The Germany of Bach



IT was not to be expected that Voltaire, as he passed through Germany, could discipline his volatile Parisian mind to an appreciation of German bodies, features, manners, speech, Gothic letters, music, and art. He had probably never heard of Johann Sebastian Bach, who died on July 18, 1750, eighteen days after Voltaire reached Berlin. And presumably he had not seen Hume’s description of Germany in 1748 as “a fine country, full of industrious honest people; were it united it would be the greatest power … in the world.”1

It was fortunate for France and England that these virile folk, numbering then some twenty millions, were still divided into more than three hundred practically independent states, each with its sovereign prince, its own court, policy, army, coinage, religion, and dress; all in various stages of economic and cultural development; the whole agreeing only in language, music, and art. Sixty-three of the principalities—including Cologne, Hildesheim, Mainz, Trier, Speyer, Würzburg—were ruled by archbishops, bishops, or abbots. Fifty-one cities—chiefly Hamburg, Bremen, Magdeburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, and Frankfurt-am-Main—were “free,” i.e., loosely subject, like the princes, to the head of the Holy Roman Empire.

Outside of Saxony and Bavaria, most of the German land was cultivated by serfs legally bound to the soil they tilled, and subject to nearly all the old feudal dues. As late as 1750, of the eight thousand peasants in the bishopric of Hildesheim 4,500 were serfs.2Class divisions were sharp, but they were so mortised in time that the commonalty accepted them with very little complaint; and they were mitigated by a greater survival and honoring of seignorial obligations to protect the peasant in misfortune, to care for him in sickness and old age, to look after widows and orphans, and to maintain order and peace.3 The Junker landlords in Prussia distinguished themselves by competent management of their domains, and their quick adoption of improved agricultural techniques.

Now that Germany had had sixty-seven years to recover from the Thirty Years’ War, industry and commerce were reviving. The Leipziger Messe was the best-attended fair in Europe; it surpassed the Frankfurt fair even in the sale of books. Frankfurt and Hamburg reached in this century a degree of mercantile activity equaled only by Paris, Marseilles, London, Genoa, Venice, and Constantinople. The merchant princes of Hamburg used their wealth not merely for luxury and display, but for the enthusiastic patronage of opera, poetry, and drama; here Handel had his first triumphs, Klopstock found shelter, and Lessing wrote his Hamburgische Dramaturgie— essays on the Hamburg theater. The German cities were then, as now, the best-administered in Europe.4

Whereas in France and England the king had succeeded in bringing the nobles into subservience to the central government, the electors, princes, dukes, counts, bishops, or abbots who ruled the German states had deprived the emperor of any real power over their domains, and had brought the lower nobility into attendance at the princely courts. Aside from the free cities, these courts (Residenzen) were the centers of cultural as well as political life in Germany. The wealth of the landowners was drawn to them, and was spent in immense palaces, sumptuous expenditure, and magnificent uniforms that in many cases were half the man and most of his authority. So Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Wurttemberg, commissioned J. F. Nette and Donato Frizoni to build for him (1704–33) at Ludwigsburg (near Stuttgart) an alternative Residenz so lordly in design and decoration, and so replete with elegant furniture and objects of art, as must have cost his subjects many thalers and arduous days. The great Schloss, or castle, at Heidelberg, begun in the thirteenth century, added in 1751 a cellar vat with a capacity for brewing 49,000 gallons of beer at a time. At Mannheim Duke Charles Theodore, during his long rule as Elector Palatine (1733–99), spent 35 million florins on artistic and scientific institutions, museums, and libraries, and in support of architects, sculptors, painters, actors, and musicians.5 Hanover was not large or magnificent, but it had a resplendent opera house, luring Handel. Germany was as mad about music as Mother Italy herself.

Munich too had a great opera house, financed by a tax on playing cards. But the duke-electors of Bavaria made their capital famous also for architecture. When his duchy was overrun by Austrians in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maximilian Emanuel had found refuge in Paris and Versailles; when he returned to Munich (1714) he brought with him a flair for art and the rococo style. With him came a young French architect, François de Cuvilliés, who built for the next Elector, Charles Albert, in the park of Nymphenburg, that masterpiece of German rococo, the little palace called the Amalienburg (1734–39). Simple without, it is a wilderness of ornament within: a domed and dazzling Hall of Mirrors (Spiegelsaal), with silvered stucco carved in latticework and arabesques; and a Yellow Room (Gelbes Zimmer) where the gilt stucco baffles the eye that tries to follow its intricate design. In the same overwhelming style Josef Effner began and Cuvilliés completed the Empire Rooms (Reichen Zimmer) in the ducal residence at Munich. Cuvilliés had left France at the age of twenty, before acquiring the full discipline of French taste; unchecked by him, the German artists elaborated the stucco with amateur abandon, achieving retail perfection within gross exaggeration. The Empire Rooms were shattered in the Second World War.

Frederick Augustus I “the Strong,” Elector of Saxony (r. 1694–1733), was not to be outdone by any Münchner duke. Despite passing to Warsaw (1697) as King Augustus II of Poland, he found time to tax the Saxons sufficiently to make Dresden “the Florence on the Elbe,” leading all German cities in expenditure on art. “The town is the neatest I have seen in Germany,” reported Lady Mary Montagu in 1716; “most of the houses are new built; the Elector’s palace very handsome.”6 Augustus collected pictures almost as avidly as concubines; his son, Elector Frederick Augustus II (r. 1733–63), poured out money on horses and pictures, and, said Winckelmann, “brought the arts to Germany.”7 In 1743 this younger Augustus sent Algarotti to Italy with ducats to buy paintings; soon afterward the Elector bought for 100,000 sequins ($500,000?) the collection of Duke Francesco III of Modena; and in 1754 he bought Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for twenty thousand ducats, a then unprecedented price. So the great Gemäldegalerie of Dresden took form.

A handsome opera house rose in Dresden in 1718; its company must have excelled, for Handel raided it for his English ventures in 1719; and under Johann Hasse its orchestra was among the best in Europe.8 It was in Dresden that Meissen porcelain was born—but that must have a story of its own. In the architecture of the Saxon capital the great name was Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann. For Augustus der Starke he built in 1711–22 the famous Zwinger Palace as a festival center for the court: a brilliant baroque complex of columns, arches, lovely mullioned windows, balconies, and crowning cupola. The Zwinger was destroyed by bombing in 1945, but the magnificent gate has been rebuilt on the original design. For the same inexhaustible Elector the Roman architect Gaetano Chiaveri raised in Italian baroque the Hofkirche, or Court Church (1738–51); this too was largely ruined and successfully restored. History is a contest between art and war, and art plays the part of Sisyphus.

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