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Crisis, Conflict, Turmoil

Crisis, Conflict, Turmoil

The Thirty Years' War impacted every aspect of society–including the arts. Jeffrey Gedmin on how the raging conflict influenced Bach, Handel, and other artists of the Baroque.

Jeffrey Gedmin


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Hans Grimmelshausen (1621–76) was kidnapped as a 10 year old. His abduction by Hessian soldiers began a lifetime caught up in the Thirty Years’ War, which left Germany ravaged and utterly exhausted. The war kicked off in spring 1618 with a local religious conflict between the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and Protestant subjects in Bohemia and expanded to a continent-wide struggle for power.

I studied Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus in grad school. I can’t say that I read the whole thing. It’s an epic novel in five volumes — plus a sequel — documenting the horror of Europe’s infamous 17th-century war. German territories lost something between 30 and 60 percent of their populations. An estimated 2,200 castles,18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns were destroyed.

Thought to be Grimmelshausen’s autobiography, Simplicius is considered the first German novel in the picaresque (adventure) genre and bears a rather expansive subtitle: The account of the life of an odd vagrant named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim; namely of where and in what manner he came into this world, what he saw, learned, experienced, and endured therein; and how and why he left this world of his own free will. Grimmelshausen inspired Bertolt Brecht to set his 1939 play Mutter Courage in 17th-century Europe.

The Thirty Years’ War affected everything, including music and the arts. Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654) stayed in Germany for the duration and became a musical pioneer of the early Baroque period. As raging conflict made everything grotesque in some sense — the illustration facing the title page of Grimmelshausen’s masterpiece novel depicts a winged monster with features of a goat, fish, bird, and human — music became more elaborate and ornate. The word “baroque,” deriving from the Portuguese and originally referring to a disfigured pearl, was first used as a pejorative. The Catholic Church was not without a hand in developments. The Council of Trent had pushed for more emotional involvement — and religion, of course — in the arts.

Scheidt survived by teaching and through work as a church musician. None of this was easy. In 1630, he lost his post in Halle as a result of a disagreement with his boss. In 1634 in Halle, he lost his four children to the plague.

He sought refuge in music. Scheidt left a significant body of organ, choral, and instrumental work. Here’s his Battle Suite. Try this; it’s called O Nachbar Roland (Oh Neighbor Roland). Scheidt bridged past and present. He pushed boundaries, a bit. He liked variations on themes that became increasingly complex. But he also remained in essence a traditionalist. “Music is now so foolish,” he once said, that “everything that is wrong is permitted.”

Bach (1685–1750) and Handel (1685–1759), towering figures of the Baroque musical period, emerged from a society still suffering from the shock and trauma of the Thirty Years’ War. Each in his own way perfected the elaborate and bejeweled style of the era. But before them — and alongside them — were a good number of other fine Baroque composers whose contributions have been overshadowed by these giants.

Here are half a dozen lesser known, wonderful composers of the Baroque. They innovated. They produced beautiful music. Their lives and circumstances were often remarkable.

•    Don Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566–1613) was a nobleman from the Kingdom of Naples who murdered his first wife and her aristocrat lover — and went on to write numerous religious and secular works. Gesualdo grew severely depressed over time. At least one biographer thought his wife of the time finally did him in. Here’s intense, expressive, early Baroque music — far ahead of its time.

•    Michel Lambert (1610–96) had a Schubert flair and instinct for writing songs. He composed hundreds; 330 survived. He was known as a singer and ballet dancer with close ties to the French Royal Court. Here’s expressive music by Lambert performed by mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre and lutenist Thomas Dunfor.

•    Lambert’s daughter married Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), the most famous composer of the time who famously died from a bizarre conducting accident. It happened during a performance of his Te Deum, a work dedicated to Louis XIV in celebration of the king’s recovery from surgery. Lully accidentally stabbed his foot with a wooden staff trying to keep time on the podium during a concert. Gangrene set in. Here’s the Lully Te Deum.

•    Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) was a Czech composer who studied in Vienna, started his career in Prague, and eventually worked in Dresden where, incidentally, he took on Bach as a student. Zelenka was dedicated to helping young musicians and devoted his compositional work to experimentation with counterpoint. Zelenka has been dubbed “the Czech Bach.” His Mass in D Major is beautiful.

•    Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died tragically young at the age of 26 in 1736. He had contracted tuberculosis. Astonishingly, he was able to leave a large body of work, of which his masterpiece Stabat Mater is probably the best known.

•    Jakub Józef Orliński is a Polish countertenor, opera singer — and break dancer — born on December 8, 1990. I’m especially fond of his performances of Baroque music. Here’s something from Zelenka. This, from rehearsal, is fantastic. It’s music from Johann Hasse (1699–1783). Haase was a friend of Bach’s who worked in Dresden, Naples, and Venice. He was celebrated at the time. King Augustus II of Poland and Saxony granted Hasse the title of the Royal-Polish and Electoral-Saxon Kapellmeister.

We just hosted Greta Uehling of the University of Michigan on her new book Everyday War (Cornell University Press), a study that draws on extensive field work in eastern Ukraine since 2014. When the war ends, reconstruction of the economy and infrastructure will not be the only challenges Ukrainians face. You can watch the discussion here.

You won’t be surprised that Orliński, who is from Warsaw, is devoted to supporting the victims of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Here’s pensive music with gripping images. We’ll share music from Ukraine soon, too.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: King George I, Handel, and Water Music on the Thames, Eduoard Hamman. (National Gallery Prague)