From the birth of Handel and Bach in 1685 to the death of Brahms in 1897 German music was supreme; at any time in those 212 years the greatest living composer, except in opera, was a German.30 Two musical forms, the oratorio and the fugue, attained their highest development in the work of Germans in the first half of the eighteenth century; and some would add that the Roman Catholic Mass received its final expression at the hands of a German Protestant. The age of painting ended; the age of music began.
Music was part of the religion, as religion was so great a part of music, in every German home. There was hardly a family, except in the poorest class, that could not sing part song, hardly an individual who could not play one or more instruments. Hundreds of amateur groups called Liebhaber performed cantatas that professional singers now consider discouragingly difficult.31 Manuals of music were as popular as the Bible. Music was taught with reading and writing in the common schools. Musical criticism was further advanced than in any other country but Italy, and the leading musical critic of the century was a German.
Johann Mattheson was probably more famous and unpopular among German musicians than any German composer. His vanity clouded his achievements. He knew the classical and the modern literary languages, he wrote on law and politics, he played the organ and the harpsichord so well that he could turn down a dozen invitations to exalted posts. He was an elegant dancer, an accomplished man of the world. He was an expert fencer, who nearly killed Handel in a duel. He sang successfully in the Hamburg Opera; composed operas, cantatas, Passions, oratorios, sonatas, and suites; and developed the cantata form before Bach. For nine years he served as Kapellmeister for the Duke of Holstein; then, becoming deaf, he resigned himself to writing. He published eighty-eight books, eight of them on music, and added a treatise on tobacco. He founded and edited (1722–25) Critica musica, the earliest known critical discussion of past and current compositions, and compiled a biographical dictionary of contemporary musicians. He died at eighty-three (1764), having powerfully stimulated the musical world.
Musical instruments were in continuous evolution and change, but the organ was still their unchallenged chief. Usually it had three or four manuals or keyboards, plus a pedal board of two and a half octaves, plus a variety of stops that could imitate almost any other instrument. No finer organs have been built than those made by Andreas Silbermann of Strasbourg and Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg. But string instruments were mounting in popularity. The clavichord (that is, key and string) used a manual of keys to manipulate levers armed with little “tangents” of brass to strike the strings; this instrument was already three centuries old, perhaps more. In the harpsichord (which the French called clavecin, and the Italians clavi-or gravicembalo) the strings were plucked by a tongue of quill or leather attached to levers moved by (usually) a double manual of keys, aided by two pedals and three or four stops. The term clavier was applied in Germany to any keyboard instrument—clavichord, harpsichord, or piano—and to the manuals of an organ. The harpsichord was essentially a harp in which the fingers plucked the strings through the media of keys, levers, and plectra. It produced sounds of a delicate charm, but since the plectrum rebounded as soon as it had struck the string, this instrument had no means of holding a note or varying its intensity. To get two degrees of tone it had to resort to a double manual—the upper one for piano (soft), the lower for forte (loud). The pianoforte grew out of efforts to overcome these limitations.
In or before 1709 Bartolommeo Cristofori made at Florence four gravicembali col piano e forte—“clavichords with soft and loud.” In these the plucking plectrum was replaced by a little leather hammer whose contact with the string could be continued by keeping the key depressed, while the loudness of the note could be determined by the force with which the finger struck the key. In 1711 Scipione di Maffei described the new instrument in his Giornale dei letterati d’Italia; in 1725 this essay appeared at Dresden in a German version; in 1726 Gottfried Silbermann, inspired by this translation,32 built two pianofortes on Cristofori’s principles. About 1733 he showed an improved model to Johann Sebastian Bach, who pronounced it too weak in the upper register, and requiring too heavy a touch. Silbermann admitted these defects and labored to remove them. He succeeded so well that Frederick the Great bought fifteen of his pianofortes. Bach played one of these when he visited Frederick in 1747; he liked it, but judged himself too old to adopt the new instrument; he continued through his remaining three years to prefer the organ and the harpsichord.
The orchestra was used mainly in the service of opera or choir; music was seldom composed for it alone except in the form of overtures. Oboes and bassoons were more numerous than in our orchestras today; the woodwinds dominated the strings. Public concerts were as yet rare in Germany; music was almost entirely confined to the church, the opera, the home, or the streets. Semipublic concerts of chamber music were given in Leipzig from 1743 in the homes of prosperous merchants; larger and larger quarters were taken, the performers were increased to sixteen, and in 1746 a Leipzig directory announced that “on Thursdays a Collegium Musicum, under the direction of the worshipful Company of Merchants and other persons, is held from five to eight o’clock at the Three Swans [an inn]”; these concerts, it added, “are fashionably frequented, and are admired with much attention.”33 From this Collegium Musicum evolved in 1781 the Grosses Konzert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Drapers’ Hall)—the oldest concert series now in existence.
Only a small minority of musical compositions were written for instruments alone; but some of these productions shared in developing the symphony. At Mannheim a school of composers and performers—many of them from Austria, Italy, or Bohemia—took a leading part in this development. There the Elector Palatine Charles Theodore (r. 1733–99), a patron of all the arts, gathered an orchestra that was generally reputed to be the best in Europe. For that group Johann Stamitz, a virtuoso of the violin, composed true symphonies: orchestral compositions divided into three or more movements, of which at least the first followed “sonata form”—exposition of contrasted themes, their “free elaboration,” and their recapitulation. Following the lead of Neapolitan composers, the new form took normally the sequence of fast, slow, and fast movements—allegro, andante, allegro; and from the dance it sometimes added a minuet. So the age of polyphonic music, based on one motif and culminating in J. S. Bach, passed into the symphonic age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The human voice remained the most magical of instruments. Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Karl Heinrich Graun, and others put to music the passionate love poems of Johann Christian Günther; and Johann Ernst Bach of Weimar found inspiration for several fine lieder in the poetry of Christian Gellert. Opera flourished in Germany now, but it was predominantly Italian in form, importing its compositions and singers from Italy. Every major court had its opera hall, usually open only to the elite. Hamburg, controlled by its merchants, was an exception: it offered German opera, opened the performances to the paying public, and recruited its divas from the market place. In Hamburg Reinhard Keiser ruled the Gänsemarkt (Goosemarket) Theater for forty years. During his reign he composed 116 operas, mostly Italian in text and style, but some of them German. For in 1728 Mattheson’s Musikalischer Patriot raised a battle cry against the Italian invaders: “Out, barbarians! [Fuori barbari!] Let the [operatic] calling be forbidden to the aliens who encompass us from east to west; let them be sent back again across their savage Alps to purify themselves in the furnace of Etna!”34 But the lure of Italian voices and melodies proved irresistible. Even in Hamburg the rage for Neapolitan operas stifled native productions. Keiser surrendered and moved to Copenhagen; the Hamburg theater closed in 1739 after sixty years of existence; and when it reopened in 1741 it was frankly devoted to Italian opera. When Frederick restored opera to Berlin (1742), he chose German composers but Italian performers. “A German singer!” he exclaimed. “I would as soon hear my horse neigh.”35
Germany produced in this age one operatic composer of the first rank, Johann Adolf Hasse, but he too wooed Italy. For ten years he studied there with Alessandro Scarlatti and Niccolò Porpora; he married the Italian singer Faustina Bordoni (1730); he wrote the music for Italian librettos by Apostolo Zeno, Metastasio, and others. His early operas were so enthusiastically received in Naples and Venice that Italy called him “il caro Sassone” the lovable Saxon. When he returned to Germany he passionately defended Italian opera. Most Germans agreed with him, and honored him above the absent Handel and far above the obscure Bach; Burney ranked him and Gluck as the Raphael and Michelangelo of music in German lands.36 No one, not even the Italians, equaled the richness of his hundred operas in melodic or dramatic invention. In 1731 he and his wife, the greatest diva of her time, were invited to Dresden by Augustus the Strong; Faustina captured the capital with her voice, Hasse with his compositions. In 1760 he lost most of his property, including his collected manuscripts, in the bombardment of Dresden by Frederick the Great. The ruined city gave up opera, and Hasse and his wife moved to Vienna, where, by now seventy-four, he competed with Gluck. In 1771, at the marriage of the Archduke Ferdinand in Milan, he shared the musical program with the fourteen-year-old Mozart. “This boy,” he is reported to have said, “will throw us all into the shade.”37 Soon afterward he and Faustina went to spend their remaining years in Venice. There they both died in 1783, he aged eighty-four, she ninety. The harmony of their lives surpassed the melody of their songs.
While Italian music triumphed in the opera houses of Germany, church music flourished despite Frederick’s ridicule of it as “old-fashioned” and “debased.”38 We shall see Catholic music prospering in Vienna; and in the north the surviving fervor of Protestantism inspired a multitude of cantatas, chorales, and Passions, as if a hundred composers were preparing the way and the forms for Bach. Organ music predominated, but many church orchestras included violins and violoncellos. The influence of opera appeared not only in the enlargement of church orchestras and choirs, but also in the increasingly dramatic character of church compositions.
The most famous composer of religious music in Bach’s Germany was Georg Philipp Telemann, who was born four years before Bach (1681) and died seventeen years after him (1767). Mattheson considered Telemann superior to all his German contemporaries in musical composition; Bach, with one exception, may have agreed, for he transcribed whole cantatas by his rival. Telemann was a child prodigy. At an early age he learned Latin and Greek, the violin and the flute; at eleven he began to compose; at twelve he wrote an opera, which was performed in a theater with himself singing one of the roles. At twelve he composed a cantata, and conducted it standing on a bench so that the players could see him.
He grew into a robust and jolly Teuton, bubbling with humor and melody. In 1701, passing through Halle, he met the sixteen-year-old Handel, and loved him at first sight. He went on to Leipzig to study law, but relapsed into music as organist for the Neuekirche (1704). A year later he accepted the post of Kapellmeister in Sorau; then to Eisenach, where he met Bach; in 1714 he served as godfather to Johann Sebastian’s son Karl Philipp Emanuel. In 1711 his young wife died, taking his heart with her, he said; but three years later he married again. In 1721 he advanced to Hamburg, where he served as Kapellmeister for six churches, directed musical instruction in the Gymnasium, took charge of the Hamburg Opera, edited a journal of music, and organized a series of public concerts which continued into our own time. Everything prospered with Telemann, except that his wife preferred Swedish officers.
His productivity rivaled any man’s in that age of musical giants. For all the Sundays and feast days of thirty-nine years he composed sacred music-Passions, cantatas, oratorios, anthems and motets; he added operas, comic operas, concertos, trios, serenades; Handel said that Telemann could compose a motet in eight parts as quickly as one writes a letter.39 He took his style from France, as Hasse took his from Italy, but he added his own peculiar verve. In 1765, aged eighty-four, he wrote a cantata, Ino, which Ro-main Rolland thought equal to the similar productions of Handel, Gluck, and Beethoven. But Telemann was the victim of his own fertility. He composed too rapidly for perfection, and did not have the patience to revise, or the courage to destroy, the imperfect products of his genius; a critic accused him of “incredible immoderation.”40 Today he is almost forgotten; but now and then he comes to us as a disembodied spirit through the air, and we find all his resurrected utterances beautiful.41
Frederick was not alone in preferring Karl Heinrich Graun to Telemann and Bach. Karl first reached fame by his soprano voice; this failing, he turned to composition, and at the age of fifteen he wrote a Grosse Passionskantata (1716) which was performed in the Kreuzschule at Dresden. After a period as Kapellmeister at Brunswick he was engaged by Frederick (1735) to direct music at Rheinsberg. He continued during his remaining fourteen years to serve the Prussian court, for even his religious music pleased the skeptical King. Der Tod Jesu, a Passion first performed the Berlin cathedral in 1755, achieved a renown in Germany rivaled only by that of Handel’s Messiah in England and Ireland; it was repeated annually in Holy Week till our own time. All Protestant Germany joined Frederick in mourning Graun’s comparatively early death.
Meanwhile half a hundred Bachs had laid the seed and scene for their most famous heir. Johann Sebastian himself drew up his family tree in Ur-sprung der musikalisch Bachischen Familie, which reached print in 1917; the meticulous Spitta has devoted 180 pages to charting that Orphean stream. The towns of Thuringia were sprinkled with Bachs, traceable as far back as 1509. The oldest musikalischer Bach, with whom Johann Sebastian began his list, was his great-great-grandfather Veit Bach (d. 1619). From him descended four lines of Bachs, many of them prominent as musicians; these were so numerous that they formed a kind of guild, which met periodically to exchange notes. One of them, Johann Ambrosius Bach, received from his father the violin technique which he transmitted to his children. In 1671 he succeeded his cousin as Hofmusikus, court musician, at Eisenach. In 1668 he had married Elisabeth Lammerhirt, daughter of a furrier who became a town councilor. By her he had two daughters and six sons. The oldest son, Johann Christoph Bach, rose to be organist at Ohrdruf. Another, Johann Jakob Bach, joined the Swedish army as oboist.