We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean
Richard Taruskin

The Lutheran chorale partita had its vocal counterpart as well, in which sacred genres that had developed elsewhere were adapted to specifically Lutheran use. The result was the so-called chorale concerto, a mixed vocal-instrumental genre that in its more modest specimens seemed a direct outgrowth of Viadana’s pioneering Cento concerti ecclesiastici of 1602 (pirated by a German publisher seven years later) and that in its more opulent ones could vie with the most extravagant outpourings of the Venetians. Its two main exponents, besides Scheidt, were Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), organist to the Duke of Brunswick (Braunschweig), and Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630), the cantor of St. Thomas’s School in Leipzig, where J. S. Bach would occupy the same position a hundred years later.

The Chorale Concerto

fig. 2-5 Johann Hermann Schein, woodcut portrait at the Musical Instrument Museum, University of Leipzig.

Schein (like Sweelinck before him and Bach after him) was a contracted civil servant who reported to a town council, not a court or church employee who served at the pleasure of a patron. He published a great deal of secular music as well as sacred, including the Banchetto musicale (Leipzig, 1617), an early book of dances-for-listening organized into standardized sequences or suites (though Schein does not use the word). Played by ensembles of viols and violins, they probably served originally as dinner music (Tafelmusik, literally “table music”) at the noble houses where he served briefly before being elected “Thomaskantor.” Each suite in the collection consists of an old-style pair—a slow duple-metered padouana or pavan followed by a quick triple-metered gagliarda—and a new-style pair consisting of the same genres (courente and allemande, as Schein called them) that we saw in Frescobaldi. Each suite ended with a quick-time sendoff in the form of a fast triple-metered variation on the allemande called the tripla. What so distinguished Schein’s suites was his application to them of the keyboard variation technique pioneered by the virginalists and Sweelinck. The components of each suite, as Schein put it, were integrated both in mode and in “invention,” meaning that they were fashioned out of a common fund of melodic ideas so that they became in effect not only a suite but a set of variations as well.

Schein made three settings of Christ lag in Todesbanden. Two of them were Cantionalsätze, simple chorale harmonizations to accompany congregational singing. The third comes from Schein’s first continuo publication, Opella nova (“A new collection of works,” 1618), which consisted, according to its title page, of geistliche Concerten auff italiänische Invention componirt: “sacred concertos composed on the Italian plan.” It is scored for two sopranos (boys) and a tenor over a very active basso continuo. For instructions in realizing his continuo parts, Schein actually referred the user of his book to the preface of Viadana’s Cento concerti.

It looks at first as though the two boys are going to sing a paraphrase of the chorale melody, but it turns out that it is only Vorimitation, preparing the way for the tenor, the true bearer of the cantus firmus. In the second part of the concerto, corresponding in the original melody to the “B” of the AAB chorale form, the boy sopranos and the tenor are pitted against one another in true concertato style (Ex.2-9). The boys sing fanciful diminutions on the chorale phrases, full of imitations and hockets, that sound like countersubjects against the tenor’s rather stolid enunciations of the same phrases, unadorned. Take away the boys, replace them with violins or cornetts, and the piece would still be a viable chorale concerto. (In fact it might easily have been performed that way on occasion.)

The Chorale Concerto

ex. 2-9 Johann Hermann Schein, Christ lag in Todesbanden from Opella nova (1618), mm. 20–25

The incredibly industrious Michael Praetorius, who is said to have died pen in hand on his fiftieth birthday, produced in his relatively brief career well over a thousand compositions, most of which were issued in 25 printed collections published between 1605 and the year of his death. Except for eight chorale settings for organ and a very successful and influential book of ensemble dance music (Terpsichore, pub. 1612)—and also apart from five treatises, including the Syntagma musicum, a giant musical encyclopedia that came out in three volumes between 1614 and 1618—Praetorius’s works consist almost entirely of psalm motets (nine volumes called Musae sioniae, issued between 1605 and 1611) and chorale concerti. His most grandiose compositions were reached in what turned out to be his culminating publication, a three-volume monster issued between 1619 and 1621 and named, significantly, after the ancient Muse of oratory and sacred poetry: Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica (Polyhymnia, bringer of peace and singer of praise).

The concerti in this collection, some scored for as many as twenty-one mixed vocal and instrumental parts, were written (possibly on commission) after Praetorius had visited the court of Dresden, where the musical establishment was the envy of all Germany. The concerto on Christ lag in Todesbanden, from the second volume, is composed in such a way that it can be performed in various concerted combinations: by two boys with basso continuo, by two boys and two basses with basso continuo, or by two boys and a three- or four-part instrumental ensemble plus basso continuo, for a maximum of seven sounding parts.

In addition, when the two boys perform without competition from other concerted parts they are given the option of singing highly embellished lines—or rather, the composer supplied for them the sort of vocal diminutions more experienced singers habitually extemporized when performing concerted music. Ex. 2-10 shows how Praetorius decorated the chorale’s famous opening line. It is the rare instance like this one, where the composer went to the trouble of furnishing in advance what was normally left to the promptings of the moment, that give us our scarce and precious clues to what the written music whose physical remains we now possess really may have sounded like in life—that is, in performance.

The Chorale Concerto

ex. 2-10 Michael Praetorius, Christ lag in Todesbanden from Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, vol. II (Cantus I)

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-02005.xml