top of page

Bernardo Bellotto - Dresden from the right bank of the Elbe with the Augustus Bridge - 1748

Dresden in the Time of Zelenka and Hasse

“Something choice and excellent”



On the evening of 13 September 1731 a new opera was lavishly performed at Dresden. Cleofide was the work of Johann Adolf Hasse, recently appointed Kapellmeister to the Saxon court. Hasse, already of Europe-wide fame, was a notable capture for Dresden and the occasion must have provided a glittering spectacle. It has been suggested that among the audience that night was a visitor from nearby Leipzig, the Thomasschule cantor Johann Sebastian Bach, a plausible scenario given that he was due to give an organ recital in the city’s Sophienkirche on the following day. It has been conjectured, too, that Bach was himself anxious to obtain a post in the electoral city. He certainly cast envious glances at the working conditions enjoyed by musicians there, as is clear from a passage in the famous Memorandum he presented to the Leipzig town council in August 1730. Having made the point that many a German musician worked in conditions that forced him to “worry about his bread”, Bach goes on to compare the situation with Dresden: “To illustrate this statement with an example one need only go to Dresden and see how the musicians are paid by His Royal Majesty [the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I, also known as Augustus the Strong]. It cannot fail, since the musicians are relieved of all concern for their living, free from chagrin and obliged each to master but a single instrument; it must be something choice and excellent to hear.”


Were it true that Bach coveted a post in Dresden, it would hardly have been surprising.  Music in Dresden was indeed “choice and excellent”, since at the time Bach was writing it was artistically one of the most lavishly endowed courts in Europe, boasting a roster of musicians and artists that would have been the envy of any in Europe. The foundations of such supremacy stretched far back, although they had been arrived at not without experience of the fluctuating fortunes of fate. The city that stands on the River Elbe had since the fifteenth century been the permanent residence of the Wettin family, rulers of Saxony and one of the oldest dynasties in Europe. During the sixteenth century Saxony became the cradle of the Lutheran Reformation, the first Lutheran service in Dresden being held on 6 July 1539 at the Kreuzkirche, at the time the city’s principal church. Its Kreuzschule performed the same function in Dresden as the more famous Thomasschule in Leipzig. The story of music in Dresden stretches back almost as far as the history of the city itself and cannot detain us here other than pausing to note an earlier golden age that commenced when Heinrich Schütz was appointed to the court in 1615, nominally initially as subordinate to Michael Praetorius, the de facto Kapellmeister, but later in his own right as Kapellmeister. In fact Schütz was charged with wide ranging duties, including the rebuilding of the Kapelle for a new Elector, Johann Georg I. Schütz succeeded in this task with spectacular success, building the musical life of the court to a pinnacle of excellence that included the arrival of opera in Dresden in the shape of his Dafne of 1627, a lost work believed to be the first German opera. This illustrious era was brought to end when the devastating 30 Years War reached Saxony in 1631, necessitating a drastic reduction in musical activity. Although Schütz played some part in attempting to revive music to its pre-war eminence after the situation improved, he was by that time too old to play more than a marginal role. By the time of his death in 1672, Dresden’s musical life was already largely dominated by Italian composers and musicians, a feature that would define much of its course for the next century.


Dresden in the Reign of Frederick Augustus I


The most brilliant era of artistic achievement in Dresden opened in 1694, the year in which Frederick Augustus I succeeded his brother as Elector. In the previous decade Augustus had twice undertaken the Grand Tour (his first attempt had to be curtailed because of war), completing a circuit of Europe that had taken him to Paris and Versailles, to Madrid and Lisbon, to Vienna, and to Italy, where he visited Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples. Augustus had thus at first hand become well acquainted with the splendour in which great rulers live, above all at Louis XIV’s Versailles, from where he gained a taste for French drama and opéra-ballet. A man of huge ambition and dynamic energy, Augustus set about transforming the electoral capital into a centre of artistic and architectural excellence that would rival Versailles.


In 1697 Augustus’ power was magnified when, despite opposition from much of the Polish nobility, he extended his realm eastwards by becoming elected King Frederick Augustus II of Poland following the death of John III Sobieski. The cost of this huge territorial expansion was Augustus’ own conversion to Catholicism. Surprisingly, if diplomatically, he made no attempt to enforce the edict established at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – “Cujus regnum eius religio” (the state will adopt the religion of the ruler). So while Catholicism became the religion of the court, the Protestants of Saxony were left without interference and indeed Augustus’ wife Christiane Eberhardine remained a Lutheran, her example earning her the devotion of her subjects and a lasting memorial from Bach, who composed his Trauerode, BWV198 on the occasion her death in 1727. Soon after becoming Polish king, Augustus dissolved the Hofkapelle, which was re-organised for the requirements of Protestant music, while a new musical establishment was formed to cater for the needs of Catholic sacred music and the court. Records for 1697 reflect this division, showing that while both institutions numbered a similar number of string players (5), only the new Catholic Kapelle, obviously favoured financially by Augustus, boasted wind and brass players. Otherwise the Elector’s apparently laissez faire approach to his new religion is well illustrated by the fact that the court had no dedicated chapel for worship until 1708, in which year the former court theatre was redesigned as a chapel in accordance with his own taste and design. The first public Catholic church in the city was opened in the same year. Meanwhile, Augustus’ dynamic activity was being directed into innumerable artistic and architectural projects, surviving plans for many of them showing how frequently he was personally involved. In the early years of the eighteenth century he ordered a group of expert craftsmen to solve the centuries-old Chinese mystery of porcelain manufacture, a venture brought to a successful conclusion in 1708. The advent of the manufacture of hard porcelain at Meissen rapidly established a highly prestigious luxury export admired throughout Europe, bringing further reflected glory to Augustus’ court. 1711 saw the commencement of the most ambitious of the architectural projects carried out in Dresden under Augustus, the Zwinger. Designed by Daniel Pöppelmann as a large open space around which were erected galleries interspersed with pavilions, the Zwinger was the ultimate in ostentatious courtly display, its architecture complimented by fountains and arcades, and by the opulence of the decorative art that adorned its pavilions.


Augustus’ taste extended beyond the aesthetic to more hedonistic activities, including a voracious sexual appetite – he is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have sired 365 illegitimate children – and a love of glittering court functions that according to the Mémoires (1734) of the traveller Baron Pöllnitz included “plays, masquerades, balls, banquets, tilting at the ring, sleigh-rides, tours and hunting parties”. Many of these fêtes were open to the public, while according to Pöllnitz,  “The plays and masquerades were open to anyone who was well dressed”. Given that Augustus’ conversion to Catholicism had caused understandable concern among his Protestant subjects, this encouragement of the Dresden citizenry to participate in the wider activities of court life represented astute local politics that, if Pöllnitz is to be believed, paid handsome dividends: “All who were present were even more delighted with the King’s manners than with loveliness of the scene and the magnificence of the feasts.” Noting that Augustus seemed to enjoy himself more in Saxony than in Poland, Pöllnitz continued, “It is his hereditary country, and he is absolute there; his will is that of his subjects, by whom he is adored rather than beloved.”


Music in the First Augustan Age


The splendour of Augustus’ court attracted not only admiring visitors from across Europe, but also a distinguished succession of musicians to fill vacancies in the rapidly expanding Kapelle, ultimately forming a team of galaticos the like of which has rarely been equalled. In 1709 the Flemish-born J. B. Volumier was brought in to lead the orchestra, which at that time in accordance with the Elector’s personal taste was modelled on French lines, with five-part strings (a total of 16) and flutes and oboes, then newly introduced to the orchestra, to play which several pioneering French performers were employed. Under Volumier the Dresden orchestra achieved an exceptional level of precision doubtless helped by the arrival of Jan Dismas Zelenka as a bass player about 1710 and two years later by Johann Georg Pisendel, an outstanding violinist who would eventually (in 1728) succeed Volumier as concert master. Pisendel had been trained at the court of Ansbach, where he was taught by the Italian virtuoso Giuseppe Torelli. His arrival would have far reaching implications not only for Dresden, but music in central and northern Germany generally. One of Augustus’ policies was to send his principal musicians to leading centres in order study the latest developments, an idea that also served the purpose of advertising the excellence of music at the Dresden court. In 1715 Volumier, along with Pisendel, Johann Christoph Schmidt, the Kapellmeister and several other performers went to Paris, while visits to Berlin, Venice (1716) and Vienna (1719) were also made by groups of the Elector’s musicians. But it was the trip to Venice, a party that included Zelenka, which would prove to have particular prescience. During this stay Pisendel came into contact with Vivaldi, from whom he received violin lessons, becoming in the process a fervent admirer of the Venetian master’s music. Pisendel’s advocacy of Vivaldi, who composed a number of concertos for the Dresden court orchestra, not only had a profound affect on his own compositions, but his introduction of Vivaldi’s music to Dresden would also have an influence on many native composers, most notably Bach.


Meanwhile other recruits were adding to the roster of luminaries. In 1716 the 19 year-old oboist and flautist Johann Joachim Quantz arrived in Dresden, the account in his autobiography providing a vivid picture of the remarkable level of attainment the Kapelle had then reached:


In March of the year 1716 I went to Dresden. Here I soon became aware that the mere playing of notes as set down by the composer was far from being the greatest merit of a musician[…] It [the orchestra] distinguished itself from many other orchestras by its French evenness of performance, introduced by the concert master at that time, Volumier. Under the next concert master, Herr Pisendel, who introduced a mixed style, it achieved a finesse of performance that I never heard surpassed in all my later travels[…] I was greatly amazed, and my zeal for continuing musical studies was doubled. I wanted to prepare myself so that in time I too could become a tolerable member of this excellent company.


Quantz’s testimony that the Dresden orchestra was developing “a mixed style” – Italian as well as French – under Pisendel is hardly surprising given the violinist’s Italian training, but is important for illustrating increasing Italian influence in Dresden. The following year the trend became a flood when Crown Prince Frederick Augustus, a fervent admirer of Italian opera who had accompanied the musicians to Venice on the 1716/1717 trip as part of his own Grand Tour, persuaded his father to engage an Italian opera company under the direction of Antonio Lotti, first organist of St Mark’s. Among the instrumentalists engaged was Johann David Heinichen, originally appointed as Lotti’s deputy, but who soon assumed other duties and became Kapellmeister, Schmidt having been elevated to the newly created post of Hofkapellmeister. Although he had worked briefly in Leipzig, Heinichen had spent most of the recent past in Italy, basing himself on Venice, where he had two operas produced. In recent years a number of his highly inventive orchestral works have been revived, revealing a mastery of orchestration that frequently exploited the renowned Dresden wind players. Like Pisendel, he would retain his post in Dresden for the remainder of his life, being promoted to the post of Hofkapellmeister on the death of Schmidt in 1728. A more transient instrumentalist to arrive was the flamboyantly arrogant virtuoso violinist and composer Francesco Maria Veracini, whose stay in Dresden is principally remembered for a bizarre episode involving him throwing himself from a first floor window, an incident he survived to return to his native Florence in 1723. 


The opera singers who came to Dresden with Lotti included a number of famous names, among them the composer’s wife Santa Stella and the famous alto castrato Francesco Bernardi, better known as Senesino. The first performance by the new company took place on 25 October 1717, a staging of Lotti’s melodrama pastorale Giove in Argo, given in a provisional theatre as a new opera house commissioned by the Elector had yet to be built.


The new opera house was located near the Zwinger to a design by Pöppelmann, the same builder who had designed the lavish complex. Needless to say, no expense was spared. The 2000-seat building, the largest north of the Alps, was erected at the huge cost of 150,000 thaler and extravagantly decorated by the designer Alessandro Mauro, one of the party recruited from Venice. It was completed in time for one of the most spectacular events of Augustus’ reign, the month-long celebrations attending the wedding of the Crown Prince to the Habsburg Archduchess Maria Josepha, the daughter of the late Emperor Joseph I, a powerful union made possible only by the status Augustus now enjoyed as King of Poland and one with considerable potential political implications. The new house opened on 3 September 1719 with a repeat performance of Giove in Argo, Teofane the new opera seria Lotti had composed for the wedding celebrations not being ready, possibly because of the astonishingly elaborate stage sets by Mauro. When Teofane, set to a libretto by the Dresden court poet Stefano Benedetto Pallavicino, was given ten days later, it was before an audience that in addition to including the cream of European royalty and nobility also numbered two music visitors, Telemann and Handel. Teofane was praised by Quantz for “its pure, but sensible Italian taste, from which the Italians have since strayed too far”, although modern commentators have been less generous to the opera. More importantly, the plot concerning the marriage of the great Saxon Emperor Otto II provided a perfect analogy in which to set the wedding celebrations. Musically, it is also of interest for scoring that included a number of obligato parts, among them an aria with a part for archlute that must have been intended for Silvius Leopold Weiss, who had joined the musical establishment in Dresden the previous year. One of the greatest lutenists of his day, Weiss later rejected an exceptionally generous offer from Vienna, remaining at the Saxon court to become by 1744 its highest paid instrumentalist.


Following the celebrations, Lotti returned to Venice, leaving a number of the Italian singers and players in Dresden. Several, among them Senesino, were being courted by Handel, who was on a recruitment mission for his new opera company in London. The great castrato was at the centre of a row over Flavio Crispo, a new opera by Heinichen intended to mark the Elector’s return from Poland in 1720. According to Quantz, Heinichen was insulted at a rehearsal by Senesino and his fellow castrato Berselli (who also went to London with Handel), an incident that arouses the suspicion that it was purposely engineered to allow them to break their contracts. Whatever the truth, Augustus, who as we have seen was no great lover of Italian opera, disbanded the opera company. Most of the Italians departed, leaving Flavio Crispo, Heinichen’s only Dresden opera, unperformed.


Relieved of the expensive demands of Italian opera, the focus of attention at the Dresden court turned to the establishment of a Catholic sacred repertoire, a task undertaken by Heinichen, Zelenka and the director of the Polish chapel, Giovanni Ristori. The increasing ill health of Heinichen during the decade resulted in much of the burden falling on Zelenka, who by the time of the death of the former in 1729 had become de facto Kapellmeister. Following a visit to Prague during 1721 and 1722, the industrious Zelenka composed a large body of sacred works for the Dresden chapel, particularly during the second half the decade. At the same time, civic Dresden, not to be outdone by the Catholic court, began work in 1726 on a replacement for the old medieval Frauenkirche, which had become so dilapidated that it was demolished. Designed by George Bähr as a powerful affirmation of Protestant faith and civic pride, by the time the Frauenkirche was consecrated in 1734 its huge dome dominated the Dresden skyline. Between 1734 and 1736, a magnificent organ built by Gottfried Silbermann was erected in the church and on 1 December 1736 Bach gave a recital on it, attended by representatives of the court and civic dignitaries. Destroyed by bombing in 1945, the Frauenkirche was reopened in 2005 following a painstaking and loving restoration of the original building.


With the death of Heinichen in 1729, Zelenka had a perfectly reasonable anticipation of being promoted in his place. But any expectations he had were to be thwarted. Spurred once again by the interests of the Crown Prince, Italian musicians were making a comeback in Dresden. In 1728 the veteran alto castrato and teacher Antonio Campioli was sent to Venice to seek and train new talent, among those arriving as a result being the castrato Domenico Annibali, who would play a major role in Dresden’s operatic life and also sing for Handel in London, and the soprano Maria Rosa Negri, also to pursue a major career in Dresden and London.


The Hasse Era


Any hopes Zelenka might have entertained that he would fill Heinichen’s post were dashed with the appointment of Hasse as one of the two Kapellmeisters in 1730, insult being added to injury when Heinichen’s old position was left unfilled. Hasse’s appointment followed protracted and secret negotiations, the details of which are not known. It is tempting to speculate that Quantz, who had become a close friend of Hasse’s in Naples earlier in the 1720s and returned to Dresden in 1727, may have been involved in some way. By the time Hasse arrived in Dresden he had already scored considerable success in Vienna, Naples, at that time under Habsburg rule, and Venice, where in June 1730 he had secretly married the alluring mezzo Faustina Bordoni. The Hasses were engaged at Dresden for a combined salary of 6000 thaler a year, to which were added travel expenses. Some idea of how enormous an income this represented can be gauged from the fact that at this time the average annual salary of a pastor in Saxony was 175 thaler. If Hasse was well on the way to superstardom by this time, Faustina had already achieved it, having sung all over Europe, including with Handel in London, where she received huge fees. Following her marriage to Hasse, she sang mostly in his operas, the pair being described by the great librettist Pietro Metastasio some fourteen years after their marriage as “truly an exquisite couple”.


Needless to say, Faustina appeared in Hasse’s first Dresden opera, Cleofide, singing the role of the gentle, but heroic Indian queen Cleofide. It is said she rather more than caught the eye of the Elector. Cleofide is based on a libretto adapted from Metastasio concerned with fictitious events surrounding the conquest of northern India by Alexander the Great in 325 BC. It is in many ways the paradigmatic court opera seria: immensely long, with spectacular settings, fully developed da capo arias and few ensembles, its plot served the purpose of such operas – the celebration of the generosity and magnanimity as a characteristic of powerful absolute rulers. No one in the Dresden audience on that September night would have failed to make the link between Alexander the Great and Augustus the Strong, another ruler who had greatly extended his territories to the east, albeit by rather less spectacular means than Alexander. As T. C. W. Blanning has perceptively noted, the cover of the libretto itself reveals the kind of culture that gave birth to an opera such as Cleofide. The name of Augustus, who in addition to his official titles is described as “Always Great and Invincible” (the latter by no means true) appears in print twice the size of that of the “most illustrious” Johann Adolf Hasse, thus clearly delineating the hierarchical order of things, as does the fact that the performance is given “At the command of his Majesty”.


Something under eighteen months after the first performance of Cleofide, the long reign of Augustus the Strong was brought to an end by his death on 1 February 1733. His funeral obsequies were attended by a Requiem in D (ZWV46) and an Invitorium, 3 lectiones and 9 responsoria (ZWV47) by Zelenka. He was succeeded by the opera-loving Frederick Augustus II, his sole legitimate son, who also became King Augustus III of Poland. Augustus II inherited from his father a magnificent cultural centre, and a love of pleasure and the arts. He also inherited a huge debt. What he did not inherit, it seems, was Friedrich’s charisma. Augustus was soon challenged for the Polish throne, which was secured only following the successful outcome of the War of Polish Succession (1733-1736), a victory achieved with the assistance of Russia and Austria. Like his father, Augustus II had converted to the Catholic faith and in 1738 work started on an impressive new Catholic church, the Hofkirche, designed in the Italian style by Gaetano Chiaveri. It was completed in 1751.


The terms of Hasse’s employment in Dresden did not require him to follow the court when it was in Warsaw, an arrangement that allowed he and Faustina frequent opportunities for travel. Over the course of the next twenty-two years he and his wife led a peripatetic existence that took them frequently to Italy, generally Naples or Venice, but also increasingly after the mid-1740s to Berlin, where Frederick the Great had become a fervent admirer of Hasse’s operas. During this period Hasse continued to write an average of at least one, sometimes two, operas for Dresden that were staged during the Carnival season. One particularly rich period of production occurred between February 1737 and the autumn of 1738, during which time Hasse composed now fewer than five opere serie, all to librettos by the court poet Pallavicino. Among them was Alfonso (May 1738), composed to a text on a suitable Spanish subject for the celebrations surrounding the wedding of Crown Princess Maria Amalia to Carlo, King of the Two Sicilies, an occasion for which the opera house was refurbished. In September 1738 the Hasses went to Venice, where according to the French writer and traveller Charles de Brosses the popularity of Hasse was at its peak. They did not return until early 1740, a year that was to prove fateful for the Dresden court. Following his accession to the Prussian throne in that year, Frederick the Great immediately began a series of military adventures designed to weaken the Habsburg empire by annexing Silesia. In the first of the Silesian wars (1740-1742), Frederick had the support of Saxony, the victory achieved with its assistance helping him on a road to power that would ultimately cost Saxony dearly. When the Prussian monarch visited Dresden for talks about the annexation of Silesia, it is said he broke off to attend a performance of Hasse’s new Lucio Papiro (Jan 1742), almost certainly his first acquaintance with a complete Hasse opera.


This strange amalgamation of extravagant artistic show and dark war clouds would continue for the next two decades. October 1742 witnessed the first production of one of Hasse’s most successful operas, Didone abbandonata, composed to an outstanding  Metastasio libretto, a book set by countless composers during the course of the eighteenth century. It was given not at the court theatre by the Zwinger, but at the theatre at Hubertusburg, the electoral summer residence, which from 1737 had been increasingly used for opera productions. As with his predecessors, Hasse’s activities in Dresden were by no means confined to the opera house. As Kapellmeister (Hofkapellmeister from 1750), he also provided music for the Catholic court chapel, having himself converted to Catholicism around the time of his marriage to Faustina. The principal onus in fact fell on Hasse, since following an unsuccessful petition in 1733 to the new Elector for the post of Kapellmeister, Zelenka had largely given up composing sacred works that were too old-fashioned to appeal to the Italian-oriented Augustus II. He died in 1745, reputedly a broken and disillusioned man. Lutheran music during this time produced few notable names until the arrival of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, organist of the Sophienkirche between 1733 and 1747, and Gottfried August Homilius, a pupil of Bach’s who became organist of the Frauenkirche in 1742 and cantor of the Kreuzschule in 1755. Recent recordings of music by Homilius reveal him to have been have been a fine exponent of the post-Bach cantata.


In 1744 Frederick the Great again went to war over Silesia, this time with Saxony having allied itself with Austria. The result was disaster, with a resounding defeat for the Saxon and Austrian forces. The Elector fled to Warsaw, leaving Frederick to enter Dresden as victor, one of his first acts being to command a performance of Hasse’s latest operas, Arminio (October 1745). Although the Elector returned to Dresden early in 1746, Saxony was forced to pay large war indemnities. Notwithstanding such a crippling penalty, the lavish spending continued. In 1748 the court theatre was enlarged and again redecorated by the famous Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena, who worked as principal stage designer until 1753. During the course of the 1740s and the early 1750s the court orchestra numbered an average of 45 personnel, a figure that reached a peak of 53 in 1756, the eve of the third, and for Dresden apocalyptic, Silesian War. In that year the orchestra boasted 29 string players, disposed as 19 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 1 viola da gamba and 2 double basses, to which were added 3 flutes 5 oboes, 6 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets and timpani as well as two harpsichords and a panteleon, a dulcimer-like instrument invented by Panteleon Hebenstreit, a former court musician. At the same time there were 19 solo singers, some of international repute, on the pay roll of the court, which in total employed a total of 146 musicians. The annual cost of this huge body was a staggering 100,000 thaler.


With its consecration in 1751, Chiaveri’s Hofkirche gave Dresden not only a new architectural adornment, but added another significant musical venue for the city, a number of Hasse’s larger scale sacred works being composed especially for the new church. For the consecration of the still-incomplete church on 29 June, Hasse composed his Mass in D minor and a Te Deum. When eventually completed, the Hofkirche, with its graceful tower, added yet another landmark to the Dresden skyline. Like the Frauenkirche, the Hofkirche suffered considerable damage during World War II, but was restored during the GDR period.


In the five years between 1751 and 1756, Hasse composed a further seven operas for Dresden, the last a setting of another famous Metastasio libretto, L’Olimpiade, produced on 16 February 1756. It would be his last for Dresden. On 29 August, Frederick the Great led his army in a surprise invasion of Saxony, thus starting the third and most devastating of the Silesian wars, better known today as the Seven Years War. On 14 October the Saxon army surrendered to Frederick, to be immediately incorporated in his own, while the Elector once again fled to Warsaw, where he remained until the end of the war. Over the period of the war years Dresden and Saxony became a battleground for opposing armies, suffering terrible damage and the ruin of the economy. Included in the damage was the destruction of the Kreuzkirche, destroyed in 1760 by Prussian bombardment.


Augustus II returned to Dresden in the aftermath of the war in 1763, as did Hasse, who found his house in ruins. Astonishingly, amid the wreckage of his country, Hasse’s Siroe (an old opera dating from 1733) was given on 3 August, and a new production of his Leucippo (October 1747) was planned to celebrate the Elector’s birthday on 7 October. But two days before the scheduled performance Augustus II died of a stroke; for his funeral Hasse composed one of his finest sacred works, the Requiem in C. One final blow awaited the electorate in this annus horribilis. On 17 December the new Elector, Frederick Christian died after contracting smallpox, leaving Hasse to perform one final duty for the Wettins by writing another Requiem, this time in E flat. At the end of February 1764 he and Faustina left Dresden for Vienna, bearing with them two-year’s salary. After more than 30 years of service it was the last time either would see Dresden.


The death of Augustus II was the final act in the magnificent, profligate drama that was Dresden’s Augustan Age. Henceforth there would be no more lavishly produced opera, no more grandiose architectural projects, although records show that the size of the court orchestra was maintained at much its pre-war size. When the historian Charles Burney visited Dresden in 1772, he found the electoral family, now divested of its Polish realms, attending a performance at the modest Kleines Kurfürstliches Theater. It is to Burney that we can leave the perfect epitaph for fallen Augustan Dresden, the city that had once earned the epithet “Florence on the Elbe”:


Dresden is at present a melancholy residence; from being the seat of the Muses, and a habitation of pleasure, it is now only a dwelling for beggary, theft and wretchedness. No society among the natives can be supported; all must retrench; the court is obliged to abandon genius and talents, and is, in turn abandoned by them!



Select Bibliography


T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture (Oxford, 2002).

Daniel Hertz, Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720 – 1780 (New York & London, 2003).

John Spitzer & Neal Zaslaw, The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650 – 1825 (Oxford, 2002).

Janice B. Stockigt, Jan Dismas Zelenka, 1679 – 1745: A Bohemian Musician at the Court of Dresden (Oxford, 2000)


This article originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine. Copyright 2016 the author, Brian Robins


If you have enjoyed this article please consider making a donation to help with the upkeep of this site, which is fundamentally an educational resource carrying only a small amount of advertising. If you would prefer to donate in $ or euros please go to the home page.

bottom of page