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The Music of Dresden: Crackling with the Flames of War

Airstrikes and Organs

by DAVID YEARSLEY

When I hear talk of air strikes I think of Dresden, and not just because, like so many American school kids I had to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I first visited the city in 1989 just a few months before Iron Curtain came down.  Back then there was still rubble from the allied bombing raids of 1945. The great organs of the city had perished with the churches, with the exception of the instrument in the Court Church, which in the course of time became the Catholic cathedral. That magnificent structure with its lavish interior also perished in the firestorm, but the organ, the last made by the great Saxon court organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, had been removed prior to the attacks. After the war it was reinstalled in the reconstructed church. I was invited to play the instrument in 2005 in a series that marked the tricentenary of its completion.

After more recent reconstruction efforts that came in the wake of German reunification, the central stretch of the Dresden cityscape once again resembles the magnificent eighteenth-century vistas captured by the Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto in the many dazzling views he made of the city.  Like the organ in the Court Chapel, these canvasses were taking out of the city during World War II, and are now to be viewed in the rebuilt picture gallery as achingly gorgeous reminders of what was lost.

As the latest American bombing threats are now being lobbed across the globe, I am planning to play an organ concert of Dresden encounters. My first stop will be the Academy of Ancient Music in Jackson, Mississippi. (Back in 2004 Jackson’s Mississippi Arts Pavilion hosted a lavishexhibition that brought to the United States some of the greatest treasures of Dresden art, just as the opulent buildings that housed those objects were being reconstructed back in the Saxon capital.

Organs are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most geographically specific of instruments. Even to this day, each national tradition clings to long-cherished peculiarities that make the task of the touring organist endlessly challenging. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such differences were much more pronounced, often confoundingly so: organs encountered by travelers on the international scene were hugely varied, not just in sound but in the layout of the console; most vexing was the number, compass, shape, and size of the pedals. In the use of the feet—and many other matters as well—a foreign organist had to be supremely adaptable.

In spite of a variety as wide and unpredictable as the European weather, baroque organs from across the continent often incorporated elements imported from foreign lands. The work of Silbermann, J. S. Bach’s friend and colleague, is just one celebrated example of international influence, his instruments reflecting the lessons learned working with his uncle in Alsace and also the Italian influence of Eugenio Casparini, a German who had spent many years in Italy before returning home in the last decade of the 17th-century. Nonetheless, the comforting sound of a reed stop that reminds the traveler of his native land doesn’t quiet the nerves when he’s got to find that low G-sharp in the pedal in the heat of performance.

Becoming acquainted with a new organ in private over a leisurely few hours was a rare luxury in the age of the Grand Tour. More than likely the organist of the church would be alongside, eager to hear what the visitor could do. Local grandees, musicians, and enthusiasts might join the outing. Even more exciting, another touring virtuoso might also be in town.  There was never time for practice and preparation: the challenges had to be dealt with while seated for the first time at the bench of an organ that was foreign in every sense, possible rivals standing by.

The magnificent baroque city of Dresden was one of the most visited destinations for musical travelers. The Saxon rulers collected not only acclaimed musicians, but also fabulous objects of art and science. Among these treasures were the organs in the Court Chapel. In the first half of the seventtenth century the building housed an opulent instrument with, among other unique features, ivory-fronted reed pipes (imitating a trumpet’s sound) gracing the façade. That instrument’s greatest player was Matthias Weckman, who had been sent by his teacher, the Saxon Kapellmeister Heinrich Schütz, to study in the Hanseatic organ capital of Hamburg. The result is said to have been that Weckman “moderated [Jacob] Praetorius’s severity with [Heinrich] Scheidemann’s humor” —those two names belonging to famous Hamburg organists who had both studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam. Weckman’s musical lineage was august indeed.

No less impressive was the pedigree of one of the most adventurous of seveteenth-century musical travelers, Johann Jacob Froberger; he had studied with the great Frescobaldi in Rome. In late 1649 or early 1650 Dresden was the first stop on Froberger’s multi-year European tour that would lead ultimately to Paris and London. These gifted contemporaries, Weckman and Froberger, met in Dresden in a contest that led to a lifelong friendship. The idiosyncratic gestures of Froberger’s improvisational style, the flamboyant counterpoint of his polyphonic music, and the grace and liveliness of his variations must have deeply impressed Weckman just as they would subsequent generations of European keyboard players, including J. S. Bach. Weckman’s free workshis preludes and fantasias—have their own dramatic rhetoric that might even reflect Froberger’s influence. But the Dresden host’s expansive and dauntingly complete settings of Lutheran chorales, such as one on the melody Es ist das Heil for six contrapuntal voices two of them in pedal, reflect an approach that Froberger, who converted to Catholicism while in Rome in the 1640s, never attempted. Had Weckman displayed this very north German skill of playing with the feet, the visitor Froberger would have been as awestruck as I remain today by this sublimely expansive counterpoint.

In 1717 J. S. Bach was set to compete against the visiting French organist Louis Marchand. As reported by Bach’s sons, the Frenchman fled after hearing Bach play. Whether true or not, the claim often distracts from the truth that Bach greatly admired Marchand’s music, which is full of many wonderful things—including a Catholic pomp that must have pleased the Catholic Saxon rulers—not to be found even in Bach’s incomparable oeuvre. If Marchand had not fled he might have demonstrated his own pedal skill, as in the opening number of his D minor suit; with its double pedal the Frenchman proved that he could keep pace with at least some of his German contemporaries.

The last Dresden encounter I’ll reimagine in my program brings together the virtuosos Johann Wilhelm Häßler—student of a student of Bach’s—and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both of whom coincidentally arrived in the city in April of 1789. The site of their spontaneous contest was the very Court Chapel and the same Silbermann organ I myself would play a program on in 2005. As usual in such clashes, Mozart was dismissive of his opponent: “This Hässler’s chief excellence on the organ consists in his foot-work,” he wrote to his father, adding rather nastily, that this “was not very wonderful.” Mozart went on to say that the local Saxons had wrongly believed that he, Mozart, wouldn’t be able to play the pedals because he was from Vienna where organs did not have the full north German array. Mozart crowned himself the clear winner in the contest and did so at least on part on the strength of his own feet: the southerner beating the northerner at his own game.

Mozart had been challenged and excited by the organs of the Saxon capital, instruments unsurpassed anywhere in Europe. More than two hundred years after Mozart’s visit, the only surviving example of Dresden’s Golden Age organs sounds a painful echo of a musically magnificent city destroyed by bombs. Reconstruction can never regain fully what was destroyed, and often only points more disturbingly to the magnitude of the loss. Even recovered and heard again on the last of the city’s organs, the triumphant music of Dresden’s past will crackle with the flames of later wars.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com