Spontini and the City: Bach and Musical Politics in Berlin

By Papanikolaou, Eftychia | German Quarterly, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Spontini and the City: Bach and Musical Politics in Berlin


Papanikolaou, Eftychia, German Quarterly


Berlin, May 1820. At the age of 47, and after a lucrative career as one of the principal opera composers in France, Italian-born Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) moved to Berlin at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm Ill to commence his tenure as the Generalmusikdirektor of the Berlin Opera. Amidst turbulent controversy surrounding his appointment-court intrigues, nationalistic politics, and heated debates about the primacy of German music-Spontini managed to survive in this position until shortly after the King's death in 1840. His tenure in Berlin coincided with the rise of German opera, especially as exemplified in the works of Carl Maria von Weber, and existing scholarship has addressed in depth the ways in which the two composers exemplified opposing musical and national identities associated with opera: the foreign French opera stood in opposition to German romantic opera (Warrack, Libby, Meyer, Markx).

Little attention, however, has been given to an extra-operatic performance that took place in April 1828. In a move quite atypical for Spontini, the embattled director organized and conducted a concert spirituel at the Berlin Hofoper that included instrumental music by Beethoven as well as parts of the Credo from J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor, paired with the Kyrie and Gloria from Beethoven's Missa solemnis. His decision to include Bach and Beethoven on the program encoded the concert with an overt political statement: the two giants of German music would be viewed in the context of the wider nationalistic politics surrounding German music in general and opera in particular in the first half of the nineteenth century. This essay will place Spontini's concert in this polemical atmosphere and discuss it as an attempt on the composer's part to dislodge his foreign identity. Most importantly, however, it will expose its significance in the context of the early nineteenthcentury revival and reception of Bach, especially since it preceded Mendelssohn's much anticipated performance of the Matthäus-Passion by almost a year.

In Napoleonic France, Spontini had enjoyed the patronage and support of Empress Joséphine and it was through her intervention that the first performance of La vestale, Spontini's still most famous opera, took place in 1807. That same year he was named principal conductor of the Théåtre-Italien de Paris, a position he maintained until 1812. In Paris Spontini found a responsive audience for his extravagant and monumental productions. He cultivated a style of opera that, historically speaking, acted as the precursor of the romantic genre of grand opéra. His next opera, Fernand Cortez, commissioned by Napoleon himself, was conceived as a not-so-subtle attempt to glorify his invasion of Spain in 1808. Its premiere on 28 November 1809 was attended by some of the most powerful sovereigns of Europe and it was a great triumph for the composer. In 1811 he married Marie-Catherine Céleste Erard, daughter of Jean-Baptiste Erard, the brother of the famous piano maker Sébastien Érard, and in spite of the political turmoil, Spontini continued to enjoy great popularity with his adopted French identity. Opera, after all, had always been a cosmopolitan genre and the French capital always attracted famous Italian opera composers, such as Luigi Cherubini and Gioachino Rossini. One might even say that it was a sign of great pride for any court to employ a foreign opera composer. Under these circumstances, King Friedrich Wilhelm Ill's invitation only seems to validate the sovereign's desire to enhance the operatic profile of the Prussian capital by creating a position specifically for Spontini.

Count Karl von Brühl, the Berlin Opera's intendant, systematically rallied against the King's decision-since 1817 he had championed the music of Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and he had hoped to be able to bring him to Berlin as Kapellmeister. Before Der Freischütz (1821), however, the opera that put him on the map as the creator of German romantic opera, Weber was primarily known as a composer of patriotic songs-reason enough for the King not to approve of him. …

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