Music at German Courts, 1715-1760

Music at German Courts, 1715-1760: Changing Artistic Priorities
Ed. Samantha Owens, Barbara M. Reul, Janice B. Stockigt
The Boydell Press 2015
Paperback. 504pp. ISBN 9781783270583

First published in hardback in 2011, this important book is now available in paperback. With 15 contributors, from Germany, Poland, the United States, Canada, and Australia, it covers the detailed history of the complex world of 15 Germanic Courts, of varying sizes. Many people’s knowledge of such institutions often only comes from the brief background knowledge of Bach’s various tenures in local Courts, before his eventual move to Leipzig. The essays in this book puts Bach’s career into a wider perspective, and one that is relatively little known. The Germanic system of often very small scale princely courts might have made for a complex hierarchy of aristocracy and governance, and some tricky questions of inheritance, but it made for an extraordinary flowering of art and music, as each little domain tried to outdo its neighbour.

Rather like those pub-quiz questions about the hierarchy of angels (ranging from Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones to Archangels and Angels), the book’s chapters are laid out in descending scale of hierarchical importance, from Kingdoms and Electorates, via Duchies, Principalities and Prince-Bishoprics, to Landgraves and Margraves. Anybody ranked below that doesn’t get a look in. Each Court is explored at three points during the 45 year period under review, the specific point varying to suit the circumstances of each Court. The opening chapter deals with perhaps the most important examples, the Courts of Saxony Dresden and the related Saxon Court of the Kingdom of Poland together with the burgeoning musical establishment at the Court of Brandenburg-Prussia and the Mannheim Palatine Court. The other courts discussed are Württemberg-Stuttgart, the four Saxon Courts of Gotha-Altenburg, Weissenfels, Merseburg and Zeitz, Anhalt-Zerbst, Sondershausen, Würzburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden-Durlach in Karlsruhe, and Brandenburg-Culmbach-Bayreuth

Perhaps the most revealing chapter is the final one: ‘Die vornehmste Hof-Tugend: German Musicians’ Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Court Life’. This looks at the period from the perspective of the musicians themselves, rather than court records. Their own writings, letters (for example, the correspondence between Pisendel and Telemann), autobiographies (Telemann, Quantz) and novels written by musicians such as Printz, Beer, and Kuhnau reveal a more personal aspect of the life of a musician. The novels are particularly interesting as it was undoubtedly easier, and more tactful, for them to put their views on court life into the mouth of another person.

There is an extraordinary amount of detail drawn from research into the court records, far more than the lay reader could get their head around on casual reading. But as a library reference volume, this will be an important resource for PhD students for some time to come. And, for the lay reader, it is a fascinating book to dip into. Most essays include complete lists of all the personnel employed in the relevant court, and there is also a genealogical overview of the Saxon rulers from Johann George I in 1611 to 1763, the whole thing complicated by the former’s decision to divide the Saxon inheritance into four separate Duchies.

Further information about the paperback version can be found hereChapter headings can be found here

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