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The Hamburg experience

March 2015

TVEMF’s New Year began with a transition from the pre-Christmas Netherlands-influenced Rome to the Venetian-inspired musical landscape of post-Reformation Hamburg. A large concourse of singers and players gathered together at the United Reformed Church, Ickenham on 17 January 2015 for an event directed by Patrick Allies, who we were delighted to have with us again following the very successful Lassus workshop at St Sepulchre’s, Holborn some eighteen months ago.

Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) came, as Patrick explained to us, from a musical family. His father Jacob was first organist at the Jacobkirche (with the associated chapel of St Gertrude) in Hamburg and provided Hieronymus’ initial tuition as an organist, though he also studied elsewhere in Hamburg, and then in Cologne. His first position was that of organist in Erfurt (1580-82) after which he returned to Hamburg, as assistant and then on his father’s death in 1586, first organist at the Jacobkirche, a post which he held for the remaining 35 years of his life. He had four sons, two of whom (Jacob, 1586-1661) and Johannes (ca 1596-1660), studied with Sweelinck and became organists in Hamburg, Jacob at St Petri and Johannes at the Nikolaikirche. His third son, Michael, was also a musician, though little is known about him.

His better-known contemporary, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) came from an entirely different family located in Thuringia, and much of his professional career was spent in Saxony. Praetorius is quite a common surname among German composers of that period; the New Grove refers, as well as the above, to five others, one of whom was the uncle of Michael. It appears that the actual family name of all these composers was Schultze or some variant of it; ‘Schultz’, of which Praetorius was the conventional Latinization, is a now obsolete word meaning ‘mayor’ or ‘sheriff’.

Though a prolific composer, he has remained relatively obscure; nevertheless, he is better known than most of his contemporaries who wrote in a similar vein; they include Adam Gumpelzhaimer, Andreas Raselius and Philippus Dulichius. His works include masses, Magnificat settings for organ and over one hundred motets, a handful of which are settings of German texts. Fifty of his motets are polychoral, for between eight and twenty voices divided into two, three or four choirs. Although his contemporary, Hans-5

Leo Hassler (1564-1612), is generally considered to be the greatest exponent of the German-Venetian style, displaying ‘ a grace and fluidity derived from the madrigalian dance songs and a fondness for polychoral structures’ (Gustav Reece, Music in the Renaissance, Dent & Sons, 1954, p.688), the New Grove comments that Praetorius’ polychoral motets express the text more vividly than those of Hassler because he introduced greater contrasts of texture, harmony and rhythm, and are less homophonic than those of other composers due to the extensive use of imitation and the breaking up of basically chordal structures by rhythmically and motivically active inner parts.

The programme chosen by Patrick illustrated all the above characteristics of Praetorius’ writing. We began with O vos omnes, set for a single choir (SATTB). The text is indeed vividly realised by the settings of ‘transitis’ with its smooth (mainly descending) scales and the chromatic melismata of ‘per viam’ depicting the difficulties of the road being travelled. This style gives way to a more homophonic and declamatory passage centred on the unique nature of the sorrow which it expresses. This was followed by another work for single choir, the Christmas motet Gaudete omnes (SSATTB). Its madrigalian style comes out clearly in the use of imitation and the different rhythms employed throughout the text. Patrick also drew our attention to the style of the Alleluia which he characterised as being different from that usually to be found in Easter motets. It is a serene and gently flowing setting which gradually becomes more intense and, in the soprano parts more florid as it reaches the final cadence. The last of the three works which we attempted in the morning session was the Magnificat Quinti Toni for double choir, (SSAT + ATTB). This is written alternatim and it may fairly be said that the singing of the plain chant sections by the tenors either en masse or in alternating sections was not one of the high points of our performance. It proceeds in a robust and largely homophonic manner with strong rhythmic contrasts which are by no means what one might always expect. Whereas the proud are scattered in a manner to which we are probably all well accustomed, the filling of the hungry with good things and the sending away of the rich, empty, is a very peremptory business compared with the treatment of the same idea in (say) the Bach Magnificat, but it is extremely effective none the less.

The post-prandial lethargy was rapidly dispelled when we tackled the next item, which was the motet Tota pulchra es for twelve voices (SATB x 3). This text, from the Song of Solomon iv, vv.7-8 and 10-11, appears to have been rather carefully selected so as to play down the praise of feminine attributes, no doubt too heady a brew for North German Protestants, which pervades many Marian motets based on texts from that source, for example his contemporary Victoria’s Quam pulchri sunt gressus (viii, v.1) and Palestrina’s Quam pulchra es (vii, vv. 6-8). The general structure is that each theme is stated by the three choirs in succession, not always in the same order, and then by all three together. Changes in rhythm illustrate the nature of the statements in the text; thus, ‘et macula non est in te’ is strong and rapidly moving, as befits an affirmation of the beloved’s flawless nature, whereas ‘favus distillans labia tua’ is slower and more graceful as it depicts the flowing down of the nectar from her lips.

We then returned to single choir mode with Wie lang, O Gott (SATTB). In the single verse which we sang, the petitioner, acknowledging that he seeks grace rather than justice, seeks divine pity, and consoles his heart with the thought that God’s help is at hand for all pious folk. The writing is intense throughout with constantly changing harmonies and the appeals to God with their pervasive repetition of the ascending minor sixth (G-E flat), paint a vivid picture of the man with nothing to hope for in this world-a truly realistic depiction of the lives which so many people must have led in a land scarred by long drawn out religious and social conflict.

However, optimism prevailed at the last with Cantate Domino, (SSAT + ATTB), which the New Grove ranks, along with Decantabat populus Israel (for four five-part choirs), and two of his eight settings of vernacular texts (Ein kindelein so liebelich and Herr Gott dich loben wir) as his finest polychoral motets. The style is brisk and hortatory throughout, with the more ornamental passages being sung by the higher voice choir, and the lower voice choir being mainly confined to reinforcing their statements.

The welcome tea break which came at the end of that demanding but thoroughly enjoyable afternoon session was followed by a sing through of the entire programme. We are all greatly indebted to Patrick for guiding us through an interesting and varied selection of the works of a composer who clearly deserves to be better known. Warm thanks are also due in particular to David Fletcher who took on the immense amount of work involved in preparing the scores and all the instrumental parts, and to David King for organising the event, allocating the singers to their varying roles, making the music available for those who wished to acquaint themselves with it in advance (a facility for which many of us, including your reviewer, were truly grateful), and arranging the printing of the music for those who did not.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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