Michael Praetorius

The German composer and theorist Michael Praetorius (ca. 1571-1621) was a devout Lutheran who believed that music was the "handmaiden of theology." He composed a comprehensive musical repertory for the Evangelical Church.

Born in Creuzburg (Thuringia), Michael Praetorius was raised in Torgau, a small town famous for its Lutheran school. He studied at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, and for part of the time he was organist of the university church. In 1595 he entered the service of Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick, at the courts of Gröningen and Wolfenbüttel. At first installed as organist and subsequently advanced to music director (1604), Praetorius composed music for all court activities until the duke's death in 1613.

During the next 7 years Praetorius had no fixed post but was employed intermittently by several north German courts (Magdeburg, Kassel, Halle, Dresden) as musical consultant and director of musical festivities. In 1620 he was recalled to Wolfenbüttel; he died the following year.

Praetorius's voluminous output only partly reveals his overall plan for a complete corpus of secular and sacred music for all occasions. Of his secular works only one volume of dances, Terpsichore (volume 5 of his projected Musa Aonia), has come down to us. Thousands of sacred pieces are extant, most constructed on Lutheran hymn texts and tunes known as chorales. The contents of his 9-volume Musae Sioniae (1605-1610) range from simple bicinia, or two-part pieces, to enormous polychoral works for as many as 12 voices.

Baroque pieces with basso continuo, concertizing instruments, and separate choirs for soloists and chorus are first noted in Praetorius's late publications Polyhymnia caduceatrix (1619), Polyhymnia exercitatrix (1620), and Puericinium (1621). These mature compositions underscore his importance in transmitting Italian concerted music to Germany. Although these works are modeled on examples by Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, Praetorius, ever bound to the German chorale, rarely employed the affective style favored by the Italian innovators.

As a pendant to his music, and in part to explain its performance, Praetorius wrote a three-volume treatise, Syntagma musicum (1615-1620), which deals with three subjects: the history of ancient sacred and secular music, the nature and construction of musical instruments, and the performance practices of his time. Especially valuable are his definitions and explanations of early-17th-century terms and practices. In the second volume, De organogrpahia, he discusses the history and construction of musical instruments. Unparalleled for its time is the appendix to this volume, the Theatrum instrumentorum, or pictorial atlas of instruments.


Further Reading on Michael Praetorius

Praetorius's work is discussed in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (1947), and in the New Oxford History of Music, vol. 4 (1968). The background of the baroque musical style is treated in Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941).