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
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
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
modelled 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.