A Revolutionary in the Opera House of the Ruling Class

The musical statesmen of today—the Bob Geldofs and the Herbie Hancocks of our world —and other fabulously wealthy megastars enjoy adulation and financial independence undreamt of by their predecessors. Even as J. S. Bach bowed down to monarchs and praised them with his music, he bristled under what he saw as the loathsome constraints of democratic governance that cramped his style and, he complained, limited his income. Mozart, too, fled from the domineering Archbishop of Salzburg and the exploitation of his own father to try and make it on his own in Vienna and beyond. Financial hardship was the genius’s reward. Beethoven was the first Great Composer to support himself by selling his creations, some sublime (e.g., the symphonies) some now generally deemed grandiose pandering (cf. Wellington’s Victory). In spite of Beethoven’s famed effacement of Bonaparte from the title-page of his Eroica Symphony for the diminutive Frenchman having crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven, too, was not above courting aristocratic favor and privilege.

True, many musicians still rush to fawn before the powerful, as Springsteen and Beyoncé and too many others have done at the Obama Court. But the scope and rewards of celebrity have reversed the relationship between politics entertainment. Madonna has more money than God-and most kings and queens, too. She can do what she likes, regardless of how many Republicans there are in Congress.

The eighteenth century ushered in the transition away from both the security and the debasements offered by court musical establishments towards increasing autonomy for composers and performers. While it was underway this development noted by the more astute writers critics, who bashed the old-fashioned obsequiousness of court careerists.

The flamboyantly independent writer Johann Mattheson, endowed with substantial financial resources of his own so as not to need to worry about having his princely funding cut off, criticized those musicians who pegged their reputations to the costly gifts such as chains and rings received from the wealthy and powerful and who flaunted the inflated honorifics bestowed on them by “Emperors, Kings, Electors, and Lords.”  Mattheson implicitly impugned the musical opinions of monarchs by likening the all-too-frequent success of second-rate musicians at court “to blind hens who occasionally find grains of barley.”

This move away from quasi-feudal forms of musical patronage brought with it grave risks for the brave and outspoken. One the most brilliant, indefatigable, and now almost forgotten figures of this period of transition was Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who died in 1814 after a life filled with writing, composing, music-making, and rule-breaking. His bicentennial has almost slipped by without any registering of Reichardt’s service to the revolutionary spirit of the times in music, words, and deeds.

That the young Reichardt confronted a changing professional landscape for musicians is evident in his own lineage. He was born in 1753 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in East Prussia where the court orchestra had been disbanded in 1707, public musical life continuing under civic auspices. Reichardt’s father was one of finest lutenists in the last generation of that glorious instrument’s long and illustrious reign. The young Reichardt was taught to sing and to play the lute, violin, and keyboard. He made a youthful name for himself with his ability to sing while providing his own accompaniment at the lute, a mode of performance that recalled the Greek poets but also spoke to the cult of sensibility and expression that had seized Germany in the second half of the eighteen century and which fostered such frequent outbursts of sentimental tears in both public and private. Not surprisingly, this inextricable link between words and music remained at the core of Reichardt’s aesthetics and his interests as a composer, not least in his vital contribution to the genre of the melodrama in which texts were spoken rather the sung to their musical accompaniment.

In Königsberg the fifteen-year-old Reichardt attended lectures by Immanuel Kant, who famously described Enlightenment as the courage to escape enslavement to discredited idea and institutions. Reichardt credited Kant with arming him with enough reason and resolve to avoid “the customary degrading path followed by most artists of our time.”

For Reichardt, as for many, freedom meant travel. With the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 conditions were at last favorable for European travelers, and in 1771 the teenage Reichardt set out on a tour of Germany during which he met and played with many of the leading writers and musicians of the day, among them C. P. E. Bach and Lessing. He noted the stagnation and at the Berlin opera; was moved to public tears on hearing Handel’s music for the first time; and having pawned his own violin, played on a borrowed one at a Prague concert.

On returning to Köngisberg in 1774 Reichardt published a book on German opera and two volumes of letters about his travels (Briefe eines aufmerksamen Reisenden die Musik betreffend), an essential source for information about and insight into the music culture of the later eighteenth century. Master of the epistolary form, one he used to express his personality and opinions with sparkling immediacy, Reichardt ranks among the greatest of musical travel writers. The restive spirit of adventure and his need to write about would stay with him through the turbulent times ahead.

The same year Reichardt arrived back from his tour, the Director of Music of the Berlin opera, J. F. Agricola died. Having taken a job as a government employee in Königsberg (just as E T A Hoffmann would do in the same city some twenty years later), Reichardt boldly wrote to Frederick the Great recommending himself for the position, including as proof of his qualifications the score of his newly completed opera Le fest galanti. A few months later Reichardt was offered the job.

The famed musical establishments of Berlin and Dresden had been brought to glory by the lavish disbursements of the Prussian and Saxon monarchs, who battled one another not only over musicians and musical prestige but also in three mid-century wars. The aggressor and victor in these was Frederick the Great, the age’s greatest musical monarch; in spite of his love of music, Frederick favored military expenditure over the arts when resources became tight. (The distinction was often a blurry one since music was often deployed in the glorification of war—this being a central, if uncomfortable, truth of European classical music.)

Frederick was also an infamous micro-manager of his opera and its director. His energy sapped by years of war, the aged monarch’s conservative musical tastes hardened. These inclinations dated back three decades to the style of his youth and the composers—Graun and Hasse—whose work he worshipped; their operas constituted the Berlin repertory. The newly-hired Reichardt charged with trotting out creaking old warhorses onto the stage of the flagging Berlin theatre, and his other artistic initiatives were also stifled. He turned to publishing books and pursuing theatrical ventures in more open cities, such as Hamburg, where his melodrama Caphalus and Prokris was premiered in 1777. As a way of fostering musical culture beyond Frederick’s direct control, Reichardt founded the Berlin Concert spirtuel in 1783 in emulation of the Parisian institution of the same name that counted as perhaps the most important series in Europe.

Though Reichardt would continue in the post of Berlin Kapellmeister for some fifteen years, the seeds were sown early for conflict between this proud and intellectually ambitious musician and the complacency and arbitrariness of a rigid ruling house. The rupture would come fifteen years later, after the death of Frederick the Great and the outbreak of revolution in France. Reichardt’s unconcealed sympathies for its ideals, if not its terrors, would bring about his own dismissal and lead to the journeys of his last two decades.

Next Week—Reichardt: Writings, Revolution and Recordings.

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

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  dgyearsley@gmail.com