Italians in Dresden – The Musical Ensemble at the Court of Johann Georg II
When Schütz was first engaged as Kappelmeister by the Elector of Saxony, Johann Georg I, the court in Dresden boasted one of the finest musical establishments north of the Alps. After Saxony’s disastrous decision in 1627 to enter the then decade-old conflict now known as The Thirty Years War, this once glorious musical establishment was decimated, and Schütz spent a considerable amount of time away from Dresden – notably in Venice and Copenhagen. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 matters improved and the Elector was again able to devote resources to music.
Significantly, the Elector’s son, who would become Johann Georg II, created his own musical ensemble, parallel to his father’s, that reflected his musical tastes – and those those tastes were decidedly Italianate. Johann Georg II was strongly influenced in his musical tastes by his father’s Kappelmeister, particularly after Schütz’s visit to Venice in 1629. Already in the 1640s, he had begun recruiting Italian musicians for his nascent ensemble – often unscrupulously luring them away from other German courts creating some political difficulties for his father. He also sent agents to Venice, Rome and other Italian cities to scout out potential talent.
For the first years of the 1650s, the two ensembles co-existed but after the death of Johann Georg I in 1655 they were merged and formed, with as many as 50 musicians, the most elaborate musical ensemble in Northern Europe. Though he was still listed as one of the Kappelmeisteren of the merged ensemble, Schütz essentially retired at this time and the duties of leading and composing for the ensemble passed to a series of Italians: Giovanni Bontempi, Vincenzo Albrici, Giuseppe Peranda, and later Carlo Pallavicino and Sebastian Cherici.
Unlike other rulers of Lutheran states in Germany that imported musicians from Catholic Italy, Johann Georg II did not require Italian musicians to convert to Lutheranism a condition of employment. He also turned a blind eye to their attendance at the celebration of Mass at the residences of diplomats from Paris and Vienna, which was forbidden by law in Saxony. This contributed to doubts about the Prince’s commitment to the Reformed Church and speculation about the possibility of his conversion to Catholicism – speculation that proved to be baseless. The Prince was well aware of the social and political upheaval his conversion would cause and while there was encouragement from some of his Catholic allies, it seems to have never been serious option for him. He just wanted to hear the best musicians at Vespers and Mass and to his taste the best musicians were to be found in Italy.
The roster of musicians, especially singers, was also dominated by Italians, who were all paid three or four times as much as the German musicians – for far less work. Generally the Italians were required for Sundays, Feasts like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and for special events – all situations calling for complex, figural music. Generally, these were services in which the Elector was in attendance. But morning and evening services took place every day in the chapel and the German musicians were required to provide the more humble music required at these services.
Needless to say this led to some hard feelings, most notably the departure of Christoph Bernhard, a noted pupil of Schütz, who labored as Vice-Kappelmeister in charge of the daily services for years. In 1663, when Albrici left Dresden to serve at the court of King Charles II in London, the Elector once again passed over Bernhard, despite his seniority, his demonstrated ability to write in the Italian style, and his long history at court and appointed Peranda as Kappelmaister. The disappointed Bernhard sought a position elsewhere and was appointed cantor in Hamburg, though he eventually returned to Dresden later in the decade.
When Johann Georg died in 1680, his son and successor Johann Georg III wasted little time in disassembling his father’s opulent – and extremely expensive – ensemble. All debts and obligations to the Italian musicians were settled and they were released from service. Bernhard was finally elevated to the status of Kappelmeister but now with only a shell of the previous magnificent ensemble. A large part of the court repertoire – the music composed by the Italians that could no longer be performed with the reduced ensemble – was given to the city music ensemble in the Saxon town of Schneeberg. No trace of this music survives today and the only examples of the repertoire of the court under Johann Georg II that do survive are various manuscript copies, notably those made by organist Gustav Düben and preserved in the library at Uppsala University in Sweden. It is from this collection that we have both Schütz’s Christmas Story and Albrici’s setting of the psalm Lætatus sum, which Magnificat will perform next week.