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Anna Steppler Presents "A Lenten Fantasy"

Hans Leo Haßler (1564-1612): Ricercar del terzo tono

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621): christe qui lux es et dies  

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621): Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht (No. 106, Musae Sioniae V, 1607)

attr. Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629): christe qui lux (Visby Tablature, 1609-11)

Sweelinck: Fantasia cromatica SwWV 258

Were you to find yourself in Protestant Northern Europe around 1600, the four organists in this recital would be among the most celebrated musicians you could hope to hear. All born within a decade of each other (1560-70/1), these four men held important positions at courts and major churches, and were renowned composers, theorists, and teachers. In acknowledgement of the vital role the rhythms of the church year had in the musical lives of these men, this program explores the delicate sweetness and reflection of our current season of Lent, with contrapuntal fantasies woven around settings of the Lenten evening hymn Christe qui lux es et dies.

Hans Leo Hassler and Michael Praetorius held positions in the major Lutheran courts of Dresden and Wolfenbüttel respectively, where they oversaw a large cohort of musicians and were responsible for liturgical chapel music and courtly festivities. Indeed, after Hassler’s death, Praetorius took over responsibilities at Dresden too for a period; both men were published composers and respected organists. Hieronymus Praetorius and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, meanwhile, were the organists of St. Jakobi in Hamburg and the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, important civic positions that required rather different musical duties given the divergent positions of Lutheranism and Calvinism on the role of music (and the organ) in church liturgy.

Hassler’s ricercar and Sweelinck’s fantasia are monumental contrapuntal structures, both taking a simple subject and exploring it exhaustively in a variety of guises. Hassler’s opening theme emerges periodically across the work, sitting alongside several other livelier subjects, and finally taking over once more to draw the work to a close. Along the way, Hassler introduces a theme reminiscent of a fragment of plainchant melody (an extract from the Te Deum, tu Rex gloriae, Christe). Whether intentional or not, this half-heard remembrance serves in our Lenten context as a hint of Easter joy to come, its long held notes filtering through the texture as the other voices dance around it. Sweelinck treats his single chromatic theme throughout, putting it through a kaleidoscopic range of rhythms and durations. The intense chromaticism pervading the piece is highly unusual, and the seemingly effortless, dense working of the subject shows why Sweelinck was such a renowned teacher.

The three settings of christe qui lux es et dies place the plainchant hymn in all different registers of the organ’s compass and explore both the colors of the instrument and the myriad ways it can sing out a cantus firmus melody. Following in the contemporary tradition of intabulating vocal settings for keyboard, the piece at the heart of the program is a small, five-voice choral work by Michael Praetorius, using the German translation of the first verse. To render this work at the organ, I have placed key structural moments of the discant voice in the pedal so that it sings out the cantus firmus. Surrounding this are two organ settings of several verses: by Sweelinck, and an anonymous offering from the Visby tablature, attributed to Hieronymus Praetorius. Sweelinck’s setting maintains the cantus firmus in long, held notes, which ring out in the discant and tenor, before doubling in speed for the final verse, singing out over the manualiter texture of bubbling figuration. Praetorius both builds virtuosic textures above a bass cantus firmus, reveling in the possibilities of a large pedal division, and delicately embellishes his discant melodies with figuration, most vibrantly in his final verse.

A word about registration—I have tried in this recital to use the Anabel Taylor organ to evoke the colors favored by this earlier generation of organists: a sound world rather different, even if related, to that created by Arp Schnitger (and here, beautifully, by his 21st-century disciple, Munetaka Yokota). The projection of the cantus firmus is of top priority throughout the hymn settings. The pedal frequently sings out at the top of the texture—a 4’ reed in my intabulation of Michael Praetorius, or the delicate 2’ Nachthorn in the first verse of Sweelinck’s christe qui lux—as well as providing a rich, cantus firmus tenor or bass line beneath a variety of plenum sounds. Verses two and four of the Visby tablature setting use solo registrations attested to in contemporary sources: an 8’ Quintadena and 1’ flute sing the melody in verse two, and the Hamburg “zinck registration” takes the role in verse four (a rich reed solo set against principals and a softer reed in the pedal).

For the two large contrapuntal works I have taken two different approaches. For Hassler, whose Italianate style pays homage to his teacher Gabrieli, I have opted to use pedal at various points to acknowledge his German milieu, and taken the chance to explore a variety of different colors across the instrument as the ricercar progresses. For Sweelinck, to draw the recital to a contemplative close, I have contrasted the two manual divisions of the Anabel Taylor organ, predominantly using the Hauptwerk 8’ principal and Rückpositif 4’ flute. The contrast of complementary principal and flute choruses based at different pitch levels (often at 16’ and 8’ pitch) is found in various organ designs of the period, and I have used this as inspiration here to draw on the two most lovely stops of our organ: I hope Michael Praetorius would find them particularly “lieblich.” I have also opted to solo out the theme in augmentation with a soft 16’ and 2’ in the pedal at one point, another favorite combination of the period.

—Anna Steppler