Heinrich Schutz, Albert Lortzing, Zigeunerbaron, Vogelweide, musical center
The earliest roots of German music lie in monastic chants and religious music. In the 12th century the mystic abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote stirring compositions and hymns that sought to free musical expression from narrow conventions. From the 12th century to the 14th century, wandering nobles and knights called minnesingers wrote and recited courtly love poems in the tradition of French troubadours and trouveres. Of the approximately 160 known minnesingers from this time period, the most famous are Walther von der Vogelweide and Reinmar von Hagenau. In addition to the minnesingers, a secular folk music tradition also developed. Some collections of student and vagabond songs survive, including the Carmina Burana verses of 13th-century Bavaria, which in the 20th century were set to music by Carl Orff. From the 14th to the 16th century the German middle class favored the rigid musical style composed by the poets and musicians who belonged to the Meistersinger guild.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, polyphonic music, in which simultaneous melodies were interwoven, arrived in Germany in the form of the Protestant chorale. In contrast to the music of the traditional Catholic service, the rousing Protestant chorale became the participant music of the faithful. Protestant leader Martin Luther himself contributed some of the most popular chorales, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to this genre of sacred songs written in the vernacular. Other leading religious composers included Heinrich Schutz, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Pachelbel.
The age of baroque music, with its exuberant ornamentation, began with one of Germany’s greatest composers, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s towering work of the early 1700s was admired for its artistic use of counterpoint. It includes the formal Brandenburg Concertos; four orchestral suites; concertos for violin, keyboard, and various wind instruments; preludes; fugues; and a huge volume of choral works, including his Christmas Oratorio, The Passion of St. Matthew, The Passion of St. John, and many cantatas. He also had two musically talented sons, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who became well-known composers in their own right. Two famous contemporaries of Bach were composers Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel—who wrote more than 40 operas, chamber music, and the famous oratorio Messiah.
By the 1740s princely courts in such cities as Berlin, Dresden, Mannheim, and Vienna had emerged as sponsors of orchestral music and of composers and musicians. In Mannheim, for example, Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz held the post of court composer. In Vienna, the Hungarian Esterhazy princes extended their patronage to the immensely gifted and versatile Joseph Haydn, who gave the string quartet, the symphony, and the sonata their classic form. In Salzburg and also in Vienna in the late 1700s, child prodigy and musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart experimented with strains of the dominant Italian musical tradition until he developed his own unmistakable graceful and lyrical style. In his short but brilliant life he produced about 50 symphonies; concertos for piano, violin, and wind instruments; masses; and a requiem. His most famous operas, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), and lighter operatic pieces, The Magic Flute (1791) and The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), still dominate the operatic stage.
The age of the French and American revolutions characterized the heroic emotion of the work of Ludwig van Beethoven, a student of Haydn’s in Vienna, who also revolutionized musical form and expression in the early 1800s. He used unorthodox harmonies in classical sonatas and symphonies to inspire exalted moods. His nine symphonies—including the Eroica (begun 1803) and the Symphony no. 9 (1824), with the famous Ode to Joy—five piano concertos, his violin concerto of haunting beauty, an opera, and a large volume of superb chamber music, including his brilliant string quartets, earned Beethoven a reputation as one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition. Another musical innovator of the 1800s, Franz Schubert, created the German lied (art song), usually a piece of romantic or lyrical poetry—some by Goethe—set to music and accompanied by a pianist. Schubert’s lieder cycles, such as The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter (1823), became the model for a long list of other romantic composers, including Hugo Wolf, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.
Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert had found Vienna a musical center of the highest creativity and the most refined musical tastes. But there was also a burst of more popular music with the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss the Younger and his immortal operettas Die Fledermaus (1874; The Bat) and Der Zigeunerbaron (1885; The Gypsy Baron). There were also other operetta masters such as Albert Lortzing and the Hungarian Franz Lehar, whose Merry Widow (1905) brought operetta into the 20th century. Other composers such as the prolific Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler—a genius of romantic expression in his song cycles—continued the Vienna tradition in a serious vein.
Many 19th-century German composers mixed the style of classicism with the less-structured, more spontaneous style of romanticism. Brahms, for example, tended more toward the classical in his four symphonies, his violin and piano concertos, his requiem, and his chamber music. Schumann’s haunting melodies, including symphonies, piano pieces, and chorales, were more on the romantic side. His talented wife, Clara Schumann, also composed romantic pieces. Classicist Felix Mendelssohn produced orchestral, choral, and chamber works.
German opera of the 19th century enjoyed a dramatic evolution at the hands of Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Wagner developed a closer linkage between the music and the action on stage by using such devices as the leitmotiv, which presents a musical theme for each important figure or recurrent action. Both Weber and Wagner preferred themes from German history, particularly the Middle Ages. Among Wagner’s best-known operas are The Mastersingers of Nurnberg (completed 1867), The Flying Dutchman (1841), and the four-part epic cycle of the Ring of the Nibelungs (completed 1874). Later, Richard Strauss produced outstanding operas such as Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and Engelbert Humperdinck experimented with operas for children. At the same time, Austrian Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg devised a revolutionary twelve-tone music that abandoned traditional melodies and harmonies for emphasis on rhythm and dissonance. Composer Kurt Weill collaborated with writer Bertolt Brecht on two of the great works of the German popular stage, The Three-Penny Opera (1928; translated 1933) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930; translated 1956). Germany has also produced a multitude of talented orchestra directors, including Otto Klemperer and Kurt Masur.
As it did in other fields, the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s choked off German musical development. Hundreds of musical artists fled Germany during the years of the Third Reich. After the war, only a few new modern composers appeared, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen and his electronic music, and Hans Werner Henze, known for his lyrical modern operas. However, the classical music tradition continues in Germany with the performances and recordings of more than 150 major orchestras, including such world-renowned groups as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
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