Dresden

Dresden, known as “Florence on the Elbe”, was another seat of Catholic culture during the first half of the eighteenth century, though Elector of Saxony August II (“the Strong”) had to convert in order to retain the additional title of King of Poland, which he had acquired by shrewd diplomatic maneuvering (his wife was not amused and remained staunchly Lutheran).

August’s nickname came not from his military or diplomatic prowess nor even from his having fathered as many as 382 illegitimate children (his wife may not have been amused at that either).  He prided himself on being able to break horseshoes with his bare hands and was able to engage in “fox tossing” (Fuchsprellen) by holding his end of a webbed sling with a single finger while the other end had to be held by two strong men.  Fox tossing was a competitive recreation enjoyed by mixed couples at court, whereby numerous slings were held at either end while foxes (and other animals) were released into an enclosed “playing field” and flung high into the air when they ran across the slings, to the great merriment of the assemblage.  The injured animals were then clubbed to death by boys and court dwarfs, adding to the hilarity.  I’m not making this stuff up.  August’s finest hour was apparently the tournament during which 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers, and 21 wildcats were tossed and killed.  I don’t know who won the contest; probably August.

August spent lavishly on the arts, though he was perennially short of cash.  In 1700, he kidnapped a young alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger, who had run away from Frederick I, King of Prussia (grandfather of Frederick the Great), and ordered him, as had Frederick, to turn lead into gold on pain of death.  Böttger escaped several times but was always brought back.  When he failed to produce gold, his overseer, the potter Tschirnhaus, got him a reprieve by applying his talents to clay.  White semi-translucent Chinese porcelain was highly prized in Germany—and very expensive. Tschirnhaus had been working for twenty years to find a way to emulate it.  Böttger discovered how to make semi-translucent china out of a popular local hair powder, founding the Meissen school of Dresden fine china renowned to this day.  Alas, the factory did not make a lot of money, as August took the best pieces for his personal collection and remained perennially short of cash.  Böttger was released from bondage in 1715, but drank himself to death in 1719 at the age of 47.

The orchestra founded by August the Strong was unique in that each member was required to play only one instrument.  This “orchestra of virtuosi” was the envy of all Europe, including Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who applied repeatedly for a position in Dresden from nearby (though “inferiorly” Lutheran) Leipzig.  August attracted Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729), Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), and Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) to his court.

Heinichen was born in Germany, studied in Venice, worked with Johann Sebastian Bach in Anhalt-Cöthen in 1717, and was almost immediately hired away to Dresden to be kapellmeister, primarily to write for the opera company August had just purchased in Venice.  When August fired the entire opera company after a shouting match between Heinichen and several of the singers, the composer turned his vocal attention to sacred works.  There are three recordings of Heinichen masses:  “No. 9” (1726), “No. 11” (1728), and “No. 12” (1729).  They all have solos, duets, and sometimes trios and quartets and both Type I and Type II choruses.  “No. 9” and “No. 11” have a churchy, though lyrical, sound, for example the “Et in terra pax” or the “Credo in unum Deum” from “No. 11”, which also has as toe-tappin’ a ”Kyrie” and as impish a “Christe”as you could ask for.

“No. 12”, completed just before Heinichen died of tuberculosis, is lyrical, accessible, and folklike throughout.  It has playful settings of “Quoniam” and “Et vitam venturi saeculi”—a musical style in church music as far as I can tell unknown among the Italians.  It has not one but two tuneful settings of “Agnus Dei”, as do “No. 9” and “No. 11”.  ”Benedictus”, which I cannot imagine could exist in any opera, is a lovely, sweet lullaby for soprano, the best of about a half dozen gentle, unaffected songs scattered among these three works.  Heinichen has made the transition to a new sound for the mass, reverent and respectful of the words but folklike, ingenuous, and accessible to any listener.  Too bad he didn’t get a chance to develop the concept.

Zelenka was born in Bohemia and studied in Prague.  In 1710, he packed up his double bass, kissed his mother goodbye, and joined the Dresden orchestra as first chair.  He was sent to Vienna and Venice for further study in 1715 and was back in Dresden by 1719.  He took over most of Heinichen’s duties during the latter’s lingering last illness and applied for the post of kapellmeister after Heinichen’s death in 1729, but was passed over in favor of Hasse in 1730 and pretty much ignored thereafter, as opera once again became the hot number in court.

Zelenka’s masses feature solos, duets, trios, quartets, and Type I and Type II choruses.  They are churchy, accessible, folklike, dancelike, only slightly operatic, with orchestral introductions and bridges that are interesting and well-written but often are too long for the flow of the words.  A number of his solos continue the open, unaffected sound described in Heinichen.  Also as with Heinichen, many of his masses also have two tunes for “Agnus Dei”.  Eleven have been recorded.  

“Missa Dei Patris”, ZWV19 (1740) is particularly lyrical and upbeat, as in the “Gloria in excelsis” and the “Pleni sunt caeli” sections, bordering on operatic in several solos.  A pastoral, soaring, folklike element in ”Kyrie” is repeated in “Sanctus”.

“Missa Dei Filii”, ZWV20 (1740) is incomplete, just the Kyrie and Gloria movements.  It is lyrical and accessible, with “Quoniam” particularly catchy and playful.  However, there are no words to describe what begins “Gloria in excelsis” through the words “Filius Patris” and resumes with “Cum Sancto Spiritu” to the end of the movement.  It is music that does not otherwise belong in the eighteenth century—or the nineteenth or the twentieth, for that matter.  “Gloria in excelsis”, heard here in an extensive example that still cannot do it justice, is nearly ten minutes and “Cum Sancto Spiritu” another six and one-half minutes of exuberant, rhythmic, driving perpetual motion.  The basic musical themes are the same in the two sections, and Zelenka throws in an additional Type II choral element in “Cum Sancto Spiritu”.

By the late 1730s, Zelenka was severely ill with “dropsy”, total body edema, which might have been due to heart disease or kidney failure, and may have been simply too ill to continue the mass.  Or maybe, after that sublime outburst, he just did not know what to do for the rest of it.

He appears to have rallied in 1741 with the “Missa Omnium Sanctorum”, ZWV21, almost his only composition of any type before his death four years later.  This is the third of his intended six “last” masses, but is as far as the sick man could go.

When August died in 1733, Bach again applied for a position with August’s (legitimate) son by submitting the Kyrie and Gloria of what would become his “B minor mass”, but was himself pretty much ignored until 1736, when he was finally awarded the rather lowly title of court composer, which he had to share with the lowly Zelenka.  He wisely did not give up his day job in Leipzig.  There is no good evidence that these movements were ever performed anywhere in Bach’s lifetime.  The remainder of the mass was cobbled together over the next sixteen years from new and old material, and Bach hoped to present the entire behemoth at the dedication of a new Dresden church whose construction was begun in 1738.  However, the building was not finished until 1751, by which time Bach was dead, so that was that.

Intended as the summing up of Bach’s life’s work in vocal music, the “B minor mass” is enormous, even bloated, in its twenty-seven sections.  Old-fashioned and very churchy in sound, it has soloists in all manner of combinations and Type I and Type II choruses.  As in Bach’s other vocal writing, the choral and orchestral writing are first-rate, as in the “Gloria in excelsis,” but most solo and ensemble parts are just not very interesting to listen to, for example “Quoniam,” “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”, and “Benedictus”.  The hauntingly beautiful “Agnus Dei”  alto solo is a notable exception.  And to the listener, the mass is just way too long at over an hour and forty-five minutes.  It would have benefited from some rather substantial editing.  The emphasis is on the immaculately constructed music—many of the words could be pretty much anything—and indeed much of Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei was reworked from music originally set to German words.  Ultimately, I wonder if a composer does not have to be born Catholic to serve the mass text properly.  Call this one the “B minus mass”.

While August the Strong was ignoring and underpaying Zelenka, he wooed and overpaid Hasse, the most celebrated opera composer in Europe, who had just gotten married to Faustina Bordoni, the most celebrated soprano in Italy (and soon to be Europe).  August paid her a huge salary as well, as she sang in everything.  Though Hasse’s forte was opera, he was elevated over all Dresden composers to be kapellmeister, which continued after August’s death in 1733 under his son, despite Bach’s best efforts, as noted above.  Mr. and Mrs. Hasse were truly the Beautiful People of Europe.  If transportation had been faster, they would have been the original jet-setters, spending a great deal of (paid) time away from court tending to performances of his operas in Vienna, Naples, Turin, Rome, Pesaro, Venice, Paris, Munich, Berlin, and Potsdam. 

These were sumptuous productions, such as “Ezio” in 1755, involving a reported 8000 lamps and candles carried by 250 extras, four hundred soldiers, one hundred horses, five wagons, eight mules, eight Bactrian camels, and 300 dancers.  The singing consisted of one tuneful, lyrical aria after another with fairly basic orchestral accompaniment, all sounding much the same, to the point where, when Hasse was asked in 1772 for a list of his compositions, he said he had forgotten them.  To be fair, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who admired Hasse’s music and for whom Hasse had written some eighty flute concertos, firebombed Dresden in 1760 with incendiary artillery shells, resulting in the loss of the majority of Hasse’s manuscripts (Frederick later told Hasse he was sorry).

Some twenty of Hasse’s masses still exist; two are recorded, only one of which, the “D minor” of 1751, could have been an influence on the young Mozart (the other is from 1783, the same year as Mozart’s “K427”).  As it happens, Hasse’s “D minor” is what was performed at the new church in Dresden instead of Bach’s “B minor”, owing to Bach’s death.  It includes solos, duets, trios, a quartet, and Type I & II choruses.  It is lyrical, tuneful, and sophisticated, with choruses the equal of Heinichen and Zelenka.  In solos, however, Hasse tends to get carried away by the sound of his music, which exists more for itself than to support the text.  “Qui tollis” is an absolutely gorgeous operatic tenor aria, but has little or no relevance to the words.  I note that Hasse was not born Catholic, but converted when he married.

When August’s son died in 1763, his successors inherited a court that was pretty much bankrupt.  They paid off the Hasses with two years’ salary and shut down the arts.  By the time of Hasse’s death in 1783, opera styles had changed, and his music was almost totally forgotten for the next two hundred years.  Sic transit Gloria Credo (or something).

While Mozart did not visit Dresden until 1789, it is not unlikely that he knew at least some of these composers’ works, especially Hasse, whom he met in Vienna in 1768.

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