Rich musical discoveries: the sound world of Hieronymus Praetorius

David SkinnerFri 31st May 2019

Alamire will be releasing its first album on the new specialist early music label, Inventa, under its parent company Resonus Classics. Here, the group’s director, David Skinner, talks about the project

Some 30 years ago I became captivated by recordings of early music, and in particular the groups that went on to define the industry such as the Tallis Scholars, Sixteen, Taverner Consort and others. At that time there were few such established ensembles, and in 1989 The Cardinall’s Musick was formed. For 17 years I produced some 20 recordings under the inspirational direction of Andrew Carwood, a superb musician and exceptional choir trainer. In 2006 I took up my post at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Andrew as Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Cardinall’s of course went from strength to strength, leaving me to concentrate on the formation of Alamire, a top-class group of musicians that have become so closely aligned with my growing research interests.

Alamire tends to operate quite differently from many other early music groups. All of our recording projects are motivated by fresh discoveries, historical events or new light on the musical sources themselves. It is not often the case that music academics are fortunate enough to realise the practical elements of their research on a regular basis, and indeed with some of the finest singers and players in the industry. Typically our projects take a little over a year to conceive, research, edit, record and release, and many are accompanied by academic articles, facsimiles of the original music and modern performing editions. I often worried that our projects were so niche that they might not enjoy popular appeal, so was delighted when we received the 2015 Gramophone Award for a double CD of mostly extremely obscure early 16th-century French motets, ‘The Spys Choirbook’, gifted to Henry VIII in the 1520s. This followed with music from Anne Boleyn’s Songbook, along with a manuscript study and facsimile by DIAMM (www.diamm.ac.uk), then Thomas Tallis ‘Songs of Reformation’ which highlighted one of the most significant discoveries of Tallis’s music in several decades resulting in a premiere performance of an earlier version of Gaude gloriosa dei mater, with words by none other than Queen Katherine Parr.

Moving forward, it was clear that our first project under the Inventa label must be both grand and quite new. The music of Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) has been on my radar for many years, indeed since singing his famous Christmas Magnificat a8 as a choral scholar in Oxford. What always struck me is that Hieronymus’s music has not fared well in terms of exposure with other polychoral masters of the late Renaissance such as the Gabrielis, Hassler and others. Some of his eight-part works have relatively recently made it on to CD, but his largest polychoral works largely have remained silent doubtlessly owing to the required performing forces and sheer effort of production. For our new recording not only are some of the lesser-known eight-part works introduced, but also those for 10, 12, 16 and 20 voices. All of these have freshly been edited from the various volumes of Hieronymus’s Opus musicum, all published in Hamburg, while the organ alternatim Sequences and the Missa Summa are heavily reliant on Klaus Beckmann’s edition of 2002 published by Schott. With 10 instrumentalists and 16 singers this is by far the largest scale project we ever attempted, and, for an independent label, extremely expensive. (Like William Byrd did in his time, we rely heavily on the generosity of our patrons!)

Given the ample scoring, multiple forces were demanded in order adequately to realise the music, as solo consort performance would certainly not have provided the required weight and sonority. Here we have much valued help from Syntama Musicum by Michael Praetorius (no relation to Hieronymus) published between 1614 and 1620. He highlights no fewer than 12 principal styles of performance options of polychoral ‘concertati’, where multiple choirs of varying combinations of voices and instruments perform over a basso continuo, involving numerous combinations of voices and practically every instrument under the sun whether they be plucked, bowed or blown. In the end we opted primarily for varying arrangements of cornets, sackbuts (with His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts) and singers over a chamber organ continuo played by Stephen Farr.

Various combinations were explored from the doubling of voices and instruments, or a judicious mix between the choirs, while others are perfectly crafted for a ‘call and response’ effect between choirs of singers and instruments. The ‘smaller’ eight-part works have been allocated to solo instruments and voices only, while two sequences and the Missa Summa are for solo organ and plainchant, providing a most fitting contrast the larger scaled works. Hieronymus’s mastery of the instrument is obvious, as well as his delicate handling of textures which the organist might freely bring out from among the many colours of a large early modern organ (in this instance the grand historic instrument at Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark). What we have created therefore is a near-complete stylistic snapshot of this relatively unknown northern European master polyphonist.

What’s next? Very exciting projects involving John Sheppard and William Byrd, but that’s for another time!

Alamire’s release of large-scale choral works by Hieronymus Praetoruis is released on Inventa Records today. Alongside Alamire, the album features His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts and organist Stephen Farr. For details, please visit resonusclassics.com

David Skinner's picture

David Skinner

David Skinner is Fellow and Osborn Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and artistic director of Alamire. His research has centred around music institutions, manuscripts and composers of 16th-century Europe, and is particular specialism is music and the Reformation in England.

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