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In the beginning there was a wedding: The book printer Bernhard Christoph Breitkopf married on 24th January 1719 joining in the Müller family of printers in Leipzig and - after apparently several-day celebration - on 27th January the businesses. This day, in any case, marked in the company chronicle the founding date of the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel, which is known as the oldest music publishing house in the world.
The eventful history of the publishing house reflects on the one hand the history of time and music of the last three centuries - war, destruction and the division of Germany intervened deeply in the fate of the publishing house and its employees - and on the other hand it shows us the rapid media change that has taken place in these 300 years.
“A very pleasant and for me beneficent connection, to which I arrived, was the one with the Breitkopf House. Bernhard Christoph Breitkopf, the actual founder of the family, who had come to Leipzig as a poor printer’s assistant, was still alive and lived in the “Goldener Bär”, a respectable building on the Neuen Neumarkt, with Gottsched as his housemate.”
With these words the then Leipzig student Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a friend of the Breitkopf family’s sons, remembers the apparently very stimulating atmosphere in the “Goldener Bär” - which the publishing house still uses as its company logo today. In this ancestral seat of the family as well as the company lived the literary theorist Johann Christoph Gottsched, one of the most influential figures of the Age of Enlightenment.
After the lawyer Gottfried Christoph Härtel joined the management of the publishing house, this desire to discuss was made public: through the founding of the Allgemeinen musikalischen Zeitung, which influenced the bourgeois musical opinion decisively well into the 19th century. A 17-volume edition of the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also published from 1798, seven years after the composer’s death. In the second half of the 19th century the era of the “Complete Editions” finally begins, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and others are published for the first time with the scientific claim and the aim of completeness.
The canon of masterpieces - of the Baroque, the Viennese Classicism and the Romanticism - which has shaped musical life to this day can be traced back to no small extent to the activities of the Breitkopf und Härtel publishing house.
Beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven, Breitkopf and Härtel always signed many important composers during their lifetime - and continues this tradition to this day with outstanding composers of New Music, such as Helmut Lachenmann, Hans Zender, José María Sánchez-Verdú, Isabel Mundry or Adriana Hölszky.
The traditional culture of conversation and discussion at Breitkopf and Härtel can also be read in the correspondence between the publishing house and its composers - an often underestimated source of music history, and also an extremely amusing read due to the frequent haggling over the fee. In Beethoven’s case, the online letters can be read in the original manuscript; the correspondence with Clara Schumann and Ferrucio Busoni are available in book form.
On the Jubilee page of Breitkopf und Härtel you will find not only a detailed and richly illustrated company chronicle - an exciting foray through 300 years of music and contemporary history - but also an overview of the numerous concerts, exhibitions and symposia on the anniversary year 2019.
If it were the subject matter of a novel or the plot of a film, one would consider the following story to be a bit exaggerated: A young Parisian composer watches Shakespeare's Hamlet in the theatre and falls unhappily in love with the actress of Ophelia. He writes her countless letters that remains unanswered, rents herself into her neighborhood and reacts, close to madness, finally with the composition of a symphony, to which he gave the title “Episodes from the life of an artist” and he underlays a detailed program sentence by sentence: The hero of this Symphony poisons itself out of scorned love and falls into gruesome visions, in which he kills his beloved, leads to the sounds of a gruesome march to the scaffold and in a Walpurgis Night is buried by witches and devils.
Finally the actress listens to a performance of the symphony, realizes that it is about her, is introduced to the composer - and shortly afterwards both marry...
An exaggerated story? But still true! It happens in the 20s and 30s of the 19th century. The young composer, for whom the boundaries between art and reality become increasingly blurred, is called Hector Berlioz, the Irish actress who inspires him, Harriet Smithson; and the work in which Berlioz gives musical expression to his obsession with the unattainable lover is the Symphonie fantastique.
Hearing this work from 1830 today, one is amazed each time anew at its modernity, its unusual form (a motif called “idée fixe” pervades in countless variations, sometimes flattering, sometimes sarcastic in expression, all five movements) and the audaciousness of the orchestration – for example, the strings imitate the rattling of skeletons with the bow wood.
With this work, only three years after Beethoven’s death, Berlioz shows one of the possible ways in which after Beethoven one can still write symphonies: the way of programme music, which Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler - and in his own way Richard Wagner - will also take.
Less well known is the fact that Berlioz wrote Lélio ou Le Retour à la vie, a continuation of the “Symphonie fantastique”; he wanted both works to be performed one after the other. “Lélio” is an experimental mixture of the genres melodrama, ballad accompanied by piano and choral symphony.
Only three years after the premiere, Franz Liszt, Berlioz's witness to the marriage, created a highly virtuosic piano transcription of the „Symphonie fantastique“. To date there are arrangements for organ, wind orchestra, flexible ensembles and a easily playable piano version.
So there are many opportunities to (re)discover this and other works by Hector Berlioz in the year of his 150th death and to get to know (better) this romantic and forward-looking composer, who was also a worth reading music critic and writer. An invaluable help is the Berlioz website, the result of years of voluntary work by two Berlioz enthusiasts.
“The best way to honour Mozart would be not to play him at all for a year!”
This was a desperate sigh in the Mozart year 2006. In fact, the celebration of composer anniversaries always threatens to degenerate into a commercial event – the more prominent the name, the more so.
On the other hand, an anniversary year offers the opportunity to rediscover lesser-known or even largely forgotten composers and to put their works to the test. Ideally, the interest in such a rediscovery outlasts the special events of the commemorative year and enriches the repertoire with the one or other unjustly forgotten work.
After the quiet diverse year 2018 with the round days of birth and death of Gioachino Rossini, Claude Debussy and Leonard Bernstein – and before the celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020 the next Mega-Event will come – the big names are missing from the 2019 festival calendar. All the more unknown – and hopefully exciting – things we can discover again.
The names of Johann Rosenmüller and Barbara Strozzi, one of the few composers of the 17th century known by name, are probably unknown outside expert circles. Both celebrate their 400th birthday in 2019.
As little as the works of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati or Mieczysław Weinberg, both of whom were born 100 years ago, have become generally known so far. Especially in his hometown Augsburg the 300th birthday of Leopold Mozart will be commemorated, who thus gets the chance to be perceived as a composer and not only as the strict father of Wolfgang Amadeus.
The friends of the lighter muse finally get their money’s worth this year, as the two became fathers of the operetta – Jacques Offenbach and Franz von Suppé – born 200 years ago, and are perhaps completely new to discover apart from their well-known works.
The three most prominent jubilees of 2019 are also three special cases: Clara Schumanns also accessible to laymen Lieder and piano works still don’t get the attention they deserve, Hector Berlioz is still mainly present with one work – the Fantastic symphony – on the concert podiums and the compositional work Hans Pfitzners is still overshadowed by the discussion about his role in nationalsocialism.
At this point we will introduce you in the course of the year even more precisely with all the jubilees and their works - so check back regularly!