The liturgical calendar gives the Church ample opportunity to celebrate salvation history throughout the yearly cycle of feasts and seasons. In addition to the weekly Sunday feasts, we rejoice in the so-called “non-movable” feasts of the saints, which are observed on whatever day of the week they happen to fall. Such is the case with the feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, assigned by Lutheran Service Book to August 15. In 2019 this feast falls on a Thursday, and First Lutheran Church will celebrate it at 7:00pm with a festival Organ Vespers service played by Christopher Holman.

The organ in the Hamburg Michaeliskirche

Organ repertoire for the Vespers will include:

  • Georg Böhm: Praeludium in A minor
  • Heinrich Scheidemann: Confitemini Domino (intabulation of a motet by Hans Leo Hassler)
  • Dieterich Buxtehude: Te Deum laudamus
  • Heinrich Scheidemann: Praeambulum in D minor
  • Hieronymus Praetorius: Magnificat primi toni (alternatim with plainchant)
  • Dieterich Buxtehude: Mit Fried und Freud
  • Samuel Scheidt: Benedicamus Domino

Chants will be sung as preserved in Franz Eler’s Cantica sacra, a Lutheran missal published in Hamburg in 1588 and used widely in North German churches over the next century and a half.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed to be honored: after all, Gabriel himself declared that she was “highly favored” (Luke 1:28). All the way back in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, the universal Church affirmed that Mary is Theotokos, translated as “God-bearer” or the “Mother of God.” Though Lutherans rightly refuse to attribute to her the Roman titles of “co-redeemer” and “co-mediator,” likewise do Lutherans rejoice to confess that truth which the Church has given us concerning Jesus’ mother.

On this august feast day, Holman will present a reconstruction of a sixteenth-century North German Organ Vespers, as it might have been celebrated in a parish church near Hamburg around 1650. Holman has conducted extensive primary-source research on the Orgelvesper tradition. Because parish churches did not have the luxury of a polyphonic choir, choral-heavy services such as Vespers were celebrated with the organ playing improvisations and repertoire in those spots in which the choir would otherwise have sung. Such Vespers services did require some chant, however, and our August 15 Vespers will be adorned with the requisite plainsong, sung in an authentic sixteenth-century manner. This is a rare opportunity to experience this music in its original liturgical context.

More about the program

Since we have no primary sources about organ vespers, we must approach a reconstruction obliquely. Franz Eler’s 1588 Cantica Sacra, an early Lutheran gradual used in Hamburg until around 1685, gives the following order for choral vespers:

“The boys intone the psalm antiphon. Three or four vespers psalms are sung. The antiphon is repeated by the choir. The epistle is read by two boys. The responsory is sung, if it is the vigil of a feast. Hymn. The boys intone the Magnificat antiphon. When the Magnificat is finished, the antiphon is repeated by the choir or organ. Collect. Benedicamus.”

Though much of the liturgy could be replaced by the organ, there are barely any extant north German keyboard settings of antiphons (which is curious, given that Eler specifically says that “the antiphon is repeated by the choir or organ”). Additionally, of all the surviving organ settings of the Magnificat, there are none which set the entire plainchant melody. It therefore seems plausible that a small schola may have been present in organ vespers to sing some of the antiphons and alternatim chants.

Our reconstruction begins with the Praeludium in A Minor by Georg Böhm, who moved to Hamburg after completing university study. In a liturgical context, Michael Praetorius suggests that such works would set the pitch of the following vocal piece — in thisl case, the antiphon.

According to Eler, after this psalm antiphon, three or four vespers psalms should now be sung; however, it is not obligatory. Since we have a small schola, tonight’s sung responsories will be substituted with Confitemini Domino, an intabulation of a motet by Orlando di Lasso, set to keyboard by the Hamburg organist Heinrich Scheidemann. To conclude the reponsory part of the vespers, the schola will again sing the antiphon. The epistle will then be chanted in Mode VIII, which Johannes Walther reports was Martin Luther’s favorite epistle tone.

According to Bugenhagen, the hymn can be substituted by the organ — in our case, the Lübeck master Dieterich Buxtehude’s setting of the Te Deum. Much scholarly debate has surrounded this work, not only because the order given in the copy by Johann Walther does not follow the text of the plainchant hymn, but because the organ versets only quote a few phrases, making performance in alternatim impossible. Given the scope and compositional quality of the piece, this Te Deum is the level of piece that made organ vespers so famous.

The large-scale settings of the Magnificat are also among the most lavish in this repertoire. And perhaps more than any other aspect of this liturgy, there was ample room for variation, which was almost always based on some form of alternation practice. Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat primi toni contains three versets, which were probably not intended to replace any of the vocal versets, but rather augment them. The antiphon that begins and concludes the entire Magnificat is also from Cantica Sacra.

At this point, we diverge from Eler’s order slightly to include the Nunc dimittis, a setting that could be added to vespers according to Aepinus. Then follows a collect from Bugenhagen’s 1535 Pommersche Kirchenordnung.

To conclude the vespers, the Benedicamus Domino could be sung or played on the organ. Samuel Scheidt’s Benedicamus is a six-voice work: four in the manuals and two in the pedals. The piece is the conclusion of the Tabulatura Nova, one of the largest collections of early European keyboard music that formed the basis of much of the North German Organ School’s contrapuntal style. As a work for full organ, this piece exemplifies the strict part-writing rules, yet with an abundance of imitation throughout all six voices, and interesting harmonic progressions. Its sheer grandeur is well-suited to end to a service that was nearly a concert. The difference, though, is that organ vespers was and still is enjoyed by all members of society, from kaiser to pauper, yesterday and today.


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