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Michael Praetorius – the very basis of the brilliance of Bach

Eisenach in Thuringia, part of what was the old East Germany, is one of those pretty towns you find in the region. The march of post-war modernisation passed it by. With its half-timbered houses, it has preserved an old-fashioned feel.

Martin Luther went to school there, and it's the hometown of the king of Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach. Not too far away is Creuzburg, birthplace around a century earlier of the man who laid the foundations for what would become Bach's house style.

Michael Praetorius may well have been born on this day in 1571 – there's a degree of uncertainty about the actual date – but what is certain is that he died exactly 50 years later. His name was actually Schultze, which is derived from the medieval office of mayor or magistrate, but that would have been deemed a little too ethnic for a musician, so Praetorius it was – same root, but from Latin as opposed to German.

Mind you, Herr Schultze wasn't the only musician to have smartened up his name. Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart wouldn't have had quite the same ring as the glorious Amadeus. Louis Spohr was originally Ludwig Spohr, while Johan Sibelius also gave himself a French forename, Jean.

Praetorius was the son of a Lutheran clergyman and his background was to have a major bearing on his music. His first professional involvement had been as an organist in Frankfurt on the Oder, where he'd gone to study theology. His career developed as a court musician. He was variously organist and choirmaster for the Duke of Brunswick and the Elector of Saxony.

His style drew heavily on Lutheran church music. Alongside he developed an interest in musical history, and his three-part Syntagma Musicum (literally, his text on music) published in the early part of the 17th century would become the essential work of reference for the period, not least for the exhaustive coverage of the instruments of the time.

With his emphasis on sacred music, most of what he wrote was for the voice. In fact, there's only one instrumental work of significance that survives – Terpsichore, a collection of French dances that could rank as his magnum opus on the basis of its scope alone – there are over three hundred in all.

The best-known examples of his church music are the songs he wrote for Christmas. In dulci jubilo is one of his, as is Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen.

Praetorius was nothing if not prolific. Those two famous carols come from his most important religious collection, Musae Sioniae – a nine-volume melodic epic consisting of over 1,200 choral pieces. The rhythmic continuity, the polyphonic texture with two or more melodic lines bouncing off each other, the very basis of the brilliance of Bach, it's all there in the music of Michael Praetorius, a name not much heard these days, but a pivotal player in music's story.


Indo Review