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Incipit (cantus part) from
Canticum Trium Puerorum
(Renato Calcaterra)
Click to zoom

Now and again music history gives us personalities whose accomplishments range far and wide, well beyond composition. One such musician is Michael Praetorius. Not only did he leave us a good-sized body of music both sacred and secular, he created a reference volume that generations of early music researchers and performers have found invaluable: Syntagma Musicum, describing performing practice and musical instruments in the late Renaissance era.

Among Praetorius’s many publications of Lutheran church music is the collection Musarum Sioniarum: Motectae et Psalmi Latini. The 34th item in that volume is a setting of a text from the Latin Vulgate Bible.

In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – also called Ananias, Azarias and Misael – the three men refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, so Nebuchadnezzar has them thrown into a furnace. There, the story goes, they’re protected by an angel. They walk about in the flames, unscathed, praying and singing.

This text has come to be called The Prayer of the Three Holy Children. In the Latin Praetorius used, it’s Canticum Trium Puerorum – the song of the three boys. It’s not clear to me why they’re called boys or children when all of the biblical text refers to them as men, but those seem to be the terms used.

If Bach was the master of number symbolism (more detail here and here), Praetorius excelled at word-painting, at least in this work. Where his text is "bless the lightning and clouds," at "fulgura" (lightning) he zig-zags the music across the voices. At "nubes" (clouds) the music gets softer and darker.

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But Praetorius’s best word-painting is the trick he plays on us throughout the entire work.

Praetorius structures Canticum Trium Puerorum as a series of verses and two alternating refrains, on a text which exhorts all of Creation to bless the Lord. In the first verse, two high voices (they would have been the boys of his choir) speak of the angels and heaven.

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With each verse, Praetorius adds more voices. By the time he reaches the last lines of the text almost 20 minutes later, all of Creation is indeed singing – or at least all 8 voices in his choir.

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Our recording is from 1980 (regrettably, out of print). It was produced by Erato Records of France, with the Audite Nova Chorale of Paris and director Jean Sourisse. The choir is doubled in the refrains by a small cornett and sackbut ensemble. In general, when it comes to Renaissance music, there’s ample evidence to support the use of such doubling. However, some purists might insist that since Praetorius didn’t specify an instrumental ensemble, a pure choral reading would be safer, if you’re going for authenticity.

A reviewer for Gramophone also sniffed that the 38-voice choir was too large for Praetorius. I’ll stay out of this one and let that reviewer work it out with Praetorius, should they ever meet. I will say, though, that I suspect that reviewer would wax apoplectic if he heard Erato’s earlier recording of this work.

That older performance was my own introduction to Canticum Trium Puerorum, back when I was little more than a pup, musically speaking. This was long before the historically informed performance movement had made any real inroads, and it made no claims whatsoever to authenticity. Praetorius’s modest notes were sung by a massive 500-voice choir, doubled in the refrains by a blaring modern brass band (the Paris Police Force brass ensemble, if you can imagine that). It produced the sort of effect that, as the recording’s annotator pointed out, Praetorius could only have dreamed of.

That recording was distributed in the US over a half-century ago under the Westminster label, and later by Musical Heritage Society. It’s many years out of print. We’ll just have to make do with 38 voices.

Latin text to Canticum Trium Puerorum
From the Vulgate Bible (Daniel 3)
Benedicite, Angeli Domini, Domino: benedicite, cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, angels of the Lord: the heavens bless the Lord.
Benedicite, aquæ omnes, quæ super cælos sunt, Domino: benedicite, omnes virtutes Dómini, Domino. Bless the Lord, all waters above the heavens: bless the Lord, all powers of the Lord.
Benedicite, sol et luna, Domino: benedicite, stellæ cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, sun and moon: Bless the Lord, stars of heaven.
Benedicite, omnis imber et ros, Domino: benedicite, omnes spiritus Dei, Domino. Bless the Lord, rainshowers and dew: Bless the Lord, every spirit of God.
Benedicite, ignis et æstus, Domino: benedicite, frigus et æstus, Domino. Bless the Lord, fire and heat: Bless the Lord, winter and summer.
Benedicite, rores et pruina, Domino: benedicite, gelu et frigus, Domino. Bless the Lord, dew and hoarfrost: Bless the Lord, frost and cold.
Benedicite, glacies et nives, Domino: benedicite, noctes et dies, Domino. Bless the Lord, ice and snow: Bless the Lord, nights and days.
Benedicite, lux et tenebræ, Domino: benedicite, fúlgura et nubes, Domino. Bless the Lord, light and darkness: Bless the Lord, lightning and clouds.
Benedicat terra Dominum: laudet et superexaltet eum in sæcula. Let the earth bless the Lord: let it praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicite, montes et colles, Domino: benedicite, universa germinantia in terra, Domino. Bless the Lord, mountains and hills: Bless the Lord, all things that grow in the earth.
Benedicite, fontes, Domino: benedicite, maria et flumina, Domino. Bless the Lord, fountains: Bless the Lord, seas and rivers.
Benedicite, cete, et omnia quæ moventur in aquis, Domino: benedicite, omnes volucres cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, whales, and all [creatures] that move in the waters: Bless the Lord, birds of the air.
Benedicite, omnes bestiæ et pecora, Domino: benedicite, filii hominum, Domino. Bless the Lord, beasts and cattle: Bless the Lord, sons of men.
Benedicite Israel Dominum: laudet et superexaltet eum in sæcula. Bless the Lord, Israel: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicite, sacerdotes Domini, Domino: benedicite, servi Domini, Domino. Bless the Lord, priests of the Lord: Bless the Lord, servants of the Lord.
Benedicite, spiritus et animæ justorum, Domino: benedicite, sancti et humiles corde, Domino. Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the just: Bless the Lord, holy and humble of heart.
Benedicite, Anania, Azaria, Misael, Domino: laudate et superexaltáte eum in sæcula. Bless the Lord, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicamus Patrem et Filium cum Sancto Spiritu: laudemus et superexaltemus eum in sæcula. All bless the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedictus es, Domine, in firmaménto cæli: et laudabilis, et gloriosus, et superexaltatus in sæcula. Blessed is the Lord in the firmament of heaven: and praised, and glorified, and extolled forever.

This is an updated version of an article previously published in WKSU Classical on 2 May 2010.

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