by Rodney Punt
[As a first installment of a report on the music scene encountered in the German city of Dresden earlier this month, I am providing short overviews of both the city's musical legacy and its tumultuous history.]
Kapellmeisters Heinrich Schütz, the “Father of German Music”, and his colleague Michael Praetorius, both of whom studied in Italy, virtually invented the early German baroque style in Dresden by synthesizing techniques of the German and Italian schools. Schütz's Dafne (music now lost) was the first German opera and launched Dresden as the city most closely identified with German-born opera composers.
Smitten with Dresden a century later, Leipzig Kapellmeister J. S. Bach offered sections of his B-minor Mass to the Saxon king in a long (and finally successful) pursuit of the title of court composer. Bach's contemporary, Gottfried Silbermann, who built organs and fortepianos for the city’s churches and salons, prompted Bach's side-speciality of testing and recommending further refinements to them.
Dresden’s eighteenth century Italian opera productions were admired throughout Europe. George Frideric Händel, one of Saxony's most famous citizens (born in nearby Halle), created a scandal when he raided his monarch's most famous singers for the London stage.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Carl Maria von Weber, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss composed or premiered increasingly sophisticated works for the Dresden opera (most at one of two versions of the Semperoper). Though the roots of German national opera sprung from the Viennese singspiel tradition, including Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, with attempts by Franz Schubert to match Weber's later innovations, it was in Dresden that German national opera took hold and came into its own, evolving into a tradition comparable to and frequently more technically advanced than its longer-standing counterparts in Italy and France.
The line of German operas with a Dresden connection is extensive. They trace from Weber’s Der Freischütz (premiered in Berlin in 1821 and soon after in Weber's home town of Dresden) and Marschner’s Der Vampyr, premiered in 1828. A qualitative leap came with Wagner’s Rienzi in 1842, Der fliegende Holländer in 1843, Tannhäuser in 1845 (all composed and premiered in Dresden) and Lohengrin (composed in Dresden but premiered in Weimar in 1850 after Wagner's participation in the civil uprising of 1849 prompted his banishment from Germany). Though Dresden was no longer a base of operations for Wagner, he found his individual voice there. Schumann’s Genoveva was composed for but refused by the Semperoper and premiered in Leipzig also in 1850. Richard Strauss’s nine premieres at the Semperoper ushered in the twilight of romanticism, beginning with Feuersnot in 1901, Salome in 1905, Elektra in 1909, Der Rosenkavalier in 1911, and five others concluding with the 1938 opening of Daphne. The Semperoper was subsequently destroyed in the infamous WWII firebombing of February, 1945.
Dresden’s location astride the winding banks of the river Elbe tied it to other German cities. Its proximity to the Czech and Polish borders positioned it also as one of Europe’s most fecund creative crossroads. But these close encounters also led to setbacks from social hazards and political conflicts that might have broken the spirit of a lesser city.
The Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages decimated the city’s population, as did the later Thirty Years War. Fully recovered by the nineteenth century (arguably its most resplendent musically), Dresden survived the First World War at great loss (the Zwinger Palace’s massive four-part Otto Dix painting of trench warfare bears witness). But the Second World War’s firebombing (graphically documented in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) destroyed much of the city’s historic core. Reconstruction projects from 1945 -- embraced by both the drab, resource-challenged German Democratic Republic and, from 1990, the more robust German Federal Republic -- have painstakingly rebuilt Dresden stone by stone.
It took two decades to restore the Zwinger Palace art museum, four to mend the Semperoper, and six to return the city’s emblematic landmark, the stately baroque Frauenkirche, finally finished in 2005. Not content to simply attain a previous status quo, Dresden has in recent decades reinvented itself as it rebuilt. It calls to mind the role of its historic intelligentsia in leading Germany’s progressive political and artistic movements, as with Wagner's involvement in attempting a reform government in 1849.
Since the national reunification two decades ago, Dresden’s restoration has accelerated and its rise as a cultural center has once again made it one of the most beloved and frequently visited cities in Germany.