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My column last week on the firebombing of German cities appeared a few days before the seventieth anniversary of the British destruction of Wurzburg, a baroque gem dense with art and people and holding no military relevance. My piece elicited a number of responses mostly condemning the atrocity, admittedly from the safety of hindsight.
A few respondents resurrected the moribund moral argument that since the Germans had launched the aerial destruction of civilian centers they had no right to complain when the bombs fell on them. This line of reasoning apparently considers even the intentional incineration of children an acceptable moral corollary to the theorem of total war.
The most damning communication I received confirmed yet again just how calculating Allied vengeance was:
“Dear Mr Yearsley,
Some 30 odd years ago I worked in military intelligence in the British Ministry of Defence. I was shocked to come across one day some old documents from the war. What they amounted to were firebomb assessments of German cities, including Wurzburg. The cities were assessed and graded in terms of their incendiary propensity, taking into account the number of wooden buildings, the narrowness of the streets, etc. I was horrified at the time and my dismay with what I saw has never left me. Churchill was a war criminal and is undeserving of a statue in Westminster.”
Wurzburg was renowned for its stunning Rococo buildings, many of them designed by the court’s architect Balthasar Neumann. Filled with paintings and sculptures and a riot of flourishes and details, these exuberant structures made abundant use of stucco. This construction required at least three layers of supporting wooden lath, material with extremely high “incendiary propensity.” It is the cruelest of ironies that the fabulous decorations of the city contributed vitally to its destruction; ninety percent of Wurzburg was destroyed in the seventeen-minute air raid of the night of March 16, 1945.
Also highly flammable were the books in the glorious library assembled by successive prince-bishops. These pages were quick to burn in the oven ignited by the bombs: along with the buildings and their inhabitants, the centuries-long record of Wurzburg’s illustrious musical past was reduced to smoke and ash in a single night.
As I mentioned last week, the Archiepiscopal Residence central staircase with its magnificent fresco survived beneath Neumann’s indestructible stone vaults. Grouped near each other near the border of the ceiling were the artists who contributed most to Wurzburg’s beauty, both lasting and ephemeral. The painter himself, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo casts his gaze towards the nearby architect Neumann leaning on a cannon not far from a man playing a violone; this string player is most likely Giovanni Battista Platti, Wurzburg’s most celebrated musician. These three great artists—architect, musician, painter—are placed at directly above the apex of the top flight of stairs, the first point to which the viewer’s eye is directed on making the final ascent towards the richly adorned gallery.
Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico were in Wurzburg working on their frescoes from 1750 to 1753 when they made the acquaintance of their fellow Venetian, Platti. While some have raised doubts about the identity of the violone player, only Platti would have rated placement alongside a man of Neumann’s standing and in such an important position in Tiepolo’s monumental, but airy composition.
Probably born around 1692, and thus a few years older than Neumann and few years younger than Tiepolo, Platti was hired by the Wurzburg court in 1722 along with six other Italian musicians; yet it was Platti alone who would spend the rest of a career spanning some forty years in Wurzburg. While he never attained the rank of Kapellmeister (Director of Music), Platti enjoyed a special status reflected in his significantly higher salary than his nominal superior in the musical hierarchy. A year after his arrival in Wurzburg, Platti married the court’s star soprano, Theresia Maria Lambrucker; the couple had eight children, several of whom became musicians, though no works survives from them. Perhaps any manuscripts they left perished in the bombing of 1945.
The cultural tastes of the Wurzburg prince-bishops, and especially the members of the von Schönborn family who occupied the bishop’s throne for two resplendent decades in the middle of the century, were orientated towards the Italy. The Schönborn were one of the great families of the Holy Roman Empire; their seventeenth-century palace in Prague now serves as the U. S. Embassy, marking a fitting passage from one empire to another.
Less than two years after hiring Platti, Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn died in a hunting accident, his demise at sport an accidental, if fitting tribute to his tastes for pleasure, indoors and out. The immediate successor to the Wurzburg episcopacy was not a Schönborn and this ecclesiastical potentate promptly cut expenditures, retaining only Platti and one other lesser Italian in his musical establishment, both on reduced salaries. In an age of increasing specialization among virtuoso performers, Platti was a hugely versatile musician: hired chiefly as an oboist, he also taught singing, played the violin, keyboard, and the double bass at which he was depicted by Tiepolo. These diverse abilities helped him weather the five tight fiscal years that intervened before a younger Schönborn brother assumed the thrown in 1729.
Though the unfortunate death of his first employer did lead to straitened circumstances for Platti and his young family, there were unforeseeable historic benefits: the Wurzburg cultural retrenchment ultimately led to the survival of Platti’s music into our time. For the rest of the 1720s the musician found outlets for his art (and much-needed supplements to his shrunken court income) under the aegis of yet another Schönborn sibling, Rudolf Franz Erwein, Count of Wiesentheid, twenty miles to the east of Wurzburg. This Schönborn was himself not only a music lover but also a talented amateur cellist. What remains of Platti’s output of music is almost entirely made up of works still housed in the Wiesentheid castle vast music library; these works were either composed specifically for the Count’s enjoyment or are manuscript copies of some of the repertoire that had been heard at the archiepiscopal court in Wurzburg. The Platti holdings in Wiesentheid boast several large-scale vocal works, including masses (among them a requiem), dozens of sonatas for various instruments, and more than thirty concertos, including many for cello—flamboyant and affecting parts that might have been played by the music-loving Count.
It is in picturesque Wiesentheid, a place untouched by bombs, that Platti’s manuscripts remain and where his music is to be heard again in its all its colorful stylistic variety, effortless dignity, Venetian exuberance, and gripping pathos in a program (Oehms, 2012) of chamber music for violin, cello, and keyboard recorded in the town’s perfectly preserved baroque church, whose eighteenth-century remodeling was made according to plans by Balthasar Neumann. Currently under renovation, the church’s plain well-proportioned exterior conceals a lavishly decorated interior with a frescoed ceiling of trompe l’oeil pillars rising above remarkable carvings and an abundance of other decorative arts.
Sebastian Hess assumes the role of the cello-playing Count with the help of an instrument that, like Platti himself, was made in Venice, around 1700. In contrast to most trios of the day, Platti gives to the cello an independent line, a freedom granted by the composer’s scheme in which the keyboard provides the bass line below an improvised chordal accompaniment.
Buoyed by this the continuo commentary, the two string instruments join the keyboard in a musical dialogue that spans the emotional gamut, but with a predilection for optimistic topics. Joining Hess on the violin is Rüdiger Lotter playing an instrument made in 1660 by the famed Tyrolean luthier, Jacob Stainer. Lotter draws from his gorgeous fiddle infinitely varied shades and shapes of brilliance and longing. The bursts of bright passagework dazzle but never blins: even when dashing off runs of breathtaking speed, both Lotter and Hess never sound harried. Does one see and hear Tiepolo in this synesthetic mix of color and movement? If bows are thought of as brushes then the strokes of Lotter and Hess across their instruments’ strings fleck the River Main with the sun’s reflection and send a play of light and shade off the facades of the Baroque masterpiece of pre-war Wurzburg spreading from its banks.
The third, and equally essential member of this modern Platti trio is Florian Birsak at the keyboard. Together the three play like the best of musical friends: supportive, challenging, inventive, sometimes irreverent and occasionally eager to show off—but always listening to each other.
Birsak plays on a modern copy of a fortepiano from the 1720s by the Florentine inventor of the instrument, Bartolomeo Cristofori, whom Platti may have met before the move to Wurzburg. The instrument has a clear, pleasingly brittle sound that highlights the precision of Birsak’s touch but also his tremendous finesse. It is rare to hear a piano such as this; even rarer to hear it accompanying early eighteenth-century chamber music. Birsak’s makes an eloquent and lively argument for an instrument whose responsive action punishes sloppy playing with thuds and bumps.
Birsak is also granted a solo sonata from a set Platti published in Nuremberg in 1746. These pieces are unrelenting in their suavity, even while challenging the player with ornaments and figuration that range from insinuating to virtuosic. These sonatas have been making the rounds even among modern piano students for a few generations now, but their true character can be heard neither on the Steinway grand nor on your grandparent’s upright. That these piano sonatas were the first works of Platti’s revived in the twentieth century and were served up on the wrong instrument cannot have helped his reputation. But with Birsak at an early-style fortepiano the music need not apologize for itself. When interpreted with the verve and subtlety of the Hess/Lotter/Brisak trio, these chamber works chase away thoughts of a Platti once made to struggle towards the light on heavy modern instruments as if the gleaming stucco of his Wurzburg had been ebonized.
Joined by lutenist Axel Wolf, Hess and his cello are heard on a prior offering also from Oehms presenting the first six of a dozen sonatas composed by Platti in 1725 that survive in Wiesentheid in a manuscript in the composer’s sumptuous hand. With its broad fingerboard and seemingly endless number of strings, the baroque lute can sound difficult because of its unwieldiness. With magisterial surety Wolf strides across Platti’s bass lines while embroidering the chordal fabric with clever melodic skeins ingeniously complementing the cello’s phrases. As for Hess, he enthralls the listener with the sprezzatura of a natural aristocrat that could hardly have been equaled, not to mention surpassed, by the original Schönborn cellist with all his hereditary privilege. To hear Hess play the opening phrase of the adagio from the first sonata that is the disc’s opening track is to be transported not only to another century but also into an architecture of fantastical weightlessness, but with just the right measure of earthbound realism.
A still earlier recording (Harmonia mundi, 2008) of Platti’s incandescent D-Major Cello Concerto made with the present-day baroque gold-standard Akademie für alte Musik Berlin confirms Hess’s leading role in a rediscovery of Platti instrumental music so prolific that its extent can only be hinted at here. Still, I must mention the 2013 recording (also from Oehms—the Platti label) by cellist Stefano Veggetti and Ensemble Cordia: they serve up a somewhat more restrained but no-less-convincing performance of that same concerto along with other works also heard on the Berliners disc. That so many world-class musicians have devoted themselves to Platti of late confirms that his work deserves elevation to the elite of the eighteenth-century.
As of yet, however, the Wurzburg master’s vocal works remain largely unrecorded, though thanks to YouTube one can steal glimpses of things already accomplished and things still to come in the Platti revival. The most important initiative has been transalpine in the extreme: the Norwegian chamber choir Vocal Nord and the excellent Russian baroque orchestra Pratum Integrum joined forces for a performance of the Miserere. In spite of the far from ideal recording and camera position of the YouTube video one can hear the vibrant harmonies of penitential supplication, the searing guilt of anguished dissonances, the indulgent languor of forgiving melodies, and the ardent counterpoint of a searching soul. The two ensembles recently collaborated in January of this year in the baroque music festival in Trondheim, Norway in a performance of Platti’s Miserere and his Requiem. Here’s hoping a recording follows.
Platti’s music is as technically sophisticated and artistically convincing as Tiepolo’s magnificent frescoes, and like those glorious paintings it is only luck—aided by the ingenuity and dedication of the artists themselves—that allowed these irreplaceable things to survive the crimes of war.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org