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When a Protestant powerhouse turned to Catholic music

The Frauenkirche stands beside the Elbe in Dresden, the capital of Saxony (Getty)

Dresden, 1650. The Thirty Years’ War, officially over for only two years, hadn’t just decimated the population of Saxony – which, technically, would suggest a reduction by 10 per cent. Between disease, famine and murder, it had wiped out a gruesomely unimaginable two thirds.

Death was more present than life – a fact that did not spare the great court ensembles of the Saxon Elector, Johann Georg I and that of his eldest (surviving) son, the future Johann Georg II.

Around that time the great but ageing German master of music, Heinrich Schütz, published the second and third volumes of his Symphoniae sacrae – his Opus summum – in the hopes to rebuild musical life to its former glory. But Johann Georg Sr didn’t have the necessary will, enthusiasm, funds or energy for a musical renaissance à la Schütz and his son lacked the taste for it. Italian music had already become all the rage – and would remain so for the coming years and decades. Musicians were hired from Italy at high salaries (a cruel lesson about supply and demand for the local talent that played on the cheap) and Schütz, peeved, retired with that classic disgruntled old-timer’s complaint on his lips: “Oh, how the young generation seems to become tired of the established mores so quickly!” (An actual quote, that.)

When Johann Georg II came into power, in 1656, he merged his Italian-influenced capella with his father’s languishing German band – but under the artistic guidance and leadership of the former. The Italian imports and stylistic changes did not just suggest a change in musical direction but also that their ruler, hailing from a long line of “champions of the Reformation”, might – gasp – convert to Catholicism. After having only recently embarked on the reformed way and suffered so much hardship from a war that was ostensibly fought on the grounds of (limited) exercise of religious self-determination, the people’s trepidation was understandable. For now their fears were unfounded: Johann Georg II and his son Johann Georg III remained staunchly Protestant. In fact, Johann Georg III’s most substantial reform was not to religion but to opera, after discovering and enjoying the indelible and very secular advantages of sopranos over castrati. It wasn’t until Johann Georg II ’s grandson, Frederick Augustus I, that the re-conversion to Catholicism happened. Even then, the conversion wasn’t brought on through the influence of Italian music or careful consideration of transubstantiation versus consubstantiation but due to the substantially secular attraction of becoming King of Poland. And it affected only the court and parts of the capital, Dresden, whereas Saxony (and the King’s wife) remained staunchly Protestant.

This was in 1697, at the height of the baroque age. Johann Sebastian Bach, the Protestant who would go on to meld all national musical schools into a universal musical language in nearby Leipzig, was a 12-year old schoolboy in the Thuringian town of Ohrdruf. Jan Dismas Zelenka, the composer who would come to epitomise Catholic late baroque music in Dresden, was 18 and still studying at the Jesuit College in Prague. And right between the old German master Schütz and the high baroque exponents of their respective styles sits, relatively unknown, Giuseppe Peranda (born around 1625) – one of those musicians that John George II hired.

It was a few years after Johann Georg II assumed the throne in 1650 that Peranda was headhunted and brought to Saxony. In 1661 he was made the deputy chapel master and in 1663 chapel master. Little of his output has been recorded – and five pieces on a recent disc Sacred Music from Dresden (Coviello Classics) – are world premiere recordings. Assuming a general interest in baroque music, the results are fascinating. Because Peranda’s music straddles the early- and high-baroque divide, his music evokes aural images of both times: truly early music (all the way towards Monteverdi and every so often very faintly reminiscent of Bach’s.

That JS Bach, who took the northern German, Flemish, Italian and French styles and made them all his, should have been influenced by Peranda is not that surprising. As Peter Wollny’s splendid programme notes point out, Bach owned a copy of Peranda’s Missa in A and even performed its Kyrie in Weimar in 1715. You’ll hear that Kyrie and the Gloria on this disc – as well as five sacred vocal concertos.

To lighten the texture, the musicians on this disc have included – to excellent effect – two instrumental interludes from contemporaries of Peranda: Vincenzo Albrici and David Pohle. If you allow for a little nit-picking: There is some very mildly sketchy singing going on, not the least from soprano Miriam Feuersinger. And the “Evensong Basel” ensemble under Jörg-Andreas Bötticher sounds, as a whole, vaguely like an instrument tuned in equal temperament: just a wee bit off from the absolute highest standards that recordings have made us used to. But the music and its story – an audible piece of history that plugs the gap between the rather more famous Renaissance and high baroque periods – is interesting and the performances so spirited and committed that the upsides well outweigh the drawbacks.

Jens F Laurson is a roving classical critic-at-large