Paying homage to Bach brings an unexpected encounter with Schütz and the discovery of Mauersberger

The towns and cities most associated with J S Bach – Eisenach, Weimar, Cöthen and Leipzig – all stand inside what was the German Democratic Republic, behind what was the Iron Curtain. I had long wanted to visit them as an act of pilgrimage and a chance encounter in Dorset (long story – ask me in the pub) with a citizen of Dresden, also in the East and a secondary Bach city, provided a very useful contact and stimulated Jenny and me to grapple with the necessary paperwork and take the plunge. Crossing the border was an adventure in itself but once under way we set off along the cobbled (yes, really) motorway. The road improved and after a while we were amazed to see a sign suggesting that if we turned off we would soon reach a Heinrich-Schütz-Museum. This was clearly a must-visit so we duly diverted and found a charming building (the house in which the composer was born) presided over by two ladies who were surprised to have visitors, very surprised that their visitors were English and positively astounded that their English visitors had a toddler in tow. Music was very cheap in East Germany (half the price of the same editions in the West). We took advantage.

Eventually we reached Dresden and were struck by the horrible post-war concrete architecture, the moving ruins of the Frauenkirche (restored immediately the inner German border was removed) and the stark beauty of the Kreuzkirche, restored after its destruction in the controversial 1945 bombing but left unadorned. This is the home of a famous 800-year-old boys’ choir, the Kreuzchor, who consider themselves the guardians of the Schütz legacy: there is an unobtrusive memorial window to the composer, who served the Dresden court for much of the 17th century, in the church’s entrance.

However, even more prominent a name was that of Rudolf Mauersberger, legendary conductor of the boys for forty years until his death in 1971. At the time of our visit he had been dead for 15 years but his was the name on the lips of those to whom we spoke about matters musical. And his 1945 lament for the destroyed city, Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst – How desolate stands the city, was the piece everyone said we should know and perform.

When the church was destroyed in February 1945 Mauersberger fled the city. On Good Friday he composed this motet, selecting words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the first performance took place when services resumed in the burnt-out ruins of the church in August 1945. The music makes its points through the use of poignant harmony, such as that of the first few bars, variety of texture and passionate outbursts using a very wide range of notes. By virtue of both its origin and its content, this piece is revered by our colleagues in German choirs.

And I, too, find it very moving. The starkness of the opening will be especially striking following the preceding rich polyphony of Alonso Lobo’s (d1617) Ave regina coelorum and perhaps that juxtaposition also highlights the wide variety on offer in our next concert. Settings of the same text by Olivier Messiaen and William Byrd also reflect our ‘theme’ of diversity – itself a contrast to our recent single work (November 2016 Messiah), single ‘school’ (March 2107 Jacobean Secrets) and single composer (May 2017 Monteverdi’s birthday) evenings.