Michael Praetorius

1571 1621

Michael Praetorius



Michael Praetorius was a German theorist, organist and prolific composer during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His work, though focused almost entirely on Protestant hymns, is surprisingly diverse.

Most scholars accept that Michael Praetorius was born on 15 February 1571 in Kreuzberg (also spelled Creuzburg), though some remain sceptic. He was born Michael Schultheiss (or Schultze) but used the Latinized version of his name, Praetorius. His father, also named Michael, was employed at the Lateinschule at Torgau along with Johann Walter. As a devout Lutheran, Michael Sr. was forced to flee his home on multiple occasions. It was after relocating to Kreuzberg in 1569 from Torgau that his son was born. The family returned to Torgau in 1573 after being banished from Kreuzberg.

After a rocky beginning, the young Praetorius and his family settled peacefully in Torgau. There, he attended the Lateinschule where he received music lessons from Walter’s successor Michael Voigt. Praetorius continued his studies at the University an der Oder in 1582 with the support of his brother Andreas, who was a professor of theology at the university. After a brief hiatus in 1584, in which he travelled to Zerbst, Aanhalt to visit his sisters and attend the Lateinschule at Zerbst, Praetorius returned to Frankfurt an der Oder.

Praetorius’ music education most likely ceased after finishing his schooling, meaning that he was largely self-taught. Back in Frankfurt, he became associated with the composer Bartholomäus Gesius, who was also fascinated by Protestant hymns and melodies, in addition to alternatim practice (a specific technique used in liturgical music, especially the Organ Mass, that was banned in 1903 by Pope Pius X).

After the premature death of his brother, Praetorius was appointed organist of St Marien in Frankfurkt circa 1587. After just three years, he quit for unknown reasons and disappears from the record until settling in Wolfenbüttel in 1592 or 1593. In 1595, Praetorius was appointed organist for Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. During the course of several visits to Regensburg in the early 1600s, Praetorius became acquainted with the pastor Christoph Donaverus, whose dedicatory poems appear in ten of Praetorius’ printed works. In addition, while in Regensburg, Praetorius published the first part of his Musae Sioniae (1605).

In 1604, Praetorius was appointed the successor to court Kapellmeister Thomas Mancinus upon his retirement, a position he combined with his job as organist. The Kapelle was quite small at this time, consisting of about 12 to 6 members, half of which were instrumentalists and the other half singers. With the duke’s generous support, Praetorius and the Kapelle travelled to a number of cities including Prague. He subsequently stayed in Kassel at the court of Landgrave Moritz of Hesse between 1605 and 1609. Between 1605 and 1613, Praetorius was particularly prolific, as it is during this period that the majority of his collections were completed. At this time, he also had the honour of collaborating with Esaias Compenius, the famous organ builder, for whom he composed theOrgeln Verdingnis.

Praetorius’ world was turned around following the sudden and unexpected death of his employer Duke Heinrich Julius in 1613. At the request of Elector Johann Georg of Saxony to the duke’s successor, Friedrich Ulrich, Praetorius was to spend one year, his “year of mourning”, acting as deputy to Rogier Michael, the aging Kapellmeister of the electoral court. Instead of returning at the end of the year, Praetorius stayed in Dresden, where he was responsible for the music at the Assembly of Electors at Naumburg (1614). Furthermore, it was in Dresden that Praetorius became acquainted with Schütz and the new, influential trends in Italian music. During this period he also spent much time on his theoretical works. Praetorius’s time in Dresden came to an end in 1616, but he returned the next year to organize music for several events including the emperor’s visit and the centenary celebration of the Reformation.

In 1614, Praetorius also took up the position of Kapellmeister in Magdeburg to the administrator of the bishopric. Praetorius could be found in Halle in 1616 and 1617, where he helped the Hofkapelle of the counts of Schwarzburg at Sondershaussen. Among other assignments in various cities throughout Germany, he was also requested in Magdeburg in 1618, along with Schütz and Scheidt, to reorganize the music at the Cathedral.

Due to his frequent absence and eventual declining health, the quality of his own Wolfenbüttel Hofkapelle suffered dramatically. At Trinity 1620, Praetorius did not receive a re-appointed to the kapelle and instead focused on his position as prior of the monastery at Ringelheim, to which he had been appointed in 1614.

Upon his death in 1621, Praetorius left behind a large fortune that he designated to form a foundation for the poor.

Praetorius’ output is quite impressive, though many works are missing. Only one of his secular works exists still today in the form of a collection of instrumental French dances entitled Terpsichore (1612). Only one part of this collection is known, despite the fact that he had planned eight parts that were ‘almost ready but not yet in print’.

Praetorius’s output of sacred music is tremendous, numbering more than 1000 works, almost entirely based on Protestant hymns. A small number of his works were also based on the Latin liturgy of the Lutheran church service. The limited works not based on hymns include the Motectae et psalmi and Polyhymnia exercitatrix (1619-20), which are based on psalm texts.

Despite having written almost extensively in one genre, his works can be divided into five periods. Noticeable throughout his career is a transition from parodies (mostly on works by Lassus and Marenzio) to hymns and Lutheran works, eventually giving way to works inspired by Italian music. The first of Praetorius’ periods contains the Motectae et psalmi and Megalynodia Sionia (1602). Praetorius’ second period includes all nine parts of the Musae Sioniae while the third period included the majority of his Latin liturgical works, such as the Missodia Sionia (1611), Hymnodia Sionia (1611) and Eulogodia Sionia (1611). During his fourth period, Praetorius composed his Syntagma musicum which was followed by works from his fifth and final period such as the Puericinium, two parts of the Polyhymnia and Psalm cxvi (1623-4).

Praetorius’ writings are quite valuable as they give an in-depth and well-researched look into religious music in the early 17th century and the influence of Luther in addition to a comprehensive and detailed overview of all the instruments of his day, with an illustrated appendix.

Much of Praetorius’ music is still known today and he is often studied by music students and scholars for his theological knowledge of music and desire to create a type of music with universal elements at a time dominated by a tremendous change in music.