When the English music historian 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 cultural projects in Berlin and Potsdam. Though politically tolerant of all faiths, the Prussian monarch made no secret of his contempt for organized religion. He must have found it strangely exhilarating to watch the spires of Dresden’s Baroque churches topple from the horizon.
Dresden’s eighteenth-century skyline was dominated by the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche—the Church of Our Lady. 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.”
That church fell with the rest of the city seventy-five years ago last week. In the night of February 13th-14th, 1945 the British air force dropping some 200,000 bombs—high explosives followed by incendiaries—±on Dresden. The Americans followed up the next day with similar tonnage as rescues efforts were underway down on the ground. Between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians were killed, the Florence and the Elbe erased by fire.
Burney writes with a courteously well-hidden, yet still palpable, disgust 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 decades of effort 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, the year the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated, I played a concert in Dresden in the 250th anniversary year of the famed organ built by Gottfried Silbermann (though he died before its completion) for the Court Chapel — now the city cathedral. Unlike the organ in the nearby Frauenkirche also by Silbermann, that in the Court Chapel had escaped destruction thanks to its timely removal in 1944, returned to the rebuilt church in the 1960s. The concert organizers put me up the reconstructed Bishop’s Palace. The facade of that building and all the others that front the River Elbe look again like they do in Canaletto’s famous paintings.
During my stay, I visited the then just-opened Grünes Gewölbe (green vault), recently victim of a shocking heist that touched the cultural nerve that is Dresden: the value of priceless jewels stolen was put around a billion Euros. In these sumptuous rooms, the Saxon Electors displayed their treasures in jaw-dropping profusion: hundreds of perfectly faces carved into a single sixteenth-century cherry pit; impossibly beautiful and complex ivory wonders; amber; silver, porcelain. In the 1720s, the mightiest of the Saxon rulers, August the Strong opened the doors to the public, happy for his subjects to admirer his goodies.
Many, though not all, of these holdings were, like the chapel’s organ, spirited out of Dresden before the bombs fell. Dresden’s musical riches also largely escaped. Unlike organs, manuscript can be removed to safety with relative ease. And if these are saved (like the early version of Bach’s B-minor Mass which the composer offered to the Saxon Elector in 1733) the music can be performed—it can burst out of the museum and into the modern world. We can listen in on the musical world of Dresden’s Golden Age.
This huge body of music represents one of the city’s most lasting cultural achievements.
The finest English-account account of musical life in Dresden’s eighteenth century remains a long chapter in Daniel Heartz’s magisterial yet gracious Music in European Capitals: the Galant Style, 1720-1780 (Norton, 2003).
Patrons, musicians and their music are encountered with a critical ear and enlivening appreciation of the subtleties of style, previously dismissed as superficial. With Heartz as guide, the this musical world gleams and glories anew.
The pathbreaking apostle in the performance of this nearly inexhaustible hoard of music was Reinhard Goebel and his ensemble, Musica Antiqua Köln; the vivid results of his research can be heard in four beautifully produced recordings 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 eighteenth-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. Favorite pursuits included not only food and women—August the Strong tallied up 354 illegitimate children—but music as well. The Saxon court orchestra was 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 in World War II 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 landscapes when blunderbusses were silent. Love was in the air—along with the scent of gun powder.
The Concerti “per l’orchestra di Dresda” from Musica Antiqua Köln offers a panorama of Dresden instrumental music members of court orchestra, as well as scores acquired from afar for the Elector’s enjoyment. The offerings include two exuberant suites by Heinichen and an eccentric overture by the temperamental—some said mad—virtuoso Francesco 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, opportunistically converted to Catholicism in 1697 to be able to become Polish King as well as Saxon Elector. It was a move that disquieted the Lutheran faithful, but also produced a vast quantity of the elaborate music for the Catholic liturgy. In Goebel’s two-disc recording 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 (Director of Music), but both Augusts had, in emulation of the famed secrecy of the Sistine Chapel, forbidden Zelenka from publishing his music or sending 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 to 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 (counterpoint and Gregorian Chant) and the latest stylistic impulses (opera), or to suggest that his spirited melodies often appeal more than 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: the prestige entertainment of its time. In those days of enlightened despotism there were no pseudo-political debates about state funding of the arts. August was a National Endowment for the Arts unto himself: all seats in the opera house were free, and anyone could sit in the Parterre. More than thirty years ago the renowned conductor of baroque operas (among many other genres), William Christie recorded a performance of Johann Adolf Hasse’s Cleofide, premiered at the Dresden opera house on September 14, 1731, the year in which Hasse returned to his native Germany from Italy and claimed the title of Saxon Kapellmeister, apparently to the chagrin of Zelenka. (This four CD of the opera set was reissued in 2011 on by the Capriccio label.) Bach himself was in the audience for that premiere; 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 music and the other arts fell into neglect. America take note!
Seated in the opera house for Cleofide, Bach would have had a chance to hear another of his friends, the lutenist Silvius Leopold Weis, shine in his solo in an aria from the third act, “Cervo al bosco” (Stag in the woods).
A mini-concerto for lute and horns introduces the singing of the hero, Alexander the Great, depicted in the aria as a stealthy, 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 performance of Weiss’s solo Sonatas on a gorgeous instrument from the late sixteenth-century demonstrates how the profound intimacy of the lute explored by its greatest eighteenth-century genius draws the listener’s attention more forcefully than lavish court spectacle.
There are those who give voice to a more vicious version of Burney’s sentiment, and claim that Dresden deserved its annihilation in 1945. When the Frauenkirche 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. At present, far-right groups in Germany seek to inflate the number of Dresden dead to the 100,000—or more—mark claimed by the Nazis and long insisted on by others. A new book on the fire-bombing from the English journalist Sinclair McKay has come in for criticism for its sensationalism—and the embarrassing fact that the cover photo of the German edition shows the destruction of Danzig, not Dresden. Seen one bombing seen them all. Whatever the wartime city being razed and its inhabitants killed en masse, the center-liberal press resists the rise of German victimhood, even if the Allied aerial bombardment of German civilians—and therefore of Dresden should count as a war crime.
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.
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.