The Glory That Was Dresden (and is Zelenka Greater Than Bach?)

When the English music historian and travel writer, Charles Burney, arrived in Dresden in 1772, he found mostly ruins.  This most beautiful of northern cities had not yet recovered from the ravages of the Seven Years War, concluded nearly a decade before:  “It is difficult for a stranger to imagine himself near the celebrated capital of Saxony, … [since] so few of its once many cloudcapt towers are left standing; only two or three remain intire, of all the stately edifices which formerly embellished this city.”  The Prussian bombardment of 1760 seemed to Dresden’s inhabitants to have been a vengeful attempt by Frederick the Great to destroy the monuments of a city which had, ironically, given him such powerful inspiration for his own vast cultural projects in Berlin and Potsdam.  Though politically tolerant of all faiths, the Prussian monarch made no secret of his contempt for organized religion, and he must have found it strangely exhilarating to watch the spires of Dresden’s Baroque churches topple from the horizon.

Dresden’s 18th-century skyline was dominated by the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche.  Intent on breaking the spirit of the inhabitants, Frederick had, according to Burney, pointed his cannons at the city’s proudest landmark:  “The King of Prussia, in his last bombardment of Dresden, tried every means in his power to beat this church … but in vain, for the orbicular form of the dome threw off the balls and shells, and totally prevented their effect.”

Not so, the Allied bombs of the night of February 13, 1945.

Burney writes with a courteously well-hidden, yet palpable, disappointment that war should be used as a means of cultural destruction. If only Dresden had been lucky enough to suffer merely Prussian cannons and not the apocalypse of 1945.

The Dresden Burney visited is gone forever, in spite of the relentless efforts to reconstruct its landmark buildings. Even the Frauenkirche graces the city again, rebuilt using both new stone and the much darker blocks salvaged from the rubble that had stood on the site since the War.

In 2005 I played a concert in Dresden in the 250th anniversary year of the Silbermann organ in the Court Chapel, spared destruction by its timely removal from its usual home  in 1944.  The concert organizers put me up the reconstructed Bishop’s Palace.  I even rode down in the stainless steel elevator with His Grace. The facade of the building looks just like it does in Canaletto’s paintings. The inside of the building is unapologetically modern: pure convenience and award-design. It is hard to resist the seductions of historical retrofitting of this scale and quality.

I visited the just-opened Grünes Gewölbe, where the Electors’ toys and nick-nacks are displayed in jaw-dropping profusion: hundreds of perfectly faces carved into a single  16th-century cherry pit; impossibly beautiful and complex ivory wonders; amber; silver, porcelain. The outside is looks as it did, the inside is a modern museum with objects discreetly exhibited, rather than heaped up in astounding profusion as in the Augsustan Age, when the Electors had already opened their doors for all visitors to what was in effect one of the continent’s first public museums.

That is the advantage of music: if it survives, it bursts out of the museum and into the modern world. Anything that could be moved was taken from the city after World War II broke out:  the enormous collection of paintings in the Electoral gallery was scattered throughout the Saxon countryside; one of the many magnificent organs—that in the Court Chapel—was disassembled and hidden in a distant monastery; and the holdings of the Saxon State Library, including its precious musical manuscripts, were dispersed and protected.  This music represents one of the city’s most lasting cultural achievements.

The finest account of musical life in Dresden’s 18th century is to found in a long chapter in Daniel Heartz’ magisterial yet gracious Musica in European Capitals: the Galant Style, 1720-1780 Norton, 2003. Here the patrons, musicians and their music   are treated with a critical ear and with profound knowledge of the subtleties of style, previously dismissed as superficial. With Heartz as guide, the richness of this musical world gleams anew.

The pathbreaking apostle in the performance of this nearly inexhaustible hoard of music is Reinhard Goebels and his ensemble, Musica Antiqua Köln, in four beautifully produced CD sets brought out on the Archiv label between 1993 and 1996.  Although these recordings represent only a tiny fraction of the surviving manuscripts in the Saxon State Library, they offer a rich sampling of the immense musical wealth of the Electoral chapel and court.

The Saxon electors of the first half of the 18th-century—August the Strong (ruled from 1694 to 1733) and his son, August II (ruled 1733-1763)—had prodigious appetites for sensual pleasure and the means to indulge them.  Their favored pursuits included not only food and women—August the Strong had some 354 illegitimate children—but music as well.  The Saxon court orchestra arguably the finest in Europe, with an international cast held up as a model of ensemble accomplishment by no less demanding a judge than J.S. Bach. He admired many of the leading figures of the Dresden musical establishment and counted several of them as his friends.

Musica Antiqua Köln’s tour of the Saxon capital’s musical heritage begins at the Moritzburg, August the Strong’s hunting lodge, which, because of its distance from the city, escaped destruction and can still be visited.  The main dining room at Moritzburg is a high hall with dozens of stags’ heads. The trophies peer down at the banquet table.  It was here that many of the concertos of Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729), August the Strong’s music director (Kapellmeister), were performed as music for table, soothing the Elector’s ears after a long day game beating and shotgun blasting, though August also had some musicians to accompany him out in the field as well.  The heroic horn calls and arcadian flutes heard in the Dresden Concerti commemorate both the raucous glories of the hunt and the calmer delights of pastoral landscape when blunderbusses were silent and love was in the air still fragrant with the scent of gun powder.

If you’re a bit short on cash—as was often the case with the Saxon Electors, but like the U. S. goverment, they dealt with the problem by simply spending more—the place to start in the assembly of your Dresden collection is the single CD, Concerti “per l’orchestra di Dresda”  from Muca Antiqua Köln. This fine recording features concertos composed by other members of the Dresden orchestra, as well as scores acquired by the court for the Elector’s enjoyment.  The CD includes two exuberant suites by Heinichen and an eccentric overture by the temperamental—some said mad—virtuoso Francecso Maria Veracini, personal chamber musician to August the Strong and rival of Vivaldi.  (Veracini’s other five overtures are to be found on the third recording in Musica Antiqua Köln’s Dresden series also on Archiv).  You will also hear J.J. Quantz’s remarkable concerto for two flutes, a tremendous piece of technical exhibitionism, whose extraordinary demands could have been answered only by Quantz and his teacher, the French virtuoso Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, two of the many famous members imported to the Dresden orchestra.

Any musical tour of Dresden must include a visit to the Court Chapel for the opulent and moving sacred music. In the Saxon heartland of Lutheranism, August the Strong, whose ancestors had harbored the Reformer himself, had opportunistically converted to Catholicism in 1697 to become Polish King as well as Saxon Elector. It was a move that disquieted the Lutheran faithful, but produced a vast quantity of the elaborate music for the Catholic liturgy. In the Geobel’s double CD of Heinichen’s Lamentationes/Passionsmusik the emotional range of Heinichen’s passion music, operatic in scope, is given perhaps its most memorable dramatic urgency in the tumultuous tenor aria depicting the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion.  This amounts to Italian opera dubbed with German biblical texts: a feast for the soul and the senses.
But the greatest treasures from the Court Chapel are to be found among the works of a man Bach greatly admired in his later years—Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745), longtime double bassist in the Dresden court, and Electoral church composer. Zelenka produced his most sublime religious music in the last decade of his life, while nursing a long-held grudge against the Elector.  Not only had Zelenka been passed over for the coveted position of Kapellmeister, but both Augusts had, in emulation of the famed secrecy of the Sistine Chapel, forbidden Zelenka to publish his music or send it to other courts, thus denying him the opportunity to gain a position elsewhere.

Thwarted in his attempts at professional advancement, Zelenka turned his melancholic thoughts to his art, and his Last Masses are a singular triumph over his personal disappointments.  Indeed, it is almost an impertinent luxury to be able to listen his transcendent Missa Dei Filii in the performance, by turns euphoric and brooding, of the Kammerchor Stuttgart and Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Would it be musicological suicide to claim that Zelenka often matches Bach in the mastery of diverse styles and the ability to synthesize ancient musical traditions (i.e., counterpoint and Gregorian Chant) and the latest stylistic impulses (i.e., opera), or to suggest that his spirited melodies often surpass those of Bach?  If name dropping is what it takes to give this great composer his due, I’ll put it this way:  Zelenka’s music combines Handel’s vitality and Bach’s erudition, and anticipates the genius of Mozart’s sacred choral works. Zelenka’s masses are perhaps the city’s greatest monuments, untouched by bombs and recreated not in sandstone but in sound.

No tour of Dresden’s music would be complete without a trip the opera.  In those fine days of enlightened despotism there were no pseudo-political debates about state funding of the arts.  August was an National Endowment for the Arts unto himself:  all seats in the opera house were free, and anyone could sit in the Parterre.  In order to revisit this centerpiece of the city’s music culture you will have to fork over some fifty dollars and pick up a the more than ten-year old four CD set of William Christie leading a performance of  Johann Adolf Hasse’s Cleofide, premiered at the Dresden opera house on September 14, 1731, the year in which Hasse returned from Italy and claimed the title of Saxon Kapellmeister, apparently to the chagrin of Zelenka.  Bach himself was in the audience for that premier, for he played a concert on the Frauenkirche organ the next day. Listening to the four hours of Cleofide with its seemingly endless string of rousing arias spinning past your ears, it is not hard to understand why Hasse’s gifts for melody made him one of the most famous and richly-rewarded musicians of his time.

When Burney arrived in Dresden the opera house had been out of use for some time.  Deploying a favorite military metaphor, Burney writes that he “was extremely curious to see this celebrated scene of actions, where general Hasse, and his well-disciplined troops, had made so many glorious campaigns, and acquired such laurels.”  Sadly, the opera house Burney found had become nothing but a memorial to musical heroes and to a city that had been “regarded by the rest of Europe, as the Athens of modern times’ where all the arts, but particularly, those of music, poetry, and painting, were loved and cherished by that prince, with a zeal and munificence, greater than can be found in the brightest period of ancient history.”  Bankrupted by war, the arts and music fell into neglect. Obama take note.

Seated in the opera house for Cleofide, Bach would have had a chance to hear another of his friends, the lutenist Vilius Leopld Weis, shine in his solo-moment aria  from the third act, “Cervo al bosco”(Stag in the woods). A mini-concerto for lute and horns introduces the singing of our hero, Alexander the Great, depicted in the aria as a stealthy and magnificent animal stalked by his enemies.  It was obvious to all in the house that Alexander was a stand-in for August the Strong, who himself must have enjoyed the reference to hunting, assuming he wasn’t disporting himself on the floor of his box with whatever female company he’d brought along when the music failed to hold his wandering attention.

However dramatic and unexpected this aria is, Jakob Lindberg’s 2006 recording of Weiss’s solo Sonatas on a stunning antique instrument from the late 16th century demonstrates how the profound intimacy of the lute explored by its greatest 18th-century genius draws the listener’s attention more forcefully than lavish court spectacle.

Near the end of Burney’s 1772 account of his visit to Dresden a note of reproach creeps in, as he gropes for an explanation of Dresden’s troubles, suggesting “that some part of the late and present distresses of this country, may have originated in this excessive magnificence.”  The current misery could only be punishment for past sins.

And there are those who give voice to a more vicious version of Burney’s sentiment, and claim that Dresden deserved its annihilation in 1945, or that the ersatz Dresden still emerging along the Elbe allays those crimes. When the church was reconsecrated in October of 2005, Queen Elizabeth praised the reconstruction as a symbol of reconciliation, but carefully avoided any hint of apology for the crime of destruction.

If I thought like that for a moment, I could not listen to the music that has survived the city’s destruction.  To go on listening would be to reduce pleasure to sadism, beauty to lies.

An excellent and up-to-date discography of Dresden recordings can be found here.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at





DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at