University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Michael Praetorius and his Syntagma Musicum

Volume X · Spring 1955 · Number 3
Michael Praetorius and his Syntagma Musicum

Michael Praetorius, baroque musician, was simultaneously an organist, a choirmaster and teacher, a prolific composer, and author of a prose work entitled Syntagma musicum, a highly significant source for musical history. Although specialization was not the order of his day and artists generally were expected to be versatile, it is certain that no ordinary musician could have possessed the talent and imagination, to say nothing of the energy, which enabled Praetorius to excel in so many different fields and to have had published such a great quantity of work in a lifetime of barely fifty years.

Praetorius was born in 1571 in Kreuzburg, where his father, Michael Schultheis, was a Lutheran pastor. The family name was latinized to Praetorius, the form which the writer of the Syntagma obviously preferred, for he usually identified himself in print with his monogram, MPC (Michael Praetorius Creutzbergensis). While young Praetorius was being educated at the Latin school in Torgau, his musical training was in the hands of the Cantor, Michael Voigt. In 1583 he matriculated as a nonjuratis scholar at the University of Frankfurt, but being too young to study there, he was sent to the Gymnasium in Zerbst, a town in which two of his sisters were then residing. Eventually he returned to the University of Frankfurt. His brother, Andreas, was a professor there, and possibly at his suggestion Michael studied philosophy for about three years. He filled in his spare time by acting as organist at St. Mary's Church.

At the age of eighteen Praetorius entered the service of Herzog Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel as a minor member of his court. He later became organist and chapel-master to this prince, starting in 1604 at a salary of 100 thalers per annum plus livery allowance, and finally achieving a stipend of 312 thalers. The increase was commensurate with his added duties of training the choirboys and of giving the young princes and princesses their daily instruction in music. This position was not as restricting as one might expect. Heinrich Julius was a generous patron who not only allowed Praetorius to accompany him on numerous trips, giving him opportunities to be heard as guest musician at other princely courts, but also encouraged him to have his compositions printed. Thus Praetorius achieved much fame as a performer  and as an authority on musical matters. "Primarius of Musicians" and "Archi-Musicus of Germany" were terms employed to honor him. The last years of his life, however, were troubled by serious illness and numerous petty annoyances arising after the death of his good patron. Praetorius died on February 15, 1621.

Praetorius was a man of astonishing enterprise and energy. From his father, who had been a fiery Lutheran zealot, he inherited a tenacity of purpose and stubbornness coupled with deep religious conviction. To Praetorius music was a form of Gottesdienst, a divine service, just as it had been to Luther. Dedication to his work was therefore a matter of conscience; but dedication and conscience alone did not account for his accomplishments. Praetorius was well educated, and he was blessed with a quick, orderly mind as well as a great deal of musical craftsmanship. Assimilating the methods of composition, both sacred and secular, that had been evolved in Germany and Italy (including the brilliant polychoral technique of Venice) he proceeded to compose successfully in a variety of styles. From the impressive number of works by him, the Musae Sioniae, containing 1,244 settings of chorales, may be cited as a case in point. The settings range from the simplest sort of harmonization to the most elaborate arrangements requiring several choirs for performance; some are written madrigal-wise, some motet-wise, and others cantus-firmus-wise. Bukofzer, in his Music in the Baroque Era, has called the Musae Sioniae a veritable encyclopedia of chorale arrangements. Two other examples may be added: the Megalynodia Sionia (Wolfenbüttel, 1611), containing fourteen settings of the Magnificat on various cantus firmus melodies, arranged for five, six, and eight voices; and the Missodia Sionia (Wolfenbüttel, 1611), containing one hundred and four sacred songs from the liturgy, arranged for two, three, four five, six, and eight voices. Both of these works are in the collection of seventeenth-century part-books in the Sibley Music Library.

The Syntagma musicum is not a piece of music but a scholarly historico-theoretical masterpiece. Its full title is: Syntagma musicum; ex veterum et recentiorumecclesiasticorum autorum lectione, polyhistorûm consignatione, vanarum linguarum notatione, hodierni seculi usurpatione, ipsius denique musicae antis observatione: in cantorum, organistarum, organopoeorum, caeterorum'que musicam scientiam amantium & tractantium gratiam collectum; et secundùm generalem indicem toti open praefixum, in quatuor tomos distnibutum, à Michaële Praetorio. Although four volumes are distinctly mentioned here, only three volumes and a supplement to the second volume appeared in print. The first book, published in Wittenberg by Johann Richter in 1615, is written in Latin and generously sprinkled with quotations from Greek and Hebrew sources. It is also interspersed with German notations and occasional pithy phrases, such as "Wer unnötigen Sachen nachgehet, der ist ein Narr" (He who pursues unnecessary matters is a fool). The dedicatory letter, twenty-one pages in length, is addressed to churchmen as follows: Reverendissimi, illustrissimi, reverendi, nobilissimiexcellentissimi, clarissimi, doctissimiqve D. D. Episcopi, Abbates, Patres, Praepositi, Canonici, Doctores, & Ecclesiarum Inspectores, Domini Patroni & fautores colendi.

This volume is divided into two well-balanced sections in parallel structure. The first part is an historical account of ecclesiastical music, starting with the practices of the ancient world (Jewish, Greek, and Roman), continuing with the development of Christian music (settings of the Mass and other parts of the liturgy), and ending with a description of the instruments (e.g., psaltery, cithara, buccina) mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. The second part is an historical account of secular music: musica profanaliberalis, ingenua, humana. Beginning with the art of the Greeks, the author studies the relationship of music to ethics and to the physical sciences, as well as to the arts of poetry and the drama. He quotes from such classical authors as Homer, Plato, Sophocles, and Horace, to clarify his statements and to authenticate his points of view. There follows a section on the classification, description, and history of the instruments (e.g., magadis, cornet, tuba) used in secular music.

The second volume of the Syntagma is written in German and is dedicated to the Burgomaster and the City Council of Leipzig, as well as to all lovers of "German and other national instrumental music." It bears the subtitle, De organographia, and was printed in 1619 in Wolfenbüttel by Elias Holwein, official printer of Braunschweig. Official printer or not, Holwein made reading of this book difficult, for the lines of print are uneven and the words often crowded together. Nevertheless, the material contained is of utmost interest. Praetorius classifies all the music instruments known to him. Then, taking the classifications in turn, he describes each instrument in minute detail, including the variations of its name, its history, its tuning and range, and its tone quality. In one large section (Theil 3) which is devoted to early organs, Praetorius gives an account of the small and crude mechanisms of the ancients and tells of subsequent improvements in the keyboard and bellows, shape of the keys and arrangement of the keyboards, and the development of wind chests and their function.  Some famous old pipe organs are described: for example, the Halberstadt organ, built by the priest Nikolaus Faber and finished on February 23, 1361 , is reported to have twenty-two keys, with wind power supplied by twenty bellows operated by ten men. Praetorius also says that small primitive organs capable of emitting only twelve or thirteen tones were sometimes hung up against a column in the church like so many swallows' nests. Theil 4, entitled "newen Orgein," is as complete an account of the German baroque organ as can be found anywhere. Finally, in the last portion of the volume, the author gives the specifications for a number of German organs which he considers to be either musically or structurally interesting, including the St. Thomas organ in Leipzig.

Published in Wolfenbüttel in 1620, after the appearance of volume III but supplementing volume II is theTheatrum instrumentorum. The book does not contain a dedication. It consists entirely of forty-two woodcuts, executed to scale, of the instruments discussed in the text of De organographia. Among the several plates devoted to the organ is one (Plate I) showing an old "positive" organ with its short keyboard - its double bellows clearly visible behind its rank of pipes. In another (Plate XXVIII) one can see the arrangement and shape of keys for diatonic and chromatic tones, equivalent to the white and black keys of the present-day keyboard. Plate XXVI is most curious. Two men are shown working a double row of giant bellows behind a large organ. Each bellows is equipped with shoes, and the men, holding onto a traverse rod for support, run up and down the rows, sticking their feet into the proper pair of bellows-shoes and pumping with their entire weight. While one is impressed with the amount of physical labor involved, he cannot help wondering whether the wind supply was really adequate. What fluctuations of pitch and volume must have occurred when the men became tired and slowed down their pumping! And what if one tripped, or accidentically stepped on the wrong bellows? Besides organs a great many other instruments are pictured, some singly and others in groups. One of the finest of the woodcuts is of a single-manual harpsichord (Plate III).

Volume III of the Syntagma printed in Wolfenbüttel by Holwein in 1619, is dedicated to the Burgomaster and the City Council of Nuremburg. Written in German, it is divided into three parts. The first part contains a description of all the vocal forms used in the early baroque period and late Renaissance in Italy, France, England, and Germany. Beginning with the Italian madrigal, Praetorius defines each form, and whenever possible, gives examples of the types of texts used in the setting. In the case of the madrigal he uses Petrarch's poems as illustrations. So lucid are the descriptions that today this section of the book serves as a valuable source of information concerning styles which, though no longer in use, are of historical importance.

The second part is a veritable treatise on theory, dealing with problems of notation, solmization, rhythm, transposition, and distribution of voice parts. The third part consists of a dictionary of Italian musical terms, a series of essays on such matters as the arrangement of the chapel choir and rules of thorough bass or basso continuo, and a dissertation on how to train boys' choirs according to the Italian manner. While on casual examination the organization of this volume might appear haphazard, in reality the material follows a logical plan. Taken as a whole the text is a clear exposition of music, both in theory and in practice.

Praetorius' preoccupation with Auffiïhrungspraxis or customs of musical performance is especially interesting. To illustrate: (1) he translates and interprets Viadana's rules on basso continuo, a method of instrumental accompaniment much favored by the author; (2) along with Caccini, Conforti, and Banchieri he discusses coloratura embellishment of the vocal line in performance; and (3) in cases where the Renaissance composers failed to indicate orchestration in their music, he urges the choice of suitable instruments by the performing group, based upon such considerations as tone color, range, and the possibilities of mixtures of sonorities. Sometimes he ventures opinions of matters of musical taste. He believes, for instance, that string ensembles are more refined than wind or brass ensembles, and he prefers the "Englisch consort" (strings and woodwinds together) as a medium for chamber music. Although Praetorius has most often been associated with German music, it becomes apparent that he was lacking in neither knowledge nor appreciation of non-Germanic forms.

Had the projected fourth volume of this masterpiece been written, it would have dealt with the subject of counterpoint. More is the pity that Praetorius did not get to it; an account of contrapuntal practices would surely have been an asset to musical historians and theorists.

There is no question of the worth of the Syntagma. Lang, in his Music in Western Civilization, considers it (along with Mersenne's Harmonie universelle) our most important source of seventeenth century musical history. Reese, in his Music in the Renaissance, agrees; he says that although as a composer Praetorius belongs to the baroque era, his  Syntagma supplies valuable information about late Renaissance music. Many organists believe Praetorius' description of the baroque organ to be the most accurate and most detailed obtainable in any work; and Blumenfeld, considering the merits of the entire second volume, produced an English translation of it in 1949. Moreover, aside from the text itself, other distinctive features of the Syntagma should be noted here. This treatise is one of the first to show the historical tendency (i.e., the orderly chronological presentation of factual material), especially in volume I and to some degree in volume II. For this reason, although there is little interpretation of the facts, this work is important in the development of musical historiography. From a bibliographical point of view the Syntagma is also significant. Praetorius was a great believer in the index (certainly a great bibliographical aid), and many are the indexes to be found: a composer index, a writer-and-scholar index, an instrument-maker index, subject index, and even an index of his own musical compositions which at the time of the publication of the Syntagma were already in print or about to appear in print. Since Praetorius himself in his introductory remarks to compositions, referred constantly to material in the Syntagma, it is apparent that he considered his work to be a practical guide to performance and study.

The Sibley Music Library possesses a copy of the three books and the Theatrum instrumentorum gathered together in a bulky parchment-bound quarto volume, and a second copy of De organographia and theTheatrum in a smaller parchment-bound volume. The former was purchased in 1928 from Paul Gottschalk; the latter was purchased a few years earlier. In the article on Praetorius in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians mention is made of two versions of volume II, one printed in 1618, the other in 1619. The Sibley Music Library copies are both of the 1619 printing. The books show sign of much use; the paper is thin and the pages are fragile. Recently the University of Rochester Press issued the entire work on microcards made from the Sibley Music Library copy, thereby making this important work readily accessible to scholars everywhere.