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Johann Sebastian Bach and Dresden

On the paths of the great baroque master to the Bach Year 2000

 "He shouldn't be named `Bach' (brook) but `Meer' (ocean)", Beethoven is said to have exclamed enthusiastically. Max Reger saw in Bach "the beginning and the end of all music." And Goethe felt "as if the eternal harmonies were speaking with one another" when he listened to Bach's organ pieces. The works of Johann Sebastian Bach have greatly influenced most of the musicians and artists that have followed him. He left us cantatas, oratorien, and passions, pieces for orchestra, organ and piano.

In the Bach Year 2000 on the occassion of the 250th anniversary of his death, many paths lead to Bach - not only to his works, but also to the landscapes where Bach's musical predecessors prepared the way for him. Here in central Germany he got his inspirations and developed into probably the most important composers of all times. The places and cities where Bach studied and worked or concentrated on his music proudly point out this heritage.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach on March 21, 1685. He received his education in Ohrdruf, Hamburg and Celle. After a short engagement in Weimar, he received a position as an organist in Arnstadt. Then there followedmany other positions and moves, among others - Mühlhausen in 1707, Weimar in 1708 and Köthen in 1717. From Köthen Bach travelled to Dresden for the first time to hear the French organist and composer Louis Marchand. A Dresden minister tried to turn this visit into musical competition between Bach and Marchand. Such competitions were very popular the time. March and hastily fled from the city.

When the position of cantor at Thomas Church in Leipzig became vacant, Bach was hesitant about accepting the position: two different committees to answer to, no possibility for his wife to perform as a singer, a low basic salary and fluctuating additional income.

Leipzig, on the other hand, actually wanted Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann turned the offer down and thus Bach was ceremoniously appointed to the new position on June 1, 1720.

It was not a dream job. The Bach family lived in the Thomas School next to the classrooms and the noisy children. Once a month Bach had to supervise the pupils. In addition, he also had to compose a cantata each Sunday for mass in the Thomas Church or in the Nicholas Church, where the masses could last up to four hours. Bach's cantatas were too opera-like for the city fathers of Leipzig. There was constant friction. In 1720 Bach wrote a memorandum in which he complained about the poor working conditions and compared them with the more favourable ones in Dresden "how the musicians there were paid a salary by His Royal Majesty himself."

For this reason Bach was attracted to the Saxon Court. In 1731 he travelled to Dresden, where he gave a concert in the Sophienkirche (torn down in 1964). He would certainly have become acquainted with the Dresden Kreuzchor, established in 1379 and which has preserved the musical heritage of Bach to today.

However, Bach did not come any closer to his goal to work in Dresden. In the meantime Dresden hat developed into the capital of Italian musical theatre. Johann Adolf Hasse had received the commission to write the Italian Festoper for the dedication of the new opera house near the Zwinger. "Well let's hear Dresden's little song then", Bach is said to have told his son before the premiere. Today the Italian opera is an important part of the repertoire of the Saxon State Opera in Dresden.

Hasse still didn't have a permanent contract when August The Strong died in 1733. Therefore Bach tried everything to gain favour with the music-lovinginheritor of the throne August III in order to become the new court composer in Dresden. With cantatas such as "Preise Dein Glück, Gesegnetes Sachsen" (Praise Your Fortune, Blessed Saxony), Bach tried to flatter the new ruler. Although a strong Protestant, Bach even composed a catholic mass for August III.

In 1733 Bach presented "as a humble and obedient subject" the first part of the "Hohe Messe h-moll" to the new king. In this work he summarised his entire art. It is kept today in the State and University Library in Dresden. The king took his royal time before he answered. Three years later, he finally awarded the composer the desired title "for his good talent." Bach had already lost the competition for the job. August II had already awarded the position to Hasse in 1734.

As a master of the organ, Bach was more successful. On December 1, 1736, shortly after completion of the new Silbermann organ for the new Frauenkirche in Dresden, he gave a highly acclaimed concert there. The Silbermann organ will be rebuilt in the course of the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche just as Bach had known it in his day. The baroque master , however, did not live to see the last and great masterpiece of his friend Gottfried Silbermann, the organ in the Dresden Hofkirche - the Court Church (today a cathedral). It was dedicated in 1751.

Bach performed concerts in Berlin and Potsdam in 1747. In addition to many other trips, Bach again visited Dresden i(1744). Bach, now 64 years old, began to summarise all his artistic talents and composed "Die Kunst der Fuge" in 1749. While his sons already represented the gallant style of the pre-classic, Bach had become a monument of the baroque art of music in the last years of life.

What Bach succeeded in doing in the field of music - the creation of a German baroque by a synthesis of Italian and French influences, the architect Matthias Daniel Pöppelmann succeeding at the same time with the Zwinger in Dresden, a culmination of a European period of art.

Today the Zwinger is a place of active preservation of art; for example, the Dresden Musikfestspiele which will be dedicated to the confrontation of baroque and jazz in the year 2000.

Johann Sebastian Bach died on July 28, 1750. His last work, the choral "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit" breaks off in the middle. It remains unfinished. "Soli Deo Gloria - Nur Gott gebührt der Ruhm" is how Bach signed the largest number of his compositions - To God Alone Belongs The Glory.

Therefore Bach's great religious works will stand in the middle point of the numerous concerts with which the great master will be honoured in Dresden in the year 2000. (Christoph Münch)


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