“From Luther to Fasch – in four days flat”

The 14th International Fasch Festival in Zerbst/Anhalt, Germany, 20-23 April 2017

With Lutherans around the world celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017, the International Fasch Festival organizers based in Zerbst/Anhalt had adopted “From Luther to Fasch” as their 2017 motto – and with good reason. In 1522 Martin Luther had preached in Zerbst, and in 1644 the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst was the only one in Anhalt to become exclusively Lutheran. In 1722 Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688–1758) was appointed Kapellmeister  and put in charge of music at the Zerbst court. But he identified with another religious movement popular at the time, Lutheran Pietism, and, in 1726/27 had also spent several months composing vocal music for the Catholic court of Dresden. What impact, if any, did the confessional landscape of his day have on Fasch’s output and musical style?

It was up to the individual performers, ensembles, and conference participants to ponder that question. The opening concert on Thursday, 20 April, featured the fiery Main-Barockorchester Frankfurt, directed by Martin Jopp. They set the tone of the entire festival with a programme entitled “Luther, Fasch and Frau Musica”, as actor Raphael Kübler recited carefully selected texts about and by Martin Luther in between splendid instrumental music by Fasch (and one piece by Zelenka to cleanse the palate). My favourite was a newly edited orchestral suite in B-flat Major by Fasch. Thanks to the Central German Radio, MDR, listeners around the world could tune in to enjoy a live broadcast of the concert. Earlier that evening, the 2017 Fasch Prize was awarded to Prof. (em.) Manfred Fechner (Jena) for his 50-plus years of contributing to Fasch scholarship. One of the major driving forces of the Fasch Renaissance in the former German Democratic Republic, Fechner has also worked together closely with two other Fasch Prize recipients, Ludwig Güttler (1999) and Ludger Rémy (2015). Congratulations!

The two-day conference on “Fasch and the Confessional Landscape of his Day” began on 21 April in a new location, a lovely meeting room on the third floor of the local Sparkasse bank near the former court church, St. Bartholomäi. Members of the Main-Barockorchester Frankfurt opened with a trio sonata by Fasch to welcome scholars and visitors from Germany, Great Britain, and Canada. A surprisingly honest welcome speech by the Zerbst mayor, Andreas Dittmann, followed. This town’s ongoing commitment to the Festival since 1993 is both remarkable and admirable. Zerbst (population ca. 22,000) regularly and successfully competes with other Baroque music festivals such as Handel in Halle, Telemann in Magdeburg, and Bach in Köthen.

The keynote address in 2017 was presented by Michael Maul (Bach-Archiv Leipzig). He examined the various Lutheran educational institutions that had shaped Fasch’s career path, especially prior to his arrival in Zerbst in 1722. By way of a humorous soccer analogy, Maul argued convincingly that Fasch and many of his peers were products of the splendid educational institutions that Luther had spearheaded in the 16th century, in particular the top-notch Kantoreien  (church choirs) and, of course, the Thomasschule in Leipzig from which Fasch graduated in 1708.

Historian Jan Brademann (Evangelische Landeskirche Anhalt, Dessau) then emphasized that while Anhalt-Zerbst’s multi-confessional landscape may have brought with it certain problems, they would not necessarily have affected Fasch’s creative output as a composer. A new primary source related to Johann Baptist Kuch, Fasch’s predecessor as Kapellmeister, was introduced by Rashid-S. Pegah (Berlin). Kuch had left Zerbst in spring 1722, after been ordered to pay a large amount of money to the mother of his child, the feisty Maria Agnes Amelang. She had successfully lodged a complaint against him with the local (Lutheran Orthodox) church court, the Zerbst Consistory. J. F. Fasch’s “Catholic” music was at the core of an investigation carried out by Gerhard Poppe (Koblenz/Dresden). He focused on settings of the Ordinarium Missae  that Fasch had composed for the Dresden court, adding a nostalgic touch when he used an actual record player for his musical examples.

Chorales featured prominently in presentations given on Friday afternoon by Gottfried Gille (Bad Langensalza) and Brian Clark (Arbroath, GB), Fasch Prize recipients in 2015 and 1997, respectively. Using a bi-confessional lens because Reformed Lutherans were allowed to worship alongside Orthodox Lutherans in Zerbst, Gille had painstakingly examined multiple extant 17th- and 18th-century Zerbst hymnals. He stressed the presence of chorales whose texts had been written by poets with an Anhalt-Zerbst connection. Clark introduced two such individuals – Prince Johann Adolph von Anhalt-Zerbst and Johann Betichius – in his paper. Clark also clarified that a set of autograph parts by Fasch from the Musikstube Zerbst  in Dessau (Z 100, A33), previously assumed to be related to the 1738 Zerbster Cantional, belongs, in fact, to Fasch’s 1730/31 cantata cycle. Nigel Springthorpe (London, GB) then reassessed the cantata repertoire that was performed at the Zerbst court chapel between 1749 and 1765. He argued in favour of Johann Georg Roellig (1710–1790), Fasch’s successor, having taken over that responsibility from Fasch around 1755.

A late afternoon concert followed, with conference participants and Festival visitors alike being enthralled by the Italian ensemble Zefiro. The five performers brought the house down or, more precisely, the sold-out Fasch Saal located on the second floor of the Zerbst Stadthalle, the historic former riding hall of the princely family of Anhalt-Zerbst. Their expertly executed programme consisted of delightful chamber music by Fasch, Telemann, Stölzel, and Zelenka, selected from the famous 1743 Zerbst “Concert-Stube” court music inventory. But it was Lotti’s “Echo in F major” that put a smile on everyone’s face, courtesy of oboist and ensemble director Alfredo Bernadini. He pretended to have forgotten his music, only to leave the room and play it backstage, as per the title of the piece.

Niniwe vocal art, an all-female German ensemble based in Leipzig, fired up the audience inside the chilly Zerbst palace during the traditional “Fasch Midnight” crossover concert (actual starting time: 9 pm). The turnout was disappointingly small, especially compared to the afternoon, when about 150 people toured the palace to view the impressive, ongoing renovations and improvements carried out by the local Zerbst palace society. My favourite? The fantastic observation platform on the roof top.

The second, shorter conference day began with a paper by Marc-Roderich Pfau (Berlin). He identified a new cantata cycle by Christoph Förster (1693–1745). His Evangelische Seelen-Ermunterung  (composed between ca. 1738 and 1745) was performed at the Zerbst court chapel during Fasch’s tenure as Kapellmeister, specifically on Sunday afternoons in 1749/50. Next, Beate Sorg (Darmstadt) investigated the so-called “Dresden” cantata cycle; it had been premiered at the Zerbst court chapel in 1726/27. She suggested that Fasch had not only copied cantatas by Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), his former composition teacher, to include them in the “Dresden cycle”, but also put the latter together himself. Evan Cortens (Calgary, Canada) examined Graupner’s background and musical training as a composer of opera. They made him the perfect choice as Kapellmeister  for Ernst Ludwig, Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt, who was keen on having church cantatas take the place of opera as the principal musical event at his court.

The final conference session dealt with princely funeral music. Drawing from a multitude of extant primary sources, Barbara M. Reul (Regina, Canada) identified a new “Fasch-Spielstätte”, i.e. a local venue where works by Fasch were performed. In addition to performing two cantatas required for memorial services at the court chapel, the court Kapelle  premiered two more sacred works during special memorial events held at the local university, the Gymnasium Illustre  (aka “Francisceum”). Reul also introduced a hitherto unknown autograph letter by Fasch from 1737 that reflects his noble employer’s generous financial nature. Irmgard Scheitler (Würzburg), an expert in German literature, then zoomed in on Fasch‘s 1747 funeral cantata for Prince Christian August, Catherine the Great’s father, a comparatively new genre at the time. She emphasized the high quality of the text, courtesy of the resident Zerbst court poet J. G. Jacobi, with its surprisingly affective and intense lyrics and eloquent imagery. Finally, Maik Richter (Halle/Saale) contextualized his sensational discovery in summer 2016. Eleven previously unknown letters written by Johann Friedrich Fasch and Anhalt-Köthen court officials from 1755 relate to three funeral cantatas for Prince August Ludwig, texts of which Richter recently located as well. Had Fasch taken on the role of Oberhofkapellmeister  of the entire Anhalt region? This would certainly explain why the court of Anhalt-Köthen failed to appoint a successor for J. S. Bach during Fasch’s tenure in Zerbst, argued Richter.

The Ratssaal, a performing venue inside Zerbst’s historic town hall, a former Kavaliershaus, was a fitting backdrop for an afternoon concert with Dorothee Oberlinger. The well-known German recorder player had brought along four special “friends”, among them Zefiro’s Alfredo Bernardini and his violin-playing daughter. They performed virtuosic quadro sonatas, i.e. music that features three to four independent melodic lines scored for a variety of instruments, including strings, woodwinds and Basso continuo. By hearing Fasch alongside Vivaldi, Telemann, and (the younger) J. J. Janitsch, the audience could appreciate how the Zerbst Kapellmeister’s compositions fared in the musical “style universe” of the late Baroque.

On Saturday evening, the Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert, directed by Hermann Max, presented a splendid concert at the Trinitatiskirche, yet another venue where music by Fasch had been performed during his tenure in Zerbst. Recorded by Deutschlandfunk for broadcast on 7 May 2017, the concert programme captured the “confessional landscape” lens of the conference best, particularly Fasch’s Missa  in G Major (Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo only). This gorgeous work, edited by Brian Clark specifically for the 2017 Fasch Festival, as well as two psalm settings in Latin by Fasch, truly exemplified his ability to make “Catholic” texts come alive in an Orthodox Lutheran performing environment. A CD based on this concert is in the making; it will hopefully include the newly-edited overture suite in seven movements by Fasch which opened the evening – and perhaps also the entire overture suite by G. P. Telemann that was advertised in the programme booklet. The Zerbst audience only got to hear the first movement, followed by the conductor’s apologies for overestimating the concert’s total length.

On Sunday morning, 23 April, about 20 people braved the cold and gathered at the Fasch Memorial Stone on the “Neue Brücke” street, where Fasch had rented a place in the 1740s. The festive worship service at the St. Bartholomäi Church up the street that morning was broadcast live by the Central German Radio as well. At its heart was the modern-day premiere of a cantata by Fasch from 1731 by the Zerbst Kantorei, once again edited by Brian Clark. “It is always very special to perform Fasch’s music in Zerbst”, one of the choir members told me afterwards. This sentiment was echoed by bassoonist Peter Whelan from Ireland, who – “finally!”, he said – got to play instrumental music by Fasch during the closing concert in the Aula  of the Zerbst Francisceum (formerly the Gymnasium Illustre ). Whelan is a member of the Barocksolisten München ensemble who presented a musical “Grand Tour” on which many a young noble embarked to increase his knowledge of art and culture in Western Europe. The most popular place was Italy which Fasch, to his great disappointment, never managed to visit in person. But he “spoke” perfect Italian in his chamber music, which the ensemble translated perfectly for modern ears, having paired it with Fasch’s “idols” Vivaldi and Telemann.

Overall, the 2017 Fasch Festival offered truly superb performances with highly attractive concerts programmes more or less focused on the overall “Luther to Fasch” motto. The efforts of the Fasch Society on the day prior to the official opening also deserve an honorable mention. Like in past festival years, a multitude of Zerbst primary and secondary school students met at the largest performance venue in town and learned about Fasch’s life and works via a short, humorous play (apparently, he was constantly interrupted when trying to compose music!), live music by youths studying at the local Zerbst music school, and a children’s dance group dressed up in Baroque costumes. As far as the conference papers are concerned, they will be published with Ortus as vol. 15 of the Fasch-Studien (with abstracts in German and English) at the end of 2017/in early 2018.

The next Fasch Festival will highlight music and musicians connected to Anhalt-Zerbst. Ensembles interested in performing in Zerbst/Anhalt at the end of April 2019 are kindly requested to send an e-mail with programming suggestions and a preliminary budget to IFaschG@t-online.de, attention: Bert Siegmund, president.

Barbara M. Reul