Monday, December 25, 2023

Lutheran Mass for a Christmas Morning

The consensus among musicologists is that Michael Praetorius is perhaps the most underestimated and under-regarded German composer of his generation and, despite his prolific output, one of the most unknown individuals in our own time.

His first published work, Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion, nine volumes, 1605–1610), the composer has laid out for us 1,244 compositions that explore how the great Lutheran chorale melodies might be set — hymns which were and are the very backbone of Lutheran liturgical life.  Though he was an accomplished musician and a sophisticated composer, he wrote that joined the Italian Baroque style to the Lutheran chorale in such a way that the typical parish choir could perform it.

If you know Praetorius at all, you may know him through his 1609 harmonization of the fifteenth-century German folk carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Lo how a rose e'er blooming." It is an unsung piece that often gets passed over in favor of more familiar carols but it, along with Praetorius' setting of  "Good Christian men, rejoice" provide a glimpse into his gift and greatness.

You can find some rather fine examples of Praetorius' works on CD but as we are in the shadow of Christmas, I would turn your attention to the works recorded under the title Mass for a Christmas morning.  Here the genius of Praetorius is set not simply in heavenly choirs in their most glorious and spectacular mode but within a context of a parish mass for Christmas morning. Here is a Lutheran mass as it might have been heard under the baton of Praetorius and with his hands on the keyboard of the mighty pipe organ in an early 17th century Lutheran congregation.

The rather ambitious CD is in reality a liturgical reconstruction of sorts.  It begins with an a capella  Christum wir sollen loben schon (Luther's translation of a pre-Reformation hymn).  This eight-stanza hymn has a date of 1524 but the setting here is from Lutheran pastor and theologian Lucas Osiander (1534–1604).

four-part setting of

It is followed by an Introit -- Praetorius's own 1619 setting of Puer natus in Bethlehem ("a Boy is born in Bethlehem").  The Kyrie and Gloria come from another Praetorius' work also published in 1619 --  Missa gantz Teudsch ("Mass, completely in German").  By this you know clearly that the Lutherans retained the mass as they claim in the Augsburg Confession except, in this case, in the vernacular.

You hear the traditional Christmas hymns in this imagined "service" --  Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her ("From heaven above to earth I come"), Quem pastors laudavere ("Shepherds sang their praises o'er him"), and Puer nobis nascitur ("Unto us a boy is born").  You can find them in just about any Lutheran hymnal -- even today!

So this Christmas morning, enjoy the Praetorius' genius and give it a listen.  It sounds like the best of Lutheranism and it is.  So put this on and enjoy this unsung Lutheran hero and his gift of music.  If only Lutheran parishes sounded like this on Christmas morning!  Ahhhhhh, would that it would be so!



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