If we believe the moralists of this half century before the war, the moral picture was as dark as the economic. Teachers complained that the youngsters sent to them were not Christians but barbarians. “The people bring up their children so badly,” wrote Matthias Bredenbach in 1557, “that it becomes obvious to the poor schoolmasters … that they have got to reckon … with wild animals.”20 “All discipline appears at an end,” said another in 1561; “the students are refractory and insolent in the extreme.”21 In most university towns the citizens hesitated to go out at night for fear of the students, who on some occasions attacked them with open knives.22 “A chief cause of the general depravity of the students,” said Nathan Chytränsin in 1578, “is undoubtedly the decline in home training…. Now that we have slipped the yoke of ancient laws and statutes from off our necks … it is no wonder that we find, among the larger part of our young people, such unbridled licentiousness, such boorish ignorance, such ungovernable insolence, such terrible godlessness.”23 Others thought that “not the least among the causes why the young lapse into immorality and lasciviousness are the comedies, spectacles, and plays.”24
As for adults, the preachers described them as quarrelsome hypocrites, gluttons, drunkards, and adulterers.25 Pastor Johann Kuno complained in 1579, “Vice of all sorts is now so common that it is committed without shame, nay, people even boast of it in sodomitish fashion; the coarsest, the most indecent sins have become virtues…. Who regards common whoredom any longer as a sin?”26 Pastor Bartholomaus Ringwalt thought in 1585 that those were “the last and worst times which have come upon the world.”27Profanity was almost universal among the men, regardless of creed.28 Calumny had a festival. “My superintendent,” wrote the Count of Oldenburg in 1594, “has complained to me of the manner in which Dr. Pezel, at Bremen, has abused and slandered him in one of his books, making out that he spent his days in gluttony, drunkenness and debauchery, that he … was a sheep-devouring wolf, a serpent, a he-goat, an abortion, … and that he must be gotten rid of either by hanging, drowning, or imprisonment, by the wheel or by the sword.” The court preacher of the Elector of Saxony found that “almost throughout the length and breadth of Germany it has been falsely reported that I earn large gilded goblets in drinking matches, that … I so fill myself with wine that … I have to be propped up and laid on a wagon and carted off like a drunken calf or sow.”29
Eating and drinking were major industries. Half the day of a well-to-do German was consumed in passing edibles from one end of his anatomy to the other. Burghers were proud of their appetites, which, like the dress of their women, served as heralds of their prosperity. A circus performer earned national fame by eating at one meal a pound of cheese, thirty eggs, and a large loaf of bread—after which stint he fell dead. Dinners lasting seven hours, with fourteen toasts, were not unusual. Weddings were in many cases riots of gourmandizing and intoxication. A jovial prince signed his letters “Valete et inebriamini” (Be well and get drunk). Elector Christian II of Saxony drank himself to death at the age of twenty-seven. A temperance society struggled against the evil, but its first president died of drink.30 It was asserted that gluttony was shortening the tenure of life. Said Erasmus Winter in 1599: “Owing to immoderate eating and drinking there are now few old people, and we seldom see a man of thirty or forty who is not affected by some sort of disease, either stone, gout, cough, consumption, or what not.”31
We must not take these contemporary complaints too seriously. Probably the majority of the people were hard-working, long-suffering, and literally God-fearing folk; but in history, as in journalism, virtue makes no news—which proves it usual. The wives of the burghers lived in a modest domestic privacy, absorbed in a hundred duties that left no time for greater sins than gossip; and many women of the upper classes, like Anna, wife of Elector Augustus I of Saxony, were models of conscientious devotion to their families. There were some pleasant aspects in that turbulent Germany: love of children and home, generous hospitality, gay dancing and good music, jolly games and festivals. The first Christmas tree in recorded history was part of a celebration in Germany in 1605; it was the Germans who surrounded the Feast of the Nativity with picturesque relics of their pagan past.
Dances and folk songs were begetting forms of instrumental music, and hymns were growing into massive chorales. Organs became monuments of architecture; harpsichords, lutes, and other instruments were themselves products of loving art; hymnbooks, especially in Bohemia, were sometimes gorgeously adorned. Protestant hymns were often didactic or polemical, sacrificing the tenderness of medieval sacred song, but the Protestant chorales were already pointing to Johann Sebastian Bach. Musical instruction was compulsory in the schools of all the creeds; the “cantor”—i.e., the professor of music—ranked only after the rector or principal in the scholastic hierarchy. Organists were as famous then as pianists now; Jakob Handl held high repute in Prague, and the Hassler brothers—Hans, Kaspar, and Jakob—thrilled congregations, often with their own compositions, in Dresden, Nuremberg, and Prague. Musical ability tended to run in families, not through any mystical heredity, but through the contagion of the home; so a veritable host of Schultzes took the name Praetorius. Michael Praetorius composed not only tomes of music, but also, in his Syntagma musicum (1615–20), a thorough and scholarly encyclopedia of musical history, instruments, and forms.
The great name in this age and field was Heinrich Schütz, unanimously honored as the father of modern German music. Born to a Saxon family in 1585, exactly a century before Bach and Handel, he established the musical forms and spirit that these men brought to perfection. At twenty-four he went to Venice, where he studied under Giovanni Gabrieli. Returning to Germany, he hesitated between music and law, but finally settled down as director of music at the Dresden court of John George, Elector of Saxony. From 1618 onward he poured forth choral compositions which, in their manipulation and contrast of choirs, solo voices, and instruments, fully prepared for the many Bachs. Now for the first time heavy German choral counterpoint was fused and lightened with the more melodious “concerted” style, which combined voices and instruments. To celebrate the marriage of the Elector’s daughter (1627), Schütz composed the first German opera, Dafne, based upon Peri’s opera of the same name performed in Florence thirty-three years before. A second trip to Italy influenced Schütz to give further prominence to solos and instruments in his Symphoniae sacrae (1629), setting to music Latin texts from the Psalms and the Song of Songs. In 1631 Saxony became an active theater of war, and Schütz wandered from court to court, even to Denmark, seeking choirs and bread; not till 1645 was he re-established in Dresden. In that year he created the style of German Passion music with an oratorio, The Seven Words from the Cross; here he set the example of giving the words of a single character to the same single voice, and of preceding or following the voice with the same strains in the instruments; Bach adopted this method in The St. Matthew Passion. Again opening up new paths, Schütz published in 1657 Deutsche Concerten—cantatas that place him with Carissimi as joint founder of the dramatic oratorio. His Christmas Oratorio (1664) set another mark for Bach to aim at. A year later he reached his zenith with The Passion and Death of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, sternly scored for voices alone and unrelieved with arias. Soon thereafter he lost his hearing. He retired to the solitude of his home, and died at eighty-seven after putting to music a passage from the 119th Psalm: “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.”