The 1840s in Berlin: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer

There were few signs that the Berlin of the first half of the nineteenth century would become a world capital of music by century’s end. Musicians didn’t like the city, especially the ones who had lived and worked there, such as Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. Common complaints centered around Berlin being conservative, unwilling to try anything new. The general character was formal and serious, with an extreme respect for the aristocracy and the military. A typical example: as late as the 1870s, Graun’s Der Tod Jesu was still being performed at the Garrison Church during Holy Week, maintaining a century-old tradition1NZfM 72 (1876): 222 (review of Berlin premiere of Tristan und Isolde). The typical Berliner did not die out; it was more that they became less prominent in a city growing by leaps and bounds.

The time Mendelssohn spent as General Music Director in Berlin for sacred and church music was supposed to show how music could serve the nation. It seemed like a natural fit, but the result was disappointing. He was unhappy with the conditions that made it hard to implement any changes, despite having a mandate from the King. Nor could Giacomo Meyerbeer successfully navigate the politics of the court. He was also given an appointment as General Music Director and found himself similarly hampered by bureaucracy and power struggles. His specific problem can be traced to the creation of the General Music Director title for Gasparo Spontini in 1820. (I feel able and willing to tackle this subject thanks to an excellent book published this summer, Von Spontini bis Strauss: Hofkapelle und Hofoper Berlin im langen 19. Jahrhundert, edited by Detlef Giese, Christian Schaper, and Arne Stollberg (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2022.)

The title of General Music Director made clear that Spontini was the highest ranking musician and the equivalent of the General Intendant of the Königliche Schauspiele (royal theater, meaning staged entertainments).2See Fabian Kolb, “Prestige, Probleme, Polarisierung. Spontini als Königlich Preußischer Generalmusikdirektor zwischen institutioneller Verortung und öffentlicher Wahrnehmung,” in Von Spontini bis Strauss, 97-126. Spontini composed and conducted operas and conducted the orchestra for twenty-one years. He was a controversial figure whose accomplishments tend to be overlooked to this day.
After a final public relations disaster in 1841, Spontini was forced to give up his position, although not his titles: he continued to be listed as General Music Director and First Kapellmeister, only “absent” until his death ten years later. Meyerbeer as his successor was added with the slightly different title of General Music Director and Court Kapellmeister.

Music for the bureaucratic royal court

When Friedrich Wilhelm IV became the new King of Prussia in 1840, he had some ambitious ideas about reforming the royal musical institutions that were part of the royal court. This page from the 1844 directory of the royal court shows how there were official positions that ranged from “pheasant master” and “duck catcher” to the head of music. For the latter, Graf von Redern is listed as “Chef.” Following his name (and the letters, numbers and symbols representing the titles and honors accorded to him) are three General Music Directors: Spontini, Meyerbeer, and Mendelssohn.

There is another list a few pages later, where Spontini (“dispensed of his functions”) and Meyerbeer preside over the Königliche Kapelle, which is broken down into Kapellmeisters, Music Directors, Concertmasters, composers and instrumentalists.

This second list has the Kapelle as one of the divisions of the Königliche Schauspiele, along with sections for actors, ballet dancers, opera singers and those working behind the scenes. Thus, in the directory Meyerbeer is listed twice with the same title, both outside and inside the hierarchy of the Schauspiele. If opera were to be considered a “Schauspiel” or a staged work, did that mean the General Music Director did or did not have jurisdiction over the choice of works, singers, staging, and so on?
A new General Intendant was installed at the same time as Meyerbeer replaced Spontini. Theodor von Küstner came from Munich to replace Graf von Redern from 1842-51. They were instantly at odds with each other. Küstner was economy-minded, which worked against Meyerbeer’s intention to bring production values up to a higher standard comparable to the Paris Opéra. Among the King’s advisors, Meyerbeer and Küstner had supporters whose work was a crucial part of the process. While Küstner had the backing of one of the highest ranking members of the court, Prince Wilhelm zu Sayn und Wittgenstein, Meyerbeer’s advocate was Alexander von Humboldt. He did not have an official appointment relating to musical matters, but as a royal chamberlain was active behind the scenes. He was close to both the Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn families, and worked for years to obtain recognition of their part of Berlin’s illustrious artistic elite.3Sabine Henze-Döhring and Sieghart Döhring, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Der Meister der Grand Opéra (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2013), 84-5.

For Mendelssohn, it wasn’t just a problem of bureaucratic inertia; he also found that the institutions and their musicians were musically inferior. The musicians and orchestra of the Königliche Kapelle had gone to seed, which he attributed to Spontini.4“seien verwildert” He complained about how boring the musicians were in a letter to Ferdinand David about a concert he had attended by the Zimmermann Quartet. They had played Haydn’s “Kaiser” Quartet, his own D major Quartet Op. 44 no. 1, and the Beethoven “Harp” Quartet op. 74. He conceded that they played well, correctly, and had “valuable qualities in ensemble…but without the spark, indeed without the pretension or affectation of a temperament. Even with the affectation of it, I would have been more satisfied than with this soulless, leathery quality.”5Schätzbare Eigenschaften im Zusammenspiel…ohne den Funken, ja ohne die Prätension oder Affectation eines Gemüts. Sogar mit der Affectation davon wollte ich zufriedner sein, als mit dieser seelenlosen Lederhaftigkeit.” Letter to Ferdinand David, 5 February 1842, Sämtliche Briefe Vol. 8, 325-26.
Another indication of how he thought of his Berlin colleagues was his comment on the death of the young dilletante composer Friedrich Curschmann in 1841: “He was by far my favorite of all the Berlin musicians…”6“mir war er bei weitem der liebste von allen Berliner Musikern…” Letter to Rebeckah, 28 Aug 1841, p 180. In the following years, several loyal young musicians/followers of Mendelssohn settled in Berlin; these included private students Julius Stern, Carl Eckert, Hermann Wichmann, Wilhelm Steiffensand, Richard Wüerst and Eduard Franck. Stern, Eckert, and Wüerst would hold important positions in Berlin’s musical institutions.
It was a prestigious position, and ambitious goals were proposed. Then there was disillusionment, with letters expressing frustration with the reality of the soul-killing “spirit of officialdom.”7Weissmann, 212.
Like Spontini, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer had lifetime appointments. But Mendelssohn left the city in 1844 and Meyerbeer two years later.

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