Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) 400th anniversary


Luther’s Hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (c.1529)

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

The devastating effects of this European war were felt long after its end. In this brief survey to mark the 400th anniversary of the outbreak, we shall examine what happened and how the economic and cultural consequences influenced what could be achieved in 17th and 18th century Germany in every particular and for decades to come. The ruler who triggered it all was Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. The King was a catholic whose wish to bring about religious uniformity resulted in rigorous dissent by the Protestant community and ultimately led to the outbreak of what turned out to be a protracted and vicious conflict.  As the years past, more States were drawn in and the war became Europe-wide.

Meanwhile in England…

220px-James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens James I (reigned 1603-1625)

To set the Thirty Years’ War in context with what was happening here, the most notable event that coincided with the war’s outbreak  in 1618 was the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Elizabeth’s I heroes who was ultimately to fall from grace. Her successor James I (pictured) regarded the conflict emerging on the continent as essentially a European War about religion and he was reluctant to get involved. However, the pressure to do so led to his sending a troop of just 1200 men to assist Frederick of Prussia and King Christian of Denmark in 1624 at a time when King James himself was far from well. The English contingent he authorised was so under-resourced that its presence dissipated not long after arrival, the King passing away in March 1625. He was succeeded by his son Charles I, whose own turbulent reign, pre-occupied almost entirely with its survival, ended in 1649 (his Execution). England became meshed in its own Civil War between King Charles I’s Cavaliers (Royalists) and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads (Republicans). As the Peace of Westphalia was being signed in 1648 ending the European conflict, Cromwell was near to achieving his objective of establishing his republic (Commonwealth). So English life was in a fair measure of turmoil too. However English musical life was enriched by the superb consort music of William Lawes (1602-1645), who was appointed to the Court by Charles I as ** “Musician in Ordinary for the King’s Lutes, Viols and Voices in 1635″, and John Jenkins (1592-1678) who by contrast preferred a less sophisticated life in the country.

** from a Programme Note by Laurence Dreyfus, Wigmore Hall 14 May 2018

Devastating Effects

With the war eventually drawing in most if not all European states, the effects of such a conflict on this scale were very considerable. Famine and disease amidst huge loss of life brought about economic hardship on a ‘wagnerian’ scale. The cost bankrupted participating states and reduced the population in some areas of Germany by as much as 40%. Typhus and dysentery were also rife. After two years’ drafting the Treaty, the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, effectively ending the wars between all the states. However it signalled the beginning of a massive ‘clean-up and repair’ operation economically, socially and culturally that took decades to accomplish in Germany.  Music to help heal wounds was a powerful vehicle on the road to recovery. Two members of the Bach Family lived through the war: (The relation to Bach is in brackets)

  • Heinrich Bach (1615-1692 Gt. Uncle) 
  • Christoph Bach (1613-1661 Grandfather)

Other Bach Family members born towards the war’s end will certainly have been affected by the fall-out: They were

  • Johann Christoph Bach  (1642-1703)  1st cousin once removed
  • Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694) 1st Cousin once removed & father-in-law to Joh. Sebastian Bach. He was the father of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara.
  • Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695)  Father of JSB and twin brother of
  • Johann Christoph Bach (1645-1693) Uncle

HIMMELSBURG CHAPEL (2) Himmelsburg Chapel, Weimar

“Burg”, as in Weimar’s “Himmelsburg” (Heaven’s Castle) where Bach was employed from 1708-1717, held a special significance for the people in 17th and 18th century Lutheran Germany. Martin Luther’s famous hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A safe stronghold is our God, c.1529 illustrated above )  is inextricably linked with his Reformation and its essential meaning. However “Burg” was also applied to the titles of regal buildings. This  helped to radiate strength, security and protection from Heaven at all times for the people, and its 17th century use helped to assuage war-time suffering both during and in the long and drawn-out aftermath. By 1685, forty years on, the country was still recovering when Bach was born at Eisenach in Thuringia and, given the loss of life, the cost and the amenities still to be replenished, much had to be imported to fill the void.

Dance and its influences in Bach’s Germany

Dance was an integral part of daily life, from the grandeur of the local courts to the more humble surroundings of the coffee houses and private dwellings. So in recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, German states looked to France and Italy for cultural provision… and were not disappointed.   Dancing masters were brought from France to teach the nobility the various steps, deportment and graces that comprised French court dancing and a young Bach, whose circle included the local ducal courts, would have at least observed them at work and might have even participated. At Court the various gestures (graces) that complemented the dance steps were actually elegant ways of conducting diplomacy, radiating the affluence of the State to a visiting nobleman for example or, in lesser circles, for the expression of emotion, even flirtation. These were useful tools in building or nurturing relationships as the war recovery process continued. Bach counted dancing masters Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1667-1750) and Jean-Baptiste Volumier (1670-1728) among his friends.  However a significant opportunity to soak up French compositional style and taste presented itself when Bach, aged 15, arrived at Lüneberg in 1700 to become a choral scholar at the Michaelisschule,  in the midst of school studies and very eager to learn. Duke Georg Wilhelm of the ducal court at Celle had built a second castle in Lüneberg, and, as a dedicated Francophile, had engaged mostly French musicians. It was also at Lüneberg that the composer Georg Böhm (1661-1733) worked as organist at the Johanniskirche. Böhm became a major musical influence in Bach’s formative years, introducing the fledgling composer to keyboard suites of dances, as well as organ chorales and chorale partitas, enabling his young student to study French-style and ornamentation.

It is the style of French court dancing that is most reflected in Bach’s music and he retained the structure of the dance movements so that they were still recognisable, while creating imaginative elaborations of the French dance forms.  The works that best demonstrate these are the orchestral suites, the violin partitas and the keyboard partitas.  In the Orchestral Suites the dances used are the Bourrée, Gavotte, Passepied, Lentement, Rondeau, Bourrée, Polonaise and  Badinerie, but the one that best reflects the elegance, grace and regality of the French court was the Minuet. Another dance form he used, the loure,  is a slow gigue, magisterial and rather serious, an example of which appears in the Fifth French Keyboard Suite.   Dance forms also feature prominently in his Brandenburg Concertos.  
Major or minor military conflicts were never very far away during Bach’s lifetime and their effects will undoubtedly have been felt. The composer did not work in isolation, but for 27 years at Leipzig for example was head of the bustling household in a city fast emerging from the rigours of  the Thirty Years’ War using its annual Fairs to foster and build prosperity, briefly interrupted in December 1745 and the occupation by Frederick the Great’s Prussian army. However in 1747, there came an opportunity for Bach to engage in a little post-war diplomacy himself….but that’s another story.
© Margaret Steinitz
Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter

Leave a Response