Friday, June 15, 2012

A Pocket Guide to Dresden’s Musical and Political History

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.]

Dresden, the capital of Freistaat Sachsen (Free State of Saxony, a "Land" in German), was for centuries the royal seat of a duchy within the German Holy Roman Empire. Its dukes and kings drew to their courts the finest artists, architects and musicians Europe could offer, but of all the arts, music was to hold special prominence.

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.

Vying today for attention with baroque buildings are modern architectural developments in outlying districts, including Daniel Libeskind’s Museum of Military History project that reimagines the Neustadt district’s former military barracks, a sobering reflection on the destructive ends of war. Opened in 2011, it is both Germany's largest museum and the official one of the German Armed Forces.

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.


Photos by Rodney Punt. Top: Altstadt with the Koenig-Johann-Denkmal and nearby catholic church of the royal court (Dresden is otherwise a Lutheran city); bottom: The  Museum of Military History as reimagined by Daniel Libeskind. Punt can be reached at [email protected]


Paul said...

'Sachsen' is the German name for what the English speaking world calls 'Saxony', now a 'Land' (state) of the German Federal Republic, and in its golden years, before German unification in 1871, a separate Kingdom, which at times ruled swaths of what is now Poland. The adjectival form is the jaw-breaking 'Sachsische'. So it is either the 'Saxon King' or 'Sachsische Konig'. Your interesting historical sketch gives somewhat short shrift to Dresden's (and Saxony's) staggering achievements in architecture, the visual and decorative arts, including the Meissen porcelain works, and much else, nor does it mention Dresden's importance in the later history of classical music, particularly its central significance in the composing careers of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Rodney Punt said...

Dear Paul:

Concerning my use of 'Sachsen' and your suggested 'Sachsische', if I were following absolutely correct German it would be 'sächsische König', with the use of an umlaut and lower case for an adjective and upper case for the noun king. This is perhaps too awkward for this article, so I have substituted the English term "Saxon king" to please my grammatically concerned reader.

There term "Freistaat Sachsen" (in English, "free state of Saxony"), came into use after the collapse of the German aristocracy at the end of World War I. The citizens of Saxony were granted this term for their state (modern term for state is "Land" in German). While that designation was removed during the GDR period, it has been reinstated since the reunification of 1990, a convention similarly used by the Bavarian state. Saxony has certain privileges and legal peculiarities different from other states as a result. So, while Saxony is indeed a "Land" it is also correct to refer to its designation of "free state" of which the Saxon's are rightly proud. So I shall keep it as such.

Rodney Punt said...

Dear Paul:

This article focuses on Dresden's musical achievements, not so much its architecture and visual/decorative arts. However, I think you may have missed the two paragraphs I devoted to the Wagner and Strauss careers in Dresden. After Lohengrin, Wagner's career took another geographic direction, so his later operas are not mentioned.