Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)

with one comment

It can be said about Michael Praetorius that had he not been a musician, there would have been no Johann Sebastian Bach. Does that sound a bit extreme? Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

Michael was the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor who’d been a student of Martin Luther, in Kreutzburg Germany. It’s not clear what the family name was, but it could have been Schultze, Schultheiss, Schultz, or Schulteis. In case you were thinking it wasn’t obvious, Praetorius is the traditional Latinized form of that family of names. Latinizing names was common in the 16th and 17th century.

Praetorius became the organist at the Marienkirche in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1585. He would have been 14 years old, so his gift was evident early. He stayed there for ten years, and then went on to serve the Bishop of Halberstadt as organist. Next, he gained the patronage of Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, and went with him to Wolfenbüttel, where he became choir master in 1603. He got himself a job as the royal organist at Dresden, and there, he worked with another famous organist, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). From there, he travelled a lot and earned quite a reputation as conductor, as an organist, and as an expert on instruments and musical practices.

He published his first compositions in 1602 and 1603, when he would have been in his early thirties. These works established him as a composer of some great skill and his reputation grew from there. He probably wrote the very familiar Christmas carol, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, in 1609. (The composer is presumed, but not known, to be Praetorius.)

He soon became a prolific composer for the Lutheran church. The majority of his output is contained in a huge book called Musae Sioniae. It contains 1244 chorale settings, but he published even more than that, from large-scale polyphonic variations with instrumental support, to itty bitty simple melodies. He also wrote oodles of other liturgical music and a set of 312 dances (Terpsichore).

His three-volume treatise Syntagma Musicum (1619) is a compendium of information on German music, musical instruments, and performance. He collected musical information on his travels, much like the Brothers Grimm collected fairy tales in the 19th century.

The astonishing books of Syntagma Musicum contain information on instruments, instrumentation, rhythms, tempos, voicings, treatises on organists playing from a score rather than from parts, and transpositions. He declared which instruments were suitable for forming a kind of foundation (called continuo, like organs and harpsichords), ornamentation (melodic instruments, like viols, violins, cornetti, flutes, recorders, shawms, trombones, cornamusas, crumhorns, and curtails), or to be instruments played as accompaniment (like spinets, lute, theorbo, double cittern, harp, lyra de braccio, and chittarone).

Sadly, Praetorius called the hurdy-gurdy bad names, saying that it was the lyre of peasants and itinerant wenches. Harumph. He may have known lots of stuff, but the hurdy-gurdy is still one of my favorite instruments, so I think he didn’t know good hurdy-gurdy playing, or maybe he was anti-drone. He did like another even more obscure instrument, called the viola organista, a sort of bowed keyboard instrument invented by Leonardo da Vinci, and wrote a whole chapter in Syntagma Musicum on it and its descendants. They sounded, according to Praetorius, like an orchestra of viols.

He and his colleague Jan Sweelinck (1562-1621) laid the foundations for 17th and 18th century German organ music, which is considered the pinnacle era for organ music. This is what I meant when I said that without Praetorius, there would have been no J.S. Bach (1685-1750). If Praetorius and Sweelinck hadn’t written prescriptions for how accompaniment, ornamentation, solos, and parallel performances should be done, what Bach produced would have been rather different, or possibly nonexistent.

Praetorius developed a new form of music, called the “chorale concerto,” based on the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. He was one of the first German composers to make use of Italian performance practices.

Musae Sioniae (1605-1610) is one of his more famous collections. It’s in nine parts: Parts I through IV contain double choir pieces for 8 or 12 voices; Part V is celebratory songs set into motets (Festlieder); Parts VI, VII, and VIII are four-part settings for congregational use, consisting of 746 pieces and using 458 different texts; and in Part IX, he resets the hymns from parts I-IV, only in two or three voices this time.

Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica, a collection dating from 1619, includes works styled after those of his colleagues, such as Monteverdi’s Vespers, Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae Book II, and the works of Ludovico Grossi da Viadana and Agostino Agazzari.

His most famous book, Syntagma Musicum, is in three volumes: Part I is the history of music (published in 1615); Part II discusses instrumentation (published in 1618) with a supplementary volume of illustrations called Theatrum Instrumentorum (published in 1620); and Part III is a detailed description of Italian-styled but distinctly German performance practice, with or without continuo, including instrumentation, voicings, and so forth. A fourth volume on composition was left unfinished at his death.

Some of these books were written in Latin, as was traditional for all learned works at the time, but his book on organ playing (Die Organographia, published in 1618), was written in German, as was the third book of Syntagma Musicum, and a volume on musical terms (Termini Musicali, published in 1618).

Terpsichore (1612), a collection of more than 300 instrumental dances, is probably his most widely known work and his only secular work to survive.

The number and quality of his works surpassed his contemporaries’ in bulk and variety, and most were based on Lutheran hymns both simple and elaborate. It was common practice to “borrow” from folk music, hymn books, and other composers, and it still is. Praetorius was no different from the rest, although he was probably better than most.

Stories go that Praetorius occasionally regretted not becoming a minister, and his deep religiousness and his family history is evident in his choice of texts.

He died on his 50th birthday (some people just can’t deal with getting older) in Wolfenbüttel in 1621, and is entombed beneath the organ of the Marienkirche there.

My first choral experience was singing works by Praetorius. The group performed in four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and in four choirs, each in a different corner of the performance hall. Each group of four parts was elegant and complete in its own right, and I imagine that sitting in the middle of the four groups, all singing complementary works, was like experiencing a sort of aural butterfly migration.

This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of David Babbitt (1947–2006), director of the San Francisco Bach Choir from 1981-2006, a brilliant conductor and composer who seemed to “channel” Praetorius in his own works, and because of whom, I am a singer today (rather than the instrumentalist I had been since childhood). The power of a genius gives and gives, far beyond its obvious reach.


“The Interpretation of Early Music,” by Robert Donington, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1989

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“Temperament, The Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” by Stuart Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001


For more blogs like this, see my website at and look in both the Completely Off Topic page and the Blogs listings.

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you Ms Spiller for your invaluable composer-biography monograms which you published on Wikipedia during 2013.
    On 17.5.16, I looked up the German Composer Michael Praetorious, because I am often reminded of my treble-voiced choir-boy days 60 years ago, when reminiscing with a friend. We often hum the wonderful melodies of our favourite anthems, carols & canticles.
    High on my top choice favourites is M.P’s score /music of ‘Lo, how Rose tree e’er blooming’. It is because this music was set to the Christian canticle of the title: ‘The noble Stem of Jesse’, at some unknown time in a more modern time in the history of church music, that I can remember how that simple but melodic composition rendered an otherwise dull piece of prose so beautiful & memorable. I do not know who first paired up those words with Praetorious’s original canticle or even when it was done, but the effect created by the matching up, produced an inspired result.

    David Hall

    May 18, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: