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August 20th marks the 400th birthday of Duchess Sophie-Elisabeth of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. This highborn musician was not just another of the countless women of ruling houses married off to one prince or another from among the patchwork of German states. Many, indeed most of these women were accomplished in the feminine arts, chief among them the writing of devotional verse and music. Indeed, the two went hand in hand, for channeled chastely, these cultivated talents ensured courtly grace, piety, and obedience not just to the Lord of heaven but, more importantly, the earthly husband.
One of the many engraved portraits of Sophie-Elisabeth that circulated through German-speaking Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries places her in a paneled chamber replete with sumptuous draperies. She gestures towards an upturned lute and an open songbook.
Though this objects speak to her then renowned accomplishments as a musician, they could be the accouterments of the daughter or wife of any well-to-do burgher or aristocrat.
The crucial difference, though, is that it is to be assumed that Sophie-Elisabeth composed the notes on the pages, and for this reason She occupies a crucial position in the history of music, even if she still resides in the shadows cast by the towering male figures of the period, especially that of Heinrich Schütz, her sometime mentor, teacher, and collaborator. Sophie-Elisabeth was the first woman to publish music in Germany, an accomplishment made possible by her position as the first lady in one of the culturally richest of German principalities, the Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. In every sense a renaissance woman, her humanistic range, her talent for marrying words and music, her productions of lavish court entertainments make her 400th anniversary a cause for celebration of her as a cultured ruler and of her ability to harness the power of music as a bitter complaint against, and solace for, the blackness of war.
Sophie-Elisabeth’s century was a great one for German music and for German war. The period’s bleak paradox is that the Thirty Years’ War spawned tremendous music in spite—and partly because—of the hemorrhaging of cultural lifeblood. Flourishing musical establishments were crippled or shut completely, great musicians (chief among them Schütz) went without pay; many died from the fires and fighting, or from the plagues and famines that caused even more deaths than the canon, halberds, swords, and blunderbusses.
The flowering of German music after the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century was built on the tremendous musical education provided by the many Latin Schools established in Lutheran realms. Schütz and J. S. Bach were both products of this system. But it was one shut off to women, and the kind of rigorous treatment of musical material that both these composers—and so many others—espoused and practiced was barred to women, even those who had been given enough lessons to learn how to strum a lute, play the harpsichord, or sing. These were accomplishments that increased marriageability and decorum, but were not meant to open out onto a world of artistic inquiry, for that could lead to independence of thought and action.
Sophie-Elisabeth life was lived in the service of children and husband; her surviving letters also show her to have been a conscientious guardian of her subjects, especially her musicians, during desperate economic times. But from a deeply misogynistic, theocratic age she left behind not only a great quantity of music but also works of unforgettable, enduring power. She is not simply a figure of history; hers is a voice that speaks across the centuries to our own war-torn world.
Sophie-Elisabeth was born in Güstrow in the Duchy of Mecklenburg; the fine castle in which she passed her first years still stands and is worth a visit. Her mother died when she was three, but the care of two subsequent stepmothers ensured her thorough education in modern languages and the arts. When Sophie-Elisabeth was five in 1618 the Defenestration of Prague sparked the Thirty Years’ War. Just south of the Baltic Sea, Güstrow seemed a long way from regions to the south where Catholic and Protestant territories abutted. But in1628 Imperial forces under the command of von Wallenstein captured Güstrow sending Sophie-Elisabeth and her family into exile, first to Magdeburg, which a few years later would be laid waste to by Tilly’s forces, then further south to Kassel, another musically fertile court. It may have been in Kassel that the budding musician, Sophie-Elisabeth first made contact Heinrich Schütz, who had been a choirboy in the city and later served as one of the court organists.
In 1632, Sophie-Elisabeth’s returned to the Güstrow for three years. In 1635 she married Duke August the Younger of Braunschweig, twice-widowed father of four and thirty-five years his new bride’s senior. August was himself an avid musician, both as performer and composer, and founded the great library in Wolfenbüttel that still bears his name and counts as one of the most important centers for the study of Early Modern Europe. He had close relations with Heinrich Schütz even though the Duke was almost always in arrears to this greatest musician of the age.
The Thirty Years’ War continued to ravage both Sophie-Elisabeth’s native Mecklenburg and her adopted Duchy of Braunschweig; the main residence in Wolfenbüttel was occupied by enemy forces, and the ducal family retreated a few miles north to the Hanseatic city of Braunschweig. Sophie-Elisabeth’s dowry had been comprised of various lands and benefices to the northeast in Mecklenburg that were completely destroyed by the fighting. As she lamented in one letter to Duke August, she was therefore fully dependent on him for the payment of the court musicians, many of whom suffered greatly because of the war. With the Duke’s attention and finances focused on the seemingly endless conflict, he charged his wife in 1642 with managing his beleaguered musical establishment. Schütz spent several years during the 1640s at the Wolfenbüttel court, advising the Duchess in musical matters and overseeing her growth as a composer in her own right.
Cecelia Hopkins Porter recent book, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present begins with a chapter devoted to Sophie-Elisabeth and is good on the details of the cultural and political contexts of the musical Duchess’s life and works: her sacred song collections; her organization of court musical life; the range of internationally renowned musician who crossed her path. Much of this material is indebted to Karl Wilhelm Geck’s magisterial 1992 study in German of Sophie-Elisabeth. Following Geck’s lead Porter continually apologizes for the modesty of her subject’s compositional talents, even if the duchess showed steady growth under Schütz’s tutelage. The excuse offered by Porter is the lack of compositional training in counterpoint from early on: the womanly style, Porter implies, is one of simplicity, lacking in research and rigor. Sophie-Elisabeth’s greater contributions are therefore seen to come as the writer of verse and as an impresario of the numerous court Festspiele that brought together spoken texts, dance, and instrumental and vocal music. It hardly needs to be said that Sophie-Elisabeth was not a musician of the caliber of a Schütz. Few if any were. Yet it strikes me as odd that Porter should voice the paternalistic attitude towards Sophie-Elisabeth’s music as being often unformed, and by implication girlish. Thus aatriarchal attitudes of the seventeenth and are inscribed in a twenty-first-century book whose avowed mission is to rescue the Duchess’s reputation from what Porter calls “cultural amnesia.” In spite of this often defensive posture, Porter offers a vivid account of a woman committed not only to creating music herself but also to nourishing it among others.
As evidence of the lack of recognition accorded Sophie-Elisabeth, Porter mentions that she knows of no recordings. I know of one: a two CD set devoted entitled Music for the Peace of Westphalia 1648 issued in 1998 on the 350th anniversary of Thirty Years’ War conclusion by the still-thriving ensemble Weser-Renaissance under Manfred Cordes. Among the diverse offerings on this carefully researched and evocatively performed recording of music by various composers comes a three-minute scene from one of Sophie-Elisabeth’s court spectacles, this one entitled FriedensSieg (Victory of Peace) mounted in 1648 after the war had finally come to an end.
This chilling piece brings together four allegorical figures: Death, Hunger, Poverty and Injustice. Sophie-Elisabeth introduces themselves individually, and they appear proud and unashamed of their grim attributes brought into relief by various accompanying instruments: “I, ugly pale Death” gets a snarling regal; “I, black Hunger” a hollow lute; “I, Poverty, bitter suffering” a doleful organ; I, Injustice” a mocking harpsichord.” The melodies are almost viciously forthright, imbuing these menaces with a sense of inevitability. They do not apology for doing what they do best. The succession from one plague to the next is marked by violent shifts in the harmony, thus stressing the separateness of these destructive entities. But then Sophie-Elisabeth joins these four apocalyptic figures together in a jaunty chorus, a dance of collective death demonstrating gleefully that they all belong together, aiding and abetting one another’s dark workings:
We’re the daughters of our war,
Reward and effect of its victory,
War’s good fortune begets us.
We, war’s masterpiece.
Separate testimonials of depravity follow in painfully contorted musical shapes: Death “strangles and crushes”; Hunger “consumes and torments”; poverty “greatly oppresses.”
The voices than prance together over the graves of the dead. Sophie-Elisabeth’s Mecklenburg lost two-thirds of its population.
If the war comes, we come,
We always plague with constant greed.
O you people, learn war,
The victory remains for us four.
Another round of individual curses follows from “ugly pale Death” and “black Hunger” and Poverty and Injustices more “suffering.” The scene closes with one last spiteful, congratulatory dance.
Sophie-Elisabeth’s brilliant setting joins striking effects, baroque twists and the bleakest of truths in a chilling and unforgettable tableau that brings to frightening life the deathly ironies of war. This is a woman who knew what war meant and for this small masterpiece alone—perhaps the only work of hers yet commercially available—she deserves to be heard on her 400th birthday and during wars ongoing and still to come.