Hearing Music in a Different Key

Ideological Implications in Works of German Music

by Jost Hermand (Author)
©2022 Monographs VIII, 286 Pages
Series: German Life and Civilization, Volume 74


«This volume epitomizes Jost Hermand’s inimitable talent of synthesizing wide-ranging disciplines in an accessible and compelling style, bringing to life the experiences of musicians and their public in the context of their own times. These essays also give us a glimpse into how his own life experiences created the hunger for culture that defined his long and illustrious career.» (Pamela M. Potter, Professor of German and Musicology, University of Wisconsin—Madison)
«Jost Hermand’s final book is an enormously rich gift to posterity. The fifteen essays on musical culture that constitute this collection contain brief but illuminating glimpses of the whole glorious parade of serious music and those who composed, cultivated, and commented on it in the German lands, from Buxtehude to Stockhausen and beyond. His insight and well-observed contextualization reveals a lifetime of scholarship and experience.» (Celia Applegate, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University)
In contrast to the writings of many other musicologists, this book is not primarily concerned with the biographies of certain composers or a structural analysis of their major compositions, but rather with the stands they took in the ideological struggles during their lifetimes and how these affected some of their most important works. Beginning with the late seventeenth century, special emphasis is thereby given to Pietism, orthodox Lutheranism, the impact of the French Revolution, the restrictive measures of the Metternich period, the Wilhelminian era, Expressionism, the New Objectivity and the materialist aesthetics of the Weimar Republic, fascism, exile and the modernism of the early Federal Republic of Germany.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Early Signs of Pietism in Protestant Church Music: Dieterich Buxtehude’s Evening Concerts in Lübeck (1667–1705)
  • More than Protestant Orthodoxy? Johann Sebastian Bach’s Church Cantatas (1713–1728)
  • Allons enfants de la musique: The Impact of the French Revolution on German Music (1789–1809)
  • “Moving Ahead” Even in “Desolate Times”: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111 (1822)
  • Hope and Disillusionment: Franz Schubert’s 600 Art Songs (1813–1828)
  • A Checkered Past: The History of the German National Anthem (1842 to the Present)
  • Richard Wagner’s Last Cause: The Vegetarian Gospel of His Parsifal (1882)
  • From the Shtetl to Wunsiedel: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (1889)
  • The Two Revolutions against Older Forms of Bourgeois Music: Expressionism and Materialist Aesthetics (1910–1933)
  • Deepest Misery – Highest Art: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925)
  • Conformism or Refusal? Paul Hindemith’s Mathis the Painter (1935)
  • More than an Aberration? Hanns Eisler’s Fourteen Ways to Describe the Rain (1941)
  • The Hidden Meaning: Richard Strauss’s Metamorphoses for 23 Solo String Players (1945)
  • The Supposedly Apolitical “Modernism” in the Serious Music of the Early Federal Republic of Germany: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Groups for 3 Orchestras (1958)
  • Avant-Garde, Modern, Postmodern: The Music that (Almost) Nobody Wants to Hear Any Longer
  • Afterword
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This book is not a comprehensive history of all the ideological implications in major works of German music from the late seventeenth century to the twentieth century, which would require several volumes, but restricts itself to some examples that are especially significant for certain socioeconomic or political aspects in this period of time.

Some of these articles were written in English during recent years. Others go back to lectures or articles written in German during the years 1975 to 2005, here substantially revised. Some I translated into English myself; the others were translated by Nancy C. Michael (Bach), Victoria W. Hill (Beethoven), James Steakley (Wagner), Nicole Fischer (Mahler), Sue Tyson (Berg) and Carol Poore (Hindemith, Stockhausen). To all of them, especially to Nicole Fischer and Carol Poore, who computerized my manuscript for publication, I wish to express also in this statement my deepest gratitude.

– Jost Hermand
September 2021

The publisher would like to thank Dölling und Galitz, Franz Steiner Verlag, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht | Böhlau Verlage, University of Chicago Press, and University of Wisconsin Press for kind permission to reproduce chapters in this book.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

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Early Signs of Pietism in Protestant Church Music: Dieterich Buxtehude’s Evening Concerts in Lübeck (1667–1705)

Who was Dieterich (or Dietrich) Buxtehude, about whose life and career as a composer we know so little, and whose works are mostly lost? Why is Lübeck such an important city in this context? And what were his Abendmusiken (evening concerts), which are not one of the most common genres when we talk about Protestant church music of the late seventeenth century? These are the three questions we need to answer.

Let’s start out with a few brief remarks about Buxtehude himself. He was probably born in 1637 as a child of German parents living outside the Holy Roman Empire. His father was an organist at the Olai Church in the Danish city of Helsingborg. After attending Latin school and learning to play the organ, the 20-year-old Dieterich became an organist at St. Mary’s Church in Helsingborg in 1657, and three years later an organist at the German church in Helsingor.1 In 1667, now 30 years old, he moved to Lübeck, where he took over the post of organist and “Werkmeister” (overseer and accountant) at the famous St. Mary’s Church; married one of the daughters of Franz Tunder, who had held this position before; and became a citizen of the city. Buxtehude stayed in this position until his death in 1707, without ever leaving Lübeck, and gradually came to be recognized and admired by his contemporaries not only as the most important composer of Protestant church music in northern Germany, mainly organ works and cantatas, but also as the composer of a number of highly accomplished works of chamber music, mainly string sonatas, some of which were even published – something highly unusual at that time. At the end of his life he was so well known in musical circles that young composers such as Georg Friedrich Händel, Johann Mattheson and Johann Sebastian Bach came to Lübeck in order to hear him play the organ and to learn from his musical techniques.

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Now to the question: Why was Lübeck, of all places, such an important center of Protestant church music during the last decades of the seventeenth century? From many historical documents, we know considerably more about this city than about Buxtehude himself.2 To be brief, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century Lübeck was generally considered the “Queen of the Hanseatic League,” which was a loosely connected union of over 80 smaller and larger cities, many of them so-called “freie Reichsstädte” (free cities) subject only to the jurisdiction of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and not to one of the many princes, dukes, or counts of this region. Accordingly, these cities were not bound by any dynastic restrictions, which enabled them to dominate all the trade around the Baltic Sea.3

Lübeck’s merchants, the so-called patricians, were thus the wealthiest of this region and were eager to demonstrate their power and wealth in important building projects and festivities of an almost courtly splendor. For this reason, St. Mary’s, already erected between 1274 and 1351 as the major church in Lübeck, was not only a house of worship but also a symbol of might and wealth. It was not only the largest church of the entire Baltic region, but also the first one built in the modern Gothic style of this period, and it soon became the model for about 70 other churches in the cities of the Hanseatic League. The arch over its central nave was, at that time, the highest in Europe (126 feet high), and its two church towers soared 410 feet into the sky. As one would expect, the church was built right in the middle of the city, that is, between the city hall and the major market buildings, where the wealthy merchants lived and carried out their business deals. As another symbol of power and wealth, in the fourteenth century it already had the biggest and most sophisticated Gothic organ, whose largest pipe was 36 feet high, and it was enlarged many times during the following centuries. Already in the late Middle Ages, this church had its own choir and 12 instrumentalists paid by the city council for special occasions, which was unusual for that period.

All this changed, of course, after the Reformation, not only in regard to the church liturgy but also in regard to the music performed in this church. It was Johannes Bugenhagen who introduced Lutheran church practices into the field of music in 1531 in Lübeck. From then on it was mainly the singing congregation and the preludes and postludes of the organ that set ←2 | 3→the tone in the church. Subsequently, St. Mary’s had one organist and two cantors responsible for the Sunday services and also for communions, weddings and funeral services, which led to a gradual increase in the number of choir boys and instrumentalists in order to give these various occasions a more festive character and a greater sanctity, especially after the end of the Thirty Years War, which had a devastating impact on the community in Lübeck. For these occasions the cantors used chorales by Johann Walter or hymns by Andreas Osiander and many other Protestant composers, so that the church library of St. Mary’s finally grew to contain almost 2,000 compositions.

The most important organist and composer at St. Mary’s was Franz Tunder, who was active there from 1642 to 1667. As the first organist in Lübeck who was not only involved in Protestant church music – that is, in serving as a cantor and “Werkmeister” of St. Mary’s – he also even tried from early on to attract the Lübeck merchants by giving organ concerts outside the usual Sunday services, especially in the early morning hours before they went to the exchange, in order to offer them some “pleasant pastimes,” as we know from contemporary documents. He even extended these efforts by introducing so-called Abendmusiken, sponsored and financially supported by the wealthy, music-loving patricians, where he presented sonatas, arias and spiritual concerts to his audiences.4 Unfortunately, most of his arias, motets and choral cantatas are lost. Because of all these activities, Tunder did not remain one of the many minor cantors of Protestant church music, but became one of the best-known organ virtuosos and cantata composers in the northern parts of Germany, as did the cantor and composer Matthias Weckmann with his Collegium Musicum in Hamburg.5

So much, as briefly as possible, for the importance of Lübeck and its musical life in the Middle Ages and the period after the Reformation. But back to Dieterich Buxtehude himself. What was his function as an organist and “Werkmeister” at St. Mary’s in Lübeck after he took over this post in the year 1667, and what were his major contributions to Protestant church music and the development of secular music in the late seventeenth century? Was he just one of the many cantors and organists of this era who followed Lutheran tradition, or was he – following in the footsteps of Franz ←3 | 4→Tunder – a representative of a new trend in the Protestant church music of this period, or was he even more than that?

Considering the compositions of his that we still know, he was both. To be sure, in many ways he was only a follower of Tunder’s example. Buxtehude was a competent, dutiful and engaged “Werkmeister,” as we can discern from some preserved documents in this regard. He organized the church services conducted by two or three cantors; he oversaw the restoration of the huge organ from 1697 to 1699;6 he acquired a number of new instruments for the wind and string players; he had two new galleries installed next to the main organ, in order to create more space for a larger choir and an increased number of instrumentalists; and he kept up good relations with the wealthy patricians of Lübeck, who had to pay for all of this. In addition, he also continued to play the organ in the early morning hours to provide all these merchants a “pleasant pastime” before they went to the exchange in one of the huge rooms of the city hall nearby. And above all, he was well aware that he had to continue the well-established Abendmusiken at St. Mary’s that Tunder had begun in 1646 for all those businessmen and hard-working artisans of the traditional guilds, as they were called at that time, who did not otherwise have too many diversions or entertainments in their daily routine. Furthermore, Buxtehude also composed 24 string sonatas, some of which he even had published. These could be performed at the house music evenings held by his well-to-do patrons, where he himself participated, as we know from the only painting of Buxtehude from this period that depicts him playing the viola da gamba in a small circle of affluent patricians.7

But now to the Abendmusiken themselves as the major topic of this arti- cle. Whereas Tunder’s Abendmusiken, which mainly took place on Thursday evenings, had, as far as we know, a rather limited scope, Buxtehude, on the other hand, was much more ambitious. He not only increased the number of choral singers from six to about 25, but also the number of accompanying instrumentalists to around 15 and sometimes even 40 musicians, who were mostly city-sponsored and whom he placed in the two new galleries right and left of the organ. Furthermore, he gave these concerts much more significance by holding them not on one of the weekday evenings but on the major Sundays after Easter and during Advent, immediately following ←4 | 5→the afternoon service. He sometimes even handed out printed programs for which he obtained the necessary financial support from the wealthy businessmen of Lübeck.8 Because no entrance fees were charged and these events were well advertised, Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken in the huge church of St. Mary’s were extremely well attended. Sometimes disturbances even came to pass in the large audience so that the Lübeck city watchmen had to intervene to establish calm and order again.

Let me now turn to the works that were performed during these concerts. In the early years of Buxtehude’s tenure as organist of St. Mary’s, most of these compositions – again as far as we know – were mainly organ preludes, chaconnes, fugues, passacaglias, toccatas and other pieces of this kind, as well as a number of smaller cantatas. Almost all of them are probably lost. In his later years Buxtehude also included sonatas, arias, choral works and even larger oratorios, which we know about because some of the printed announcements survive, though not the music itself. These larger works, such as Das jüngste Gericht (“The Last Judgment”), Der verlorene Sohn (“The Prodigal Son”) and Die Hochzeit des Lammes (“The Marriage of the Lamb”) had more of an allegorical or moralistic character than a clearly religious one. Above all, they were not part of a liturgical framework, but rather were concert works that featured introductory sonatas combined with arias and instrumental passages whose texts praised mainly middle-class values such as industriousness, forthrightness and virtue, and condemned haughtiness, laziness and so on.

But not only that. As a citizen of the “free city” of Lübeck, Buxtehude also felt obliged to pay homage to the German emperors who were reigning at the time, whom the citizens of Lübeck regarded as the sole protectors of their wealth and independence in the midst of the never-ending quarrels in the surrounding principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Accordingly, after Emperor Leopold I died in 1705, Buxtehude not only mourned the death of this emperor in one of his Abendmusiken in the form of an oratorio but, in one of his subsequent concerts of this sort, he also composed and conducted a Templum honoris for Leopold’s successor, Joseph I. Written in the typical baroque complimentary style, the printed announcement for this event reads: “For the ruling majesty, the Roman Emperor Joseph the First, dedicated to his honor and everlasting life in the free imperial ←5 | 6→city of Lübeck’s main church of St. Mary, in the year of our Lord 1705, at the most favored time of the usual Abendmusiken with the most obedient acquittal of duty and with the best wishes of Diederica Buxtehuden [sic], organist in said place.” This Templum honoris, composed two years before Buxtehude died, may have been one of his last Abendmusiken and was perhaps one of his most ambitious ones. Because of its extraordinary grandeur, later scholars called it one of the major works of north German baroque music for good reasons, since Buxtehude employed in it not only two choirs but also trumpets, drums, French horns, oboes and 25 violins to give it an especially festive quality.

But not all of his Abendmusiken have this extraordinary character. Most of them, as far as we are able to reconstruct, consisted rather of a medley of organ works, sonatas, arias, cantatas and/or short oratorios, which were supposed to strengthen the religious belief of the Lübeck citizens in the almighty grace of the Lord, on the one hand, and to provide them with some musical entertainment, on the other. Accordingly, the emphasis in the vocal works was mainly on the spiritual character of the underlying textual passages from the Bible – especially the Psalms – from the Lutheran tradition or from contemporary Protestant poets, while the organ works and the sonatas accentuated more the virtuosity of Buxtehude and the other soloists, whom the listeners were supposed to admire for their playful ability to handle their instruments in the most accomplished way.

But now let’s turn to the underlying mood, ideological significance or whatever one might call it that gives Buxtehude’s music its specific character and distinguishes it from that of most of the earlier Protestant church composers. During the sixteenth century the mainstay of musical praxis had been the Lutheran chorale (for example, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott [“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”] or Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”]) sung by the entire congregation, accompanied by the organ and sometimes by a few recorder players, and generally arranged by the cantors of the many courts, cities and villages. In the first part of the seventeenth century some cantors and composers, such as Heinrich Isaac and then Heinrich Schütz, had tried to enrich the Sunday services with various forms of cantatas, motets, Symphoniae sacrae and Kleine Geistliche Konzerte (“Small Sacred Concertos”). Because of the ←6 | 7→devastating consequences of the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648, however, they were unable to develop such pieces into larger forms of church music, and some of them were even forced to flee from the Unholy Roman Empire to neighboring Protestant countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands. Accordingly, their church music was for the most part of a highly serious, if not mournful, nature and relied mainly on the spiritual comfort of biblical texts. They tried not to entertain their listeners but – because of all the misery they had to endure – to profess their trust in God’s grace in the most serious way. This gives their music a convincing and sometimes overwhelming expressiveness and depth, especially in the case of Schütz, although he could rely only on a small number of choir boys and instrumentalists.

But after the Peace Treaty of Münster and Osnabrück in 1648, the times they were a-changing. The Protestant principalities and free cities were finally secure again and tried to overcome the trauma of the murderous consequences of the preceding years of war, when almost one-third of the German population had lost their lives. And this mood was expressed in two different trends. First, there was a trend towards greater worldliness, demonstrated by the gradually growing splendor of artistic creations that were supported financially by the wealth of the courts and the newly developing affluence of the upper classes. Second, there was a trend towards overcoming the collective trauma of the Thirty Years War by a turn among the Protestant middle classes towards forms of religious expression that were more subjective than the preceding concepts of a more congregationally oriented Lutheranism.

Both of these trends are well reflected in Buxtehude’s music. As noted above, the highly baroque quality of his organ works made him the most admired composer of works of this kind in all of northern Germany. Granted, Samuel Scheidt, not to mention Girolamo Frescobaldi in Italy and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Holland, had already developed a more sophisticated style in this area than the cantors of the sixteenth century, but Buxtehude surpassed them all by a more expressive, highly subjective approach to organ music that was not only more virtuosic but also more lyrical in many passages, which reflected exactly the two different artistic and ideological trends towards the end of the seventeenth century. But let’s ←7 | 8→not go into a complex analysis of his organ works, which would confront us with highly intricate problems of formalistic aesthetics. Rather, let’s look more closely at the other forms of Buxtehude’s musical output: namely, his more than 100 cantatas, where the ideological interrelationship between music and text can be much more easily demonstrated.

As far as we know, these cantatas were not part of the regular church services at St. Mary’s, which still followed traditional Lutheran recommendations and were directed by one of the two or three cantors. Rather, they seem to have been performed as interludes before and after communion, at special occasions such as Easter or Christmas, and at weddings or at other festivities as part of the Abendmusiken. This in itself gave Buxtehude the chance to deviate in his cantatas from the strict rules of time-honored practices of orthodox Lutheranism, that is, to select the texts of these works himself and to use musical techniques of his own invention.


VIII, 286
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
German composers German classical music French Revolution Expressionism Weimar Republic fascism exile Federal Republic of Germany Hearing Music in a Different Key Jost Hermand
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. VIII, 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Jost Hermand (Author)

Jost Hermand (1930–2021) got his Ph.D. at the Marburg University in German literature and art history. Since 1958 he taught German cultural history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (USA). Between 2003 and 2013 he lectured as Honorary Professor of German at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Among his most important publications are a German cultural history in nine volumes (1959–2010) with Richard Hamann and Frank Trommler, a book about literary methodology entitled Interpretive Synthesis, books on the German opera, utopian thinking, the history of ecological awareness in Germany and German-Jewish history, as well as books on Ludwig van Beethoven, Heinrich Heine, Adolph Menzel and Bertolt Brecht.


Title: Hearing Music in a Different Key