TENET Vocal Artists et al. of San Diego, in concert in New York City, Dec. 14, 2013

Last year I mentioned to my cousin John that I had downloaded the mp3 files of Praetorius’ Mass For Christmas Morning performed by the Gabrielli Consort and conducted by Paul McCreesh. They came, of course, without liner notes. A few days later, I received a meticulously and lovingly collated photocopy of the notes that came with John’s CD, trimmed to size and fastened together with staples. When John died in June, I promised myself I would get it out this Christmas, and, in his memory, I’d follow the complete text as I listened to the music saved to my hard drive.

The Christmas mass CD features McCreesh’s reconstruction of a “Lutheran Christmas service as it might have been heard in the early 17th century,” according to the Gabrielli Consort’s website. The YouTube video embedded above is from another performance of one of the songs, the 15th-century German carol In dulci jubilo (“Good Christian friends, rejoice” in the current English translation) by members of three San Diego early music consorts in concert at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. It’s not quite the same as McCreesh’s, but its combination of audio and video gives you an idea of the exquisite interplay of instruments and voice in Praetorius’ music. Here are two other YouTube links:

That Archiv recording is one I remember listening to with my family back in Norris, Tenn. In fact it was a big part of my introduction to Lutheran hymnody — to choral music in general — and I was thrilled to find it on YouTube a couple of years ago. There weren’t a lot of Lutheran churches in East Tennessee, and I grew up in another mainline Protestant church with a rich musical tradition of its own.

(As I think back on it now, it means I’m doubly blessed. In my little Episcopal parish in Norris, I sang in the choir and learned, without realizing it at the time, the fundamentals of Anglican chant and the hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Frances Alexander, who wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and St. Patrick’s Breastplate, among other beloved hymns. And now, to that I’ve added an interest the rich tradition of Lutheran hymnody.)

This mixed heritage of mine came about in an odd and indirect way. My father was a PK, a preacher’s kid, and my grandfather, or bestefar, was a pastor in the old Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod. According to a story I heard about years later, Dad wasn’t allowed to take communion in a nearby Lutheran church when he and my mother moved to Tennessee. (He wasn’t one to hold grudges, though, and he never mentioned it.) I don’t know which synod was involved, and I’m not sure I want to — Lutheran immigrants tended to form ethnic synods in America, and they all squabbled about fine points of doctrine. Whoever it was, they weren’t in table fellowship with the Norwegians.

Anyway, the upshot was that my family went to another church. But we had records at home. And that Deutsche Grammaphon album of golden oldies from Praetorius’ time came out every year when I was home for Christmas.

It wasn’t specifically about family heritage, though. Dad had quite a collection of choral music, mostly sacred, and I also remember listening to 10-inch LPs of the St. Olaf College choir singing F. Melius Christiansen’s arrangements of Lutheran chorales. But I thought of it as just the music we listened to at home, along with Poulenc’s Stabat Mater and a sampler of sacred music that had everything on it from the Kol Nidre to the Dutch Protestant hymn “We Gather Together” on it. Dad also had a weakness for organ music — he was especially fond of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony and a guy named E. Power Biggs I could never work up any enthusiasm for.

Once I asked Dad why he liked that organ stuff, it was so loud and overbearing. He said, well, he could see why I felt that way — he was fair-minded to a fault, always willing to look at both sides of an issue — but when he was my age, he developed a taste for organ music. He’d take the subway from Brooklyn, where Bestefar’s church was located in a Norwegian immigrant neighborhood, over to the big churches with world-class pipe organs in Manhattan. That made sense to me. We had a little electric organ in our small-town parish in Tennessee, and I guess it served to keep the choir on pitch — but it didn’t do much for me. Besides, my taste in music ran more to Ray Charles, Fats Domino and the Drifters at that stage in my life.

It wasn’t until later that I developed a taste in classical music. Or, to be more clinically accurate about it, that I realized I’d always liked the stuff — at least once I was safely at home and I didn’t have to worry about peer pressure. And I realized the music on those Christmas albums was as much a part of me as the pastries, canned fish, smoked Gouda, Norwegian goat cheese and flatbrød we got in Bestemor’s holiday care packages from Brooklyn. But I don’t recall thinking of Praetorius as a Lutheran composer.

If anything, I probably thought he was Norwegian (even though I’m sure I read the liner notes on the old LP and I knew full well Deutsche Grammaphon is a German label).

Fast-forward from the 1960s, when I left home, to the 1990s when my parents moved to the suburbs of Atlanta. After some shopping around to find a church they liked in Roswell and Alpharetta, they settled on an ELCA Lutheran church off the Alpharetta Highway in Roswell. It had open communion (in fact Bestefar’s old Norwegian synod had merged into ELCA), and they were welcomed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the beginning of a series of small lateral moves that would culminate with my joining a Lutheran church back up in Illinois. After Dad died in 1997, my mother moved to Springfield. One thing led to another, and I joined first a Luthern choir and then, inevitably, the church.

By the time they moved to Atlanta, Dad was getting pretty far along with Alzheimer’s disease, but he loved the music and the liturgy at their new church. It’s said they’re both among the last things to go. Going to church with my folks on Sundays when Debi and I visited Atlanta, I could see why he loved it. Much of the music was unfamiliar to me at that point, but the liturgy was very much like what I’d grown up with in the Episcopal church back in Tennessee. And I’ve always had a strong interest in hymnody, from early American folk hymns and shape-note singing schools (see HERE for a paper I presented at the Illinois Conference on History), even to Russian Orthodox traditions in Alaska (see HERE), and more recently to the hymns and gospel songs Swedish immigrants brought to America.

So it was a good fit. And, of course, was the Lutheran musical tradition.

It’s been an especially good fit since I retired from teaching and began researching the old Swedish-American Augustana Synod’s musical traditions (see HERE, for example, for notes of a presentation at its 155th anniversary celebration). When I had questions, and I had a lot of them over the years, I asked John. If anything, he was even more of a hymnody nerd than I am, and he was always happy to oblige.

At a memorable “cousins’ reunion” in the Catskills, I reconnected with family heritage as we sang hymns from Bestefar’s church in Brooklyn and I learned that Bestemor believed her family was descended from Johann Walther, a church musician and personal friend of Martin Luther’s who arranged several of the reformer’s early hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God. (I’ve blogged about that, too. See HERE and HERE, about family heritage in general.) On Bestefar’s side of the family, we’re descended from three generations of church musicians and pastors from Bergen to Brooklyn.

And at the cousins’ reunion in 2014, I was able to put my historical research skills to work and find a hymn, titled “In Jesus’ Name Our Work Must All Be Done,” that was sung in 1908 at the organizational meeting of Bestefar’s Lutheran church in Brooklyn. (I blogged about that, too, HERE.) “It isn’t exactly feel-good, happy-clappy church music,” I wrote. “[…] But it is appropriate for the organizational meeting of a new congregation.” It was family heritage, too, and as two of the cousins played it on a keyboard, it came alive.

Anyway, this all began back in Norris, listening to Dad’s old Deutsche Grammaphon LP of Christmas music from the time of Praetorius. And I can’t think of a better thing to do over the holidays than get out cousin John’s copy of the liner notes to the Praetorius Christmas Mass, follow the words and hum along to the music.


References: Wikipedia articles on Cecil Frances Alexander, Anglican chant, E. Power Biggs, F. Melius Christiansen, In dulci jubilo, Kol Nidre, Michael Praetorius, preface (liturgy), Quempas, Stabat Mater (Poulenc), Symphony No. 3 (Saint-Saëns) and We Gather Together.

[Published Nov. 27, 2022]

2 thoughts on “It’s beginning to look a lot like Advent — what better time for Christmas chorales, Praetorius and family heritage?

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