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01 December 2018

38. Don't fix it

All of my prior December posts have been connected to holiday music in one way or another, so I  continue that tradition here.  The breadth of repertoire heard in Christmas concerts and services gives a surprising representation across Western music historyeven in performance contexts that make no attempt to be representative.  This was driven home to me in the 1990s when Andrew Parrott released a number of discs pioneering the application of historically-informed performance practice to a wide swath of holiday music.  (These were ancillaries, in a way, to his New Oxford Book of Carolsthe splendid NOBC to which I will refer below.)  If you havent heard these, several have been reissued in a box set that is currently going cheaply.
SOURCE:  some of Parrotts albums, ripped from their Amazon.com pages
A significant portion of Parrotts work has been the much-needed defamiliarizing of the familiar:  So you think you know X?  Well, listen to this!  I will focus here on a rare example of early music surviving more or less intact in a variety of modern hymnalsalthough of course it is the more or less that interests me most of all.

Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) is among the musicians I admire most, particularly for the fecundity of his imagination.  He was industrious in self-publishing, too.  (Reading through his treatise Syntagma Musicum I suspect he would have been a blogger if he were still with us today, maybe producing something like Sarah Berezas considerations of all manner of things related to church music.)  Indeed, because of his voluminous publications, it seems likely that the vast majority of his compositions survives.  The bulk of his work is devoted to settings of Lutheran chorales, but the array of settings is dizzying:  two parts, three parts, four parts, five parts, six parts, seven parts, eight parts, ... sixteen parts, ... 24 parts....  No matter what forces you have at your disposal, from the humblest to the cast-of-thousands polychoral spectacular, Praetorius has a setting for younot just scaled down or scaled up, but completely re-thought for what those forces can do best.  A three-part setting might be SSA, or SAT, or ATT or ATB....  The mind boggles.  By the way, I think this is the best of his title pages, choirs earthly and heavenly joining in praise, just an extension in coelo of what he was trying to do in terra:
SOURCE:  title page of Musarum Sionarum (1607), here from the Cantus part-book (IMSLP #85603); larger size here.
Despite the breadth of his activity, Praetorius is most commonly encountered these days because of a single harmonization:  the German folk carol Es ist ein Ros, which he harmonized in part VI of his collection Musae Sionae (1609).  His setting is simple but sublime; I have often used it in theory courses to illustrate the potency of a single chromatic note in an otherwise diatonic harmony (as we would say now, he tonicizes ii in the last phrase)a moment that almost always sends chills down my spine when I hear it.  (Granted, Praetorius uses one other chromatic note, but it is a much more run-of-the-mill tonicization of V.)  No other harmonization of this melody has been a serious contender .  Its dominance is (literally) underscored by Jan Sandströms 1990 double-choir setting, in which Praetoriuss harmonization is surrounded by a halo of harmonysometimes clashing, but to great effect.


In English-language hymnals, the tune is usually set to one of two nineteenth-century translations:  Theodore Bakers from the German (Lo! how a Rose, eer blooming); or John Mason Neales from an apt but unrelated Greek Christmas hymn of St. Germanus (A great and mighty wonder; actually Neales translation has one too many lines per stanza, but it works anyway, as explained in NOBC).  It was Bakers text I heard first, as a child in the rural Presbyterian church in which I grew up.  Praetoriuss setting was in our hymnal, but I do not remember the congregation once being asked to sing it.  The choir did it as an anthem every year, as the syncopations would have posed some significant challenges to the rest of us.
SOURCE:  scan of cantus part-book of Musae Sionae VI (1609) from IMSLP #29879

In fact, the complicated metrical structure is one of the textual issues that prompts this post.  Praetorius didnt use barlines [his first edition is at right], although he does indicate the meter with a barred-C.  What he meant by that is not altogether clear; it need not necessarily mean groupings of two, nor indeed even that the half-note (as we think of it now) gets the beat.  Granted, Praetorius knew how to indicate triple groupings when he wanted them (most often with the time signature C3).  Subsequent hymnbook editors have devised various strategies to make the meter more accessible to their intended users.  First, they almost always halve the note values, with the half-notes becoming quarter-notes.  Then they adopt one of the following courses:

  1. avoiding barlines altogether except for between phrases, essentially acknowledging this is music from an unfamiliar time and place”
  2. regularizing the meter as if a Bach chorale, all in common time, thus suggesting this is just like many other hymns”
  3. re-casting it as if in 3/2 (admittedly only to the first two phrases, to construct an antiphon)
  4. presenting it in a mixed meter switching between 2/2 and 3/2; this seems to be most common, although the mixing of the meters varies a bit from book to book.  The most unusualwith a bit of 3/4 thrown inapparently originates with The English Hymnal of 1906, but appearing in various other books even into this century.
Because of the halved note-values, options 2, 3, and 4 impose a hyper-metrical structure on the tune:  even if we allow Praetoriuss pairs of half-notes as forming basic metrical unit, these strategies group those units into a larger pattern of stressed and unstressed beats.

The other main alteration to the Praetorius setting made by subsequent editors is much more substantial.  At the end of the fifth line, Praetorius has the alto line cross the cantus (= soprano), introducing the third of the triad above the melody.  Here it is as it appears in the Gesamtausgabe der musikalischen Werke von Michael Praetorius (this volume ed. Fritz Reusch in 1928):
SOURCE:  detail of p. 36 (with my mark-up) of a scan available on the IMSLP (#389072)--as indeed is the whole of the Praetorius edition!
Almost half of the hymnals I examined (21 out of 45) changed thismost often by moving the alto line to the bass, with many of these also adding a parallel ascending figure in the tenor:
SOURCE:  detail of Christian Worship (1993), p. 207 from hymnary.org
Others eliminate it entirely (moving the third to the tenor, as moving the third to the tenor makes the melodic motion superfluous):
SOURCE:  detail of Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New (2000), p. 4 from hymnary.org
I am also quite certain that I have somewhere seen it given to the soprano, altering the melody so that the soprano always has the top note.  I have not found this in any hymnbook, but I have an idea where I have seen it.  I have played enough Christmas services at enough churches to be pretty sure it was in a mass-produced cantater (as I perhaps too cruelly refer to that genre) that I accompanied at some point.  The alteration is left etched in my memory, even if I have forgotten its source.

(By the way, in the commentary on the tune in the hymnal handbook Songs of Praise Discussed, Archibold Jacob remarks that On analysis it will be found that much of the charm of the tune lies, inexplicably, in the curious little intercalary passage; it has rather the effect of an intimate aside [p. 46].  Perhaps so; I had to look up intercalary, but surely he is referring to this phrase.  (And I respect any commentator who will admit something is inexplicable.))

As I have been reviewing so many iterations of Praetoriuss setting, I have been surprised to see the number of English-language Roman Catholic hymnals that use Bakers translation of the text as bowdlerized by Praetorius:  the last couplet of the second stanza was originally (or at least was transmitted to Praetorius as)

hat sie ein Kind geboren
bleibend ein reine Magd
[gave birth to a child
yet remains a virgin]

The ever-virgin Mary didnt square with Lutheran theology, so Praetorius just used the last line of the stanza one (when half-spent was the night, in Bakers now-familiar translation); indeed, in the 1609 edition of Musae Sionae VI [illustrated above], it looks as if he merely omitted the text at the end of the second stanza, and the only words left to the singer are wol zu der halben Nacht, even though that yields a dodgy rhyme (Raht/Nacht).

Praetorius didnt mind making alterations to suit himself and his context, so perhaps I shouldnt make a big deal of those I discuss here.  But even though I resist the notion of any musical text being definitive, I am inclined to agree with the cleric and hymnologist G. R. Woodward:  The four part setting... by Michael Praetorius, 1609, cannot possibly be improved [p. 79].

Like the man said, If it aint broke, dont fix it.

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