Musings on a “Court of Muses”

The 13th International Fasch Festival
Zerbst/Anhalt, Germany, 15-19 April 2015

Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) served as court Kapellmeister of Anhalt-Zerbst for 36 years, from 1722 to his death. The first Fasch “Festtage” were organized by local Zerbst enthusiasts in 1983, who also celebrated the 200th anniversary of Fasch’s death in 1988 in style. Since 1995, this small but excellent festival in Saxony-Anhalt has been co-hosted by the town of Zerbst (c. 90 km north of Leipzig) and the International Fasch Society.

The opening ceremony of the 13th International Fasch Festival on 15 April, Fasch’s 327th birthday, included the usual speeches by officials and festive music. The most moving part, however, was the laudatory speech given by Fasch scholar Prof. Manfred Fechner in honour of this year’s recipient of the Fasch Prize: the German harpsichordist, conductor, musicologist Ludger Rémy. His most recent CD with Les Amis de Philippe consists entirely of orchestral pieces (“overture symphonies”) by Fasch that were introduced to 21st-century audiences at the 12th International Fasch Festival in 2013; the CD is available on the cpo label (777 952-2).

The 2015 opening concert featured Bach’s Erben, a youth orchestra specialising in Baroque music. It is based at Kloster Michaelstein, the home of the Musical Academy of Saxony-Anhalt which promotes early music performance practice and education (http://musik.kloster-michaelstein.de/de). To see and hear these youngsters from all over the world expertly engage with Fasch’s music and that of his contemporaries was exciting – clearly, they have all been bitten by the “Baroque bug”, which bodes well for the future.

The highpoint of this year’s Festival was, without doubt, the modern premiere of Fasch’s setting of the St John Passion, dating from c. 1748. Dr Gottfried Gille, 2013 Fasch Prize recipient, had prepared the performing edition and left it in the capable hands of university music director Jens Lorenz, the “J. F. Reichardt” chorus of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and the Händel-Festspielorchester Halle. All four vocalists excelled; particularly outstanding was Tobias Hunger, the evangelist and solo tenor. Fasch’s St John Passion had intentionally been scheduled on 16 April 2015, an important date in the history of Zerbst. It marked the 70th anniversary of the town’s destructions by allied forces in 1945. The performance was broadcast live by the Central German Radio (MDR), and I would argue that this work presents a new milestone in Fasch’s compositional output. His extremely sensitive setting of the Biblical text, interspersed with highly visual devotional poetry, had me on the edge of my seat for the entire time – especially impressive were the massive opening and closing choruses (the latter featuring horns!); the many action-oriented accompanied recitatives with seamlessly woven-in turbae choruses; and Fasch’s hauntingly beautiful arias, most importantly the stunning “Cavata” for tenor (“Verblendeter!”) as well as an aria for alto (“Meine Ruhe blüht im Tode”), which followed the announcement of Jesus’ death on the cross and gave me goosebumps. Conceiving large-scale works like these would have required all of Fasch’s intellectual and creative attention; no wonder he repeated cantata cycles at the court chapel on a regular basis!

The international scholarly conference began on Friday, 17 April, focusing on Anhalt-Zerbst as a “Court of Muses” during Fasch’s tenure as Kapellmeister. Prof Wolfgang Hirschmann (Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg) presented the keynote address which contextualized Volker Bauer’s 1993 fives types of courts (supposedly) prevalent during the early modern period. One is the “Court of Muses”, a somewhat ambiguous term. It refers to rulers who, for instance, built huge palaces and promoted the fine arts and literature as part of a broader, political agenda. Was that the case in Anhalt-Zerbst (and elsewhere)? Prof Ursula Kramer (University of Mainz) showed how the term “Musenhof” – actually a 19th-century invention – had changed over time. She also cleverly suggested that it was not only the presence and absence of male rulers, but that of their wives, mothers, sisters, etc., which could and would significantly shape – and transform – a court. Rashid-S. Pegah (Berlin) had examined the extant correspondence of Prince Johann Ludwig II of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, taking a closer look at his education, trips, and musical collection. Pegah felt that the court of Zerbst aligned more closely with the “Hausväterlicher Hof” type, where rulers valued privacy above all. Next, Dirk Herrmann, the author of the seminal book on the Zerbst palace, illustrated its various building phases in the 18th century. The Zerbst princes’ continued interest in, and financial commitment to fixing up the palace in Jever (a former enclave of Anhalt-Zerbst) was the topic of a paper presented by the director of the Schlossmuseum in Jever, Prof. Antje Sander (Varel).

After lunch Konstanze Musketa (Händel-Haus Halle) drew attention to Gottfried Taubert, the author of the famous 1717 treatise “The righteous dancing master”. He spent 16 years as dancing master in Zerbst, and according to a newly discovered entry in the court chapel registers, died there in 1746. References to his permanent employment in Zerbst are, however, curiously absent. Perhaps he was paid directly by the princely family, rather than the court. Barbara M. Reul (Luther College, University of Regina, Canada) introduced 17 previously unknown printed librettos that are held at the Historische Bibliothek of the Francisceum Secondary School in Zerbst. While no music survives, these primary sources document performances between 1722 and 1756 at Zerbst’s “princely school”, St Bartholomäi, in honour of headmasters and superintendents. She also examined a hitherto-unknown printed source confirming the presence of Prussian comedians in Zerbst in the mid-1740s, who entertained at the court and in town.

The first conference day was concluded by Ralph-Jürgen Reipsch (Telemann Research Centre, Magdeburg) and Bernd Koska (Bach Archive, Leipzig). Reipsch drew attention to a boy treble from Magdeburg, Christian Wilhelm Stammer, who performed at the Zerbst court in 1738. He was supposed to join the court Kapelle as a boy treble, but died shortly before he was able to take up the role. Bernd Koska’s paper was based on his enlightening book on the Gera court Kapelle at the beginning of the 18th century (ortus, 2013). Fasch composed a secular work for Gera in 1715; sadly, only the title page of the libretto, but no music survives. Koska also emphasised that Fasch could have come into contact with Pietists a decade earlier (i.e. while serving in Gera) than previously assumed.

On Friday, 17 April, the many festival guests who had flocked to Saxony-Anhalt from all over the world were treated to two lovely concerts. Epoca Barocca had chosen a wonderfully varied mixture of vocal and instrumental music, with soprano Silvia Vajente and bassoonist Katrin Lazar stealing the show in the Zerbst “Ratssaal”; this was the first time this beautiful auditorium had been used as a performance venue during a Fasch Festival. The popular “Fasch midnight” show at the (partially restored) Zerbst palace featured Ensemble Calmus. Their entertaining programme entitled “Touched: Love song from the Renaissance to the present” not only brought a lighter tone to the Festival, but also attracted a younger, but no less enthusiastic audience.

The second half-day of conferencing began with two papers in English that focused on works with a Zerbst connection. Janice B. Stockigt (University of Melbourne) carefully traced how a Missa in D by Alessandro Scarlatti found its way from Italy to Zerbst via Prague and Dresden. The fact that this mass was also the final work to be performed at the closing concert of the 2015 Festival made her paper even more valuable. Samantha Owens (University of Queensland) masterfully contextualized a hilarious hunting song by James Hook, “Ye sluggards who murder your lifetime in sleep” from the mid-1770s, which is preserved in the Zerbster Musikstube collection at the Landeshauptarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt in Dessau. Next, Nigel Springthorpe (Royal Holloway University, London) examined selected correspondence of Fasch’s colleague and successor, Johann Georg Röllig. In addition to explaining Röllig’s dire employment situation in the 1780s, Springthorpe drew attention to Röllig’s works for the Swedish royal family (first cousins of Catherine the Great, a former princess of Anhalt-Zerbst). Gottfried Gille (Bad Langensalza) prefaced his detailed examination of Fasch’s St John Passion with comments on how he had rescued music by the Zerbst Kapellmeister in the 1960s – he is truly a Fasch scholar of the first hour.

The final conference session opened with a paper presented by Peter Wollny (Bach Achive, Leipzig). He identified Christian Gotthilf Sensenschmitt, Cantor in Meerane (a small town 140 km south of Leipzig), as the copyist of an Ascension cantata, “Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein” (FR1232) by Fasch. While he expressed doubts regarding the Zerbst Kapellmeister’s authorship of that particular work, Wollny voiced none about the once contentious two-part cantata “Willkomm du Licht” (FR701/1) by Fasch, of which he had located another manuscript copy. Maik Richter (Halle/Saale) provided compelling evidence that Fasch had composed two more pieces for the court of Anhalt-Köthen than previously assumed: a “Trauermusik” in 1732 for the funeral of Princess Christiana Johanna Aemilia, and wedding music in 1742 for the daughter of Prince August Ludwig, Christiana Anna Agnese and Count Heinrich Ernst zu Stolberg-Wernigerode. Hannes Lemke (Zerbst/Anhalt), the newly appointed head of the St Bartholomäi Church Archives in Zerbst, concluded the conference with a brilliant paper on Fasch’s privately motivated actions at the court. Lemke has been tasked with cataloguing centuries worth of (mostly) unknown or thought-to-be-lost primary sources of interest to musicologists, theologians, and historians alike. He chose to focus on documents that outline when Fasch went to confession over the course of his 36-year tenure, and with whom. This information allows us not only to pinpoint exactly when the Kapellmeister was in town, but also helps clarify his position at court. Finally, Lemke came full circle by pointing out that regardless of what was happening at the Zerbst court, Fasch successfully created his own version of a “Musenhof” in his music.

On Saturday afternoon, another new performance venue was introduced to the audience. The “Tempelsaal” of the former Masonic Lodge in Zerbst is an intimate venue, perfectly suited for Ludger Rémy’s small Capell und Taffel-Music ensemble. They wowed the audience with delightful chamber music for a variety of woodwind instruments, including the rare “oboes da silva”, instruments which Fasch is known to have bought for use at the Zerbst court. The ensemble repeated their programme on Sunday, 19 April, at the Baroque church in Burgkemnitz, which Central Germany Radio recorded for broadcast. On Saturday night, La Ritirata added lots of Spanish flair to German and Italian music from the first half of the 18th century. In addition to playing audience favourites like Vivaldi’s “Alla rustica” concerto, they performed a gorgeous violin concerto by Fasch – hearing it played live, and with such passion, puts any recording to shame.

The last day of the Festival began with a festive service held at St Bartholomäi Church. The congregation was treated to both the modern premiere of a church cantata by Fasch from 1736 and a cantata written by Fasch’s “Herzensfreund” (friend of the heart), Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, court Kapellmeister at Gotha. Moreover, the Zerbster Kantorei and Cammermusik Potsdam, under the energetic direction of Cantor Tobias Eger, framed the worship experience with music by Telemann and Bach.

The 13th Internationl Fasch Festival closed with a delightful concert that included music by Fasch senior, Fasch junior (Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch, best known as the founder of the Berlin Sing-Akademie chorus), and the modern premiere of the Scarlatti Missa mentioned above, directed by Wolfgang Katschner. In addition to his ensemble, the Lautten Compagney, which excelled in two orchestral suites by J. F. Fasch, the alto soloist, Julia Böhme, deserves special mention.

Overall, the 13th International Fasch Festival presented a well-balanced programme with a pleasant variety of ensembles and concert programmes. The conference was equally stimulating; the papers will be published in vol. 13 of the IFG’s Fasch-Studien series. Looking ahead, the 14th International Fasch Festival is scheduled to take place from 20 to 23 April 2017. The focal point will be “From Luther to Fasch” to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. After all, Zerbst is only a 45-minute drive from Wittenberg, and was one of the first towns in which Luther preached; its historical significance cannot be overestimated. The scholarly conference will focus on Fasch and religion, a topic that is bound to capture the imagination of a large interdisciplinary, global scholarly community.

Barbara M. Reul