 1620
What was fascinating was the way that the congregational hymns were so complex, this was music written in the manner of such 20th century multi-skilled pieces as RVW's Concerto Grosso (which even has a part for those string players only using open strings), so that our congregational part threaded in through the more complex sections. Not the use of 'our', the audience provided the congregation, and before the performance we were rehearsed by Paul McCreesh in the four hymns. Each simple in its own right, and sung largely in English, yet in performance part of a richly complex whole.

This was music which managed to square the circle, and mix ducal magnificence with inclusion and congregational involvement. It is important to remember that the Lutheran reforms were not just related to the church and the sacral nature of the communion service, but also aimed to make the service comprehensible and participatory, not an offering of the priest on behalf of the congregation but one from the entire congregation. Praetorius showed that it was possible to reflect this musically, whilst preserving the element of display and complexity that he clearly loved in the music of the Gabrielis and others.

The language issue was important, clearly for grand occasions Latin and Greek could be used (Luther sanctioned the Kyrie and Gloria in Greek and Latin, respectively), but often the music is macaronic, providing the text both in Latin or Greek and in German, so that in the Kyrie, Praetorius made much of pairs of soloists, one singing in Greek the other in German. In some hymns, the complex verses in Latin alternated with simpler congregational ones in German (and for us, English).

The range of performers brought the fullest range possible into use, so that in addition to the singers of the Gabrieli Consort, the DRET Youth Choir and DRET Primary All Stars, we had four string players, an ensemble variously playing shawms, rackets, recorders, flutes, dulcians and crumhorns, cornetts, sackbutts and trumpets, timpani, organs, regal, harpsichord and virginals, with William Whitehead at the St John's organ. The Gabrieli Consort was on stage with the DRET forces split in the left and right balconies, joined by various wind players, but these dispositions changed and for some singers and instrumentalists re-configured to use the space available. Moments of re-organisation were generally covered by William Whitehead playing organ interludes on the St John's organ. One item which caused great discussion in the audience around us was the contrabass shawm on stage, a huge beast looking for all the world like a giant telescope.

As might be expected from a composer influenced by Venetian poly-choral techniques, this rich array of instruments was not to create an orchestra as we conceive it, but instead to create multiple choirs, sometimes a choir consisting of a single voice with instruments. This meant that each strand in the poly-choral music was a different colour, a lovely effect.

Playing an important role in this were the 42 young singers from the DRET (the David Ross Educational Trust), coming from some 17 schools across the Midlands, and with singers as young as nine for some of whom this was a first trip to London. They performed their role with aplomb, not as a special event popping up to perform then disappearing but as an essential thread running through the whole evening, contributing their own strands to the many poly-choral pieces. At one point, the young sopranos were disposed in four groups around the church each giving us a different line of the verse, to striking effect. As with Gabrieli Roar events, this was not a specifically 'youth project' but one where young singers took their place alongside professionals.

Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli
Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli
We will never know quite how the mass of Christmas morning sounded for the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1620, but if it was anything like this then he was a lucky man.

You can catch the Polish performance, live from Gdansk, for 30 days on BBC Sounds as part of BBC Radio 3's Christmas around Europe.
Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Sixteen at Christmas: A Ceremony of Carols (★★★★) - concert review
  • An intriguing journey: with Soledad, baroque violinist Jorge Jimenez takes us from Biber's intense Catholicism, through Bach to the vibrancy of Spanish baroque  (★★★★)  - Cd review
  • On Bethlehem Down: Chamber Choir of London & Dominic Ellis-Peckham at St George's Church, Bloomsbury (★★★★) - concert review
  • Rule-breaking music that inspires you and empowers you: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and James Baillieu on CPE Bach's sonatas for violin and keyboard - interview
  • A bleakly haunted journey: Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Schubert's Winterreise at Wigmore Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Christmas CD round-up: ten recent discs, from carols old and new, to Bach, the Spanish golden age and Rick Wakeman - CD review
  • Reviving Ethel Smyth's dance dream: Fete Galante from Retrospect Opera  (★★★★½)  - CD review
  • In the salon of Mlle de Guise: Solomon's Knot take us to 17th century France with a pair of Christmas pastorals by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (★★★★) - concert review
  • From Dvorak to Reich: the Arcis Saxophone Quartet in American Dreams at Conway Hall (★★★★)  -  concert review
  • Oh that all opera bouffe could be delivered with such panache: Offenbach's La Belle Hélène from New Sussex Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a counter-factual history of brass chamber music: I chat to Simon Cox & Matthew Knight from the brass-septet Septura  - interview
  • Weber's Der Freischütz in a fine new modern recording with Lise Davidsen as Agathe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Westminster Cathedral Choir at Choral at Cadogan  - concert review
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