Christmas and the Spectacular Music of Michael Praetorius

By | December 24, 2021

In 1994 Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort released an absolutely stunning recording of sacred music. In the previous years they had released three recordings:

  • A Venetian Coronation, a recreation of a coronation that took place in Venice, Italy in 1595 (released 1990);
  • Christmas Mass in Rome featuring the music of Palestrina (released 1993); and
  • Venetian Vespers, a recreation of an evening service as it might have been celebrated at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1534 (released 1993).

These recordings created quite a stir among musical circles with their magnificent music, exciting and immaculate performances, and their new approach to presenting early music: placing it within its original context rather than as isolated works on a concert program. But there was an even more sensational recording to come.

With their 1994 recording (album cover below) the Gabrieli Consort became known the world over. With the joyous and spectacular music of the Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius (c1572-1621), they offered a recreation of “a Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning as it might have been celebrated around 1620.” It quickly became their most popular recording and remains so to this day. In 2019 they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the release of this recording with five live reprise performances of the program throughout Europe.1

CDs of this recording are still available and it also can be found on your favorite streaming service. In English the album was released as Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning. The German release, however, was simply entitled Christmette, which means that McCreesh’s intent was to recreate a midnight Christmas Eve service (i.e. very early on Christmas morning).2

The youngest son of a Lutheran pastor, Praetorius spent his career as a musician in various German courts. Musicologists spent much of the 20th century dusting off library shelves and making modern editions of early music for the benefit of scholars and performers. In this effort, the work of Praetorius became an important source. Besides composing volumes upon volumes of music for Lutheran worship services in all combinations of voices and instruments, he wrote a highly illustrated encyclopedic musical treatise published in three volumes that details the instruments, theoretical underpinnings, and performance practices of his day. For more information, visit Syntagmum Musicum.

However, studying the music and performing it are quite different things. Fortunately, there were others who concentrated on the practical aspect of performing this music. They learned and studied how to reconstruct and play early instruments. Much of this knowledge had been lost through the centuries as instrument makers in their constant search for more volume, better tone, and more dynamic range abandoned the work of their predecessors. It took much study and a lot of trial and error to recover this knowledge. In England this effort began over a century ago with the work of Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) and his family (see the “Dolmetsch Story”), musicologist and performer Robert Donington (1907-90),3 and David Munrow (1942-76)4 to name a few. The extensive writings and music of Michael Praetorius were invaluable to this movement.

Paul McCreesh (b. 1960) benefited from the work of all these scholars and performers and in his concerts and recordings has been able to synthesize their work into spectacular performances. He began by studying cello and musicology at the University of Manchester in England. Early in his career he established a chamber choir and a historic instrument group, predecessors to the Gabrieli Consort which he formally established in 1982.

If you are new to this recording, I highly recommend listening to it. Those who attend liturgical services will be familiar with its form as it follows the order of a historic Communion service (for the content of the recording click here). The readings are chanted since that was the practice at that time because without amplification chanting made it easier to hear and understand the words. Practicing Lutherans will be familiar with the Christmas hymns such as “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (VOM HIMMEL HOCH) and “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice” (IN DULCI JUBILO). There is also the charming and joyous QUEMPAS CAROL. Audio recordings of the full performance are available on YouTube or your favorite streaming service. Unfortunately, streaming services don’t offer translations or program notes. In the future I will try to update this post with those resources.

Below is a video of a spectacular performance of IN DULCI JUBILO from of a live performance of this program. I found it very interesting. I hope you enjoy it too.

May God richly bless your Christmas celebrations and may God grant you the peace and joy that only the Christ Child can give!

Michael Praetorius music for Christmas on Sheet Music Plus Home Page
  1. These concerts were presented in Gdansk, Poland (December 15); London, England (December 17); the Chapelle Royale of the Palace of Versailles in France (two performances on December 21); and Rotterdam, Holland (December 22). For a video advertising these performance click here. For a review of one of the performances click here.
  2. “Christmette” is a German word that refers specifically to a Christmas worship service generally held late on Christmas Eve or at midnight (see the definition at the Collins Dictionary). Translated as “Christmas Mass” in the recording titles, in the context of Lutheranism it is better translated “Christmas Midnight Service.”
  3. Robert Donington was a British musicologist who became very influential with the publication of The Instruments of Music first published in 1949 and The Interpretation of Early Music first published in 1963. In 1973 he published A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music. Although he was a British musicologist, he taught for many years at American universities including my alma mater, the University of Iowa where he was on the faculty from 1966-73. His books on early music were of a practical nature intended as much for performers and early music aficionados as musicologists.
  4. David Munrow popularized early music with many performances and recordings before his untimely death. Along with Christopher Hogwood (1941-2014) he formed the Early Music Consort, one of whose recordings was selected to be placed on the Golden Record of NASA’s two Voyager space probes. For more information, see the article “Remembering David Munrow”.