Marienkirche, Lübeck


Marienkirche, Lübeck

This is a splendid Backsteingotik (brick gothic) church, immensely high with light flooding in though its tall windows. It started off as a Roman Catholic church, and was decorated with lovely frescoes.

In the early 16thcentury it became Lutheran and the frescoes, being anathema, were painted over. This must have been done many times over the centuries. Then came the allied bombings in 1942. The blast from these caused the paint to fall off, happily revealing the frescoes which are now being restored

The burghers of the North German cities, seeing the wonderful gothic cathedrals in France and Flanders wanted to build something similar. Unfortunately there is no suitable stone in the far north of Germany; but there is plenty of clay, so the churches are built of brick.

Backstein Gotik

Unlike the small early English bricks, those of North Germany are quite chunky, larger than modern bricks. However, for very tall structures – and these churches are very tall – they are less stable than large blocks of stone. One is now aware of the fragility of these buildings which need iron braces to hold them together.


Brahms’ German Requiem

First impulse

It is thought by some that Brahms was first prompted to compose a requiem by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. There is little likelihood that he could have undertaken this at the time since he had been supporting Schumann’s wife Clara during her husband’s last two years of illness and, when Schumann died, Brahms was in the middle of a crisis in the creativity department. The idea of an unfulfilled desire to write a requiem seems quite plausible, though.

Choice of text

Since his early years Brahms had been an avid reader and deeply interested in literature. So he was in the habit of choosing works of literary weight to set to music, rather than more obvious lyric poetry (which would have been easier to set).

Corpus Christi

The poem Lauda Sion was composed in the 13th century by Canoness Juliana of Liège.

She had visions which drew her attention to the fact that there was as yet no text celebrating the Eucharist: the body and blood of Christ. Her friend and colleague, Canon John of Lausanne, brought her visions to the attention of Pope Urban IV who gave his approbation. So she composed the poem Lauda Sion with his blessing and it formed the basis of the new Feast of Corpus Christi.



In 1723 Bach was appointed Kantor at St. Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. For the next six years he brought his small stock of church cantatas up to about 300, (which was five more or less complete sets of cantatas for the Church Year). This provided for all his needs for his work at St. Thomas’s for the rest of his time there.

When called upon to produce new music, he was in the habit of taking movements from earlier works and adapting them, reworking them where necessary. Some movements underwent several re-workings. The term parody signifies music which has been recycled in this manner.

Some of Bach’s greatest music has a substantial parody element. An example is the Mass in B minor. At the accession of the new Elector, Bach presented him with the Kyrie & Gloria of the Mass, (Kyrie and Gloria being the parts of the Lutheran Mass set to music). Then in 1748-49 he added the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, completing what we now know as the B minor Mass. His reason for doing this is not clear*, but there was no new music: it is in effect an anthology of some of the finest bits of his earlier cantatas, the words being replaced by those of the ordinary of the mass. Some of his adaptations are quite radical (such as the wonderfully moving end of the Crucifixus, adapted from the cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen).

* It is thought by some that it was in support of a job application for Dresden.



Thomasschule, Leipzig

The Thomasschule was a boarding school attached to Leipzig’s principal church, St. Thomas’s (the Thomaskirche).

 Bach, as Kantor, was its director. The pupils at the school were selected on
musical aptitude, and it was the Kantor’s responsibility to select them and train them as singers. Instrumental training was provided for the most able of them, and all had to learn Latin. Bach refused to teach Latin, so he had to pay for a Latin tutor out of his own salary.

The Kantor, had to provide all the music for the four principal churches in Leipzig, and any other music the City Council required. To aid in this, the council employed some professional musicians: four wind-players, three fiddlers and ‘an apprentice’.

Most of Bach’s instrumentalists were drawn from amongst the Collegium Musicum, students at the University or pupils at the school. The age-range of the school’s pupils was from 12 to 23. At that time boys’ voices ‘broke’ at about 17 or 18, so in fact Bach had a pool of very able, experienced singers at the school; and his band was of high standing, despite the stinginess of the ‘official’ provision.

The Thomasschule placed severe restrictions on Bach’s choice of musicians to perform his music. However, the Collegium Musicum was a pool of highly competent musicians, some of them virtuosos of their instrument. It was from the Collegium Musicum that Bach drew his musicians for the secular cantatas.

A piece of ‘trivia’ not trivial at the time: on the day after the performance of no.215 Bach’s virtuoso trumpeter and the leader of the Leipzig Stadtpfeifer (town wind-band), Gottfried Reiche, died as a result of his musical exertions. Such are the demands of the first trumpet part of the Christmas Oratorio.


Leipzig Collegium Musicum

A Collegium Musicum was a music society.

With the burgeoning of bourgeois culture, particularly in prosperous and vibrant centres such as Leipzig, there began a slow shift away from music being made exclusively for The Court or The Church. Art music was becoming accessible to a much wider public. An example of this is the Music Hall in Dublin where Messiah received its first performance. Collegia musica were a vital part of this development.

Collegia musica brought musicians together to make music, and were often purely amateur in status. In Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann set up a collegium musicum in his own home.  It was Telemann who founded the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, in 1702 (when he was also associated with St. Thomas’s for a time). This became the focal point for professional musicians, and it was an organisation of real standing within the city, informal and voluntary institution though it was. Bach’s becoming director of the Collegium does not seem to have brought him any financial rewards, but it did greatly widen his scope, compared to the restrictions placed on him by his ‘day-job’ at the Thomasschule.


Royal recognition

By 1842 Mendelssohn was a major celebrity in Britain, and became a favourite of the royal family. In June and July, he visited the queen and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace, where he improvised (on Rule, Britannia!), and accompanied the queen singing Lieder both by him and his sister. He arranged seven of his Songs without words as piano duets for them and The Scottish Symphony would later be rededicated to Queen Victoria.


Fanny Hensel


Fanny Hensel nee Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was four years older than her brother Felix. As children they were very close, challenging and stimulating one-another intellectually and musically. They stayed in close contact for their entire lives.

The convention at the time was that Felix, though the younger, being male, would play the dominant rôle as a musician. They conformed to this, much to the detriment of Fanny. She could well have been Felix’s equal in ability, but she was discouraged from publishing her work, even by her brother (perhaps for complex reasons). As was ‘suitable for a lady’, her output was limited in the main to Lieder and piano pieces: salon music in effect. She has just 11 opus numbers to her credit, though her compositions number 500 (including one cantata, one oratorio, one overture and some chamber works). She started to publish just a year before her death, a venture in which her brother did not participate.

Fanny married the painter William Hensel – they had one child. She was a central figure in Berlin salon life (for which most of her music was written). Visiting Rome, she became friends with the young Gounod, who acknowledged her as an important influence on his developing style.

On 14th May 1847 she died suddenly of a stroke aged 41.


Handel’s maggots – obsessions

On 19th September 1738, Jennens wrote to a friend

“Mr.Handel’s head is more full of maggots than ever”

Maggot 1: His newly discovered carillon – “with this Cyclopean instrument he designs to made poor Saul stark mad.”

Maggot 2: A bespoke organ, costing £500, designed so that he could direct the orchestra from it, ‘all the time with his back to the audience!’ (Not considered a bad idea now; but the cost in current money would be about £77,000). Jennens suggested he was ‘overstocked with money’ – a bit rich considering the cost of his own Leicestershire home.

Maggot 3: ‘A Hallelujah he has trumped up at the end of his oratorio since I went into the country’. Handel had refused to set the Hallelujah Jennens had put at the end of the opening scene, and thought Jennens’ ending not sufficiently grand. Fortunately for us Handel carried out precisely Jennens intentions regarding Hallelujahs.

Jennens concludes: “but it grows late and I must defer the rest till I write next, by which time, I doubt not, more new ones will breed in his brain.”