A ramble through classical music

Munich's musical history

An historic expedition through musical milestones from the early 14th century to the present day – recounted by means of legendary performances and specific locations where musical and town history were made.

For many years, no-one imagined Munich would one day be the capital of Bavaria. In the early 13th century, Munich was actually part of the diocese of Freising – and that town was the birthplace of the church music which is the oldest source of the Bavarian musical tradition. At the time, Munich’s main church of St Peter ran a school for choirboys: because women were not permitted to sing in church, the high vocal registers of young boys were used instead. The musical life of Munich back then looked very different from that of today. Reports of courtly celebrations, particularly weddings, start to appear from the 14th century; a social development that facilitated an increasingly secular and luxurious musical culture. With numerous marriages between the families of Bavarian dukes and the Habsburg family including music in their celebrations, musicians were drawn to Munich from other places by this growing fashion. In those days musicians were travellers who would be engaged for a particular event and then move on afterwards, and it was only from the late 15th century – the time of Duke Siegmund and particularly Albrecht IV – that musicians started to be able to find permanent employment in Munich. These positions were in the newly-founded court orchestras – though these institutions could be quickly disbanded if economic circumstances required it.

One of the most important moments in Munich’s musical history was the day the great Roland de Lassus, better known as Orlande de Lassus, entered Munich’s musical stage. Johann Jakob Fugger had brought him from Antwerp as a tenor to perform in the court of Duke Albrecht V. De Lassus’ appointment as court conductor in 1563 proved to be historically significant, as he would go on to become the most prominent musician of the age, along with Roman composer Palestrina, and make Munich the musical centre of Europe – which at the time really meant the musical centre of the world. De Lassus did compose a great deal of sacred music, though unlike Palestrina, he did not exclusively write church pieces.

Today, Orlande de Lassus’ compositions are among the showpieces of the Bavarian state library, even though his name remains virtually unknown to the general public. Fun fact: After the death of Michael Jackson, the pop singer’s fans promptly redecorated a monument to de Lassus on Promenadenplatz to commemorate their idol. You can still experience masses with live music composed by de Lassus and Palestrina to this very day, at the city’s Theatine church. De Lassus owned a house on the Platzl old town square as well as a country residence near Fürstenfeldbruck.

During the 13th century, Munich’s main church of St Peter ran a school for choirboys: because women were not permitted to sing in church, the high vocal registers of young boys were used instead.

The first high point for secular music was during Fasching, the region’s carnival season, at the new opera house at Salvatorplatz, which opened in 1657. This was also the site of a premiere in 1775, of a new opera: “La Finta Giardiniera” (The Pretend Garden Girl) by one 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The opera house stood more or less on the current site of the city’s Literaturhaus and was torn down in 1802. The building was planned as a court opera house during the reign of Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, and was also Germany’s first opera house.

Soon after the Salvatortheater opened, Munich boasted a total of four musical theatre venues: the Heckentheater or Gartentheater from 1719, the theatre in Nymphenburg from 1723 and the Baroque-style Logentheater in St George’s Hall in the Residenz palace from 1740. The success of these venues closely follows the country’s financial situation over time: the War of the Spanish Succession under Maximilian II Emanuel made an impact, as did the subsequent War of the Austrian Succession during the reign of Karl Albrecht. However, as soon as funds were available again, large festivals with music were held, along with the Fasching carnival operas that would soon become legendary, and ultimately Munich became a centre for Italian opera under Maximilian III.

Alongside court music and the emerging bourgeois music culture, the city also continued to enjoy a strong church music tradition. This thrived in the city’s 35 churches and 17 convents, which were still shaped by the agenda of the counter-reformation in the new main churches of St Kajetan, the Frauenkirche and St Michael’s Jesuit church, the last of which ran a training institution for young musical talent and counted Orlande de Lassus among the teachers. While secularisation brought this tradition to an abrupt end, when the restoration of churches began from 1816, traditional vocal polyphony works by composers such as Orlande de Lassus and Johann Joseph Fux dominated under the leadership of Carl Ett, alongside classical Viennese pieces, particularly by Johann Michael Haydn, younger brother of Joseph and a friend of Mozart’s. Nevertheless, this was a time of fundamental upheaval and development.

The new evangelical court church was inaugurated in 1800, followed by the opening of a new synagogue in 1826. In 1829, the Greek Orthodox community opened its Salvatorkirche at Salvatorplatz, which exists to this day. In 1806, Elector Maximilian IV Joseph became King of Bavaria – a change that also heralded the end of court-based musical life and the ascent of the bourgeois music scene. This cultural shift was fuelled by the Napoleonic wars, as well as national efforts to repress the once-central Italian opera in favour of the nascent German opera tradition.

Upon ascending the throne in 1825, Ludwig I intervened energetically in cultural life, banning Italian opera and abolishing the Volksschauspiel folk theatre at the Isartor, a site where folk pieces and light opera, mainly by Viennese composers, had been performed since 1811. The Residenz theatre was closed in 1831, though it was later reopened in 1856 as a venue for operas by Mozart and plays. For a time, the only official stage which remained was that of the court and national theatre, which opened in 1818. However, the Hofmusikkapelle, the state orchestra, had suffered a huge decline in quality in the intervening years, and once again in the city’s musical history it would be a single individual that succeeded in getting things moving forward again: composer and conductor Franz Lachner was appointed conductor of the Munich court orchestra in 1836, and was later promoted to General Musical Director in 1852.

Lachner kept the classics alive and in the high esteem they deserved, but he also helped new pieces gain profile and recognition. The opera repertoire at the time included works by Richard Wagner, which were performed to great acclaim for the first time under Lachner’s direction although Lachner was actually quite critical of his peer. It was only when Ludwig II brought Wagner to Munich and Hans von Bülow became conductor of the court orchestra in 1867 that Lachner took early retirement. Since then Munich’s reputation as a city of opera has grown to gain international standing, and the city is today seen as central to the celebration of Wagner’s talents given that his operas “Tristan and Isolde” (1865) and “Die Meistersinger” (“The Mastersingers”, 1868) both premiered in the city. In fact, the Wagner theatre was originally intended for construction on the banks of Munich’s Isar river, rather than its eventual site on the Green Hill in Bayreuth.

In 1948, the premiere of Egk’s “Abraxas – a Faust ballet” at the Prinzregententheater caused one of the greatest art scandals in Bavarian history. The outrage was not because of Egk’s entanglement in Nazi politics, but rather due to the content of the work: conservative politicians found it offensive, and it included forms of expression that were rather liberal for the times.

The Munich Opera Festival (Opernfestspiele) was also founded in this era. 1875 saw the city’s first ever Festsommer summer festival, which was dedicated mainly to the works of Wagner, Mozart and, from 1910, the operas of Richard Strauss as well. There was also a festival devoted solely to Mozart that took place in the Cuvilliés Theatre. The main representatives of the “Munich School” of prominent 19th-century composers were: Richard Strauss, Ludwig Thuille, Friedrich Klose, Max von Schillings and Hans Pfitzner.

The First World War also brought major changes when it came to artistic development: promising developments were interrupted, while tentative new approaches broke ground. Richard Strauss remained the most significant Munich composer during the interwar era, though others such as Carl Orff also rose to prominence, albeit to a lesser degree. Thanks to the international success of his “Der Rosenkavalier” (The Knight of the Rose), Strauss was able to afford a villa in the then-fashionable district of Garmisch, while Orff withdrew to Dießen am Ammersee in the 1930s. During the Nazi era, Orff had one student named Werner Egk who was living in Munich at the time and was active as a conductor with Bavarian radio and television broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk. He later went on to become conductor of the Berlin State Opera (Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden) and head of the composers’ division in the state society for musical performing rights. Both Goebbels and Hitler were impressed by Egk’s opera “Peer Gynt.

In 1948, the premiere of Egk’s “Abraxas – a Faust ballet” at the Prinzregententheater caused one of the greatest art scandals in Bavarian history. The outrage was not because of Egk’s entanglement in Nazi politics, but rather due to the content of the work: conservative politicians found it offensive, and it included forms of expression that were rather liberal for the times. Although the public celebrated the piece, CSU Minister of Education and the Arts Alois Hundhammer banned all further performances, and the matter was the subject of intense debate in the press and in the Bavarian State Parliament. Between the opening of the State Opera and the Prinzregententheater, a third opera theatre emerged: the Gärtnerplatztheater opened in 1865 as a privately funded folk theatre and was elevated to the status of royal theatre in 1873. This theatre was dedicated solely to light opera, which it continues to present to this day alongside a selection of operas, ballets and musicals. The National Theatre and the Bavarian State Opera focus on classic operas dating from the Baroque period to the present day, as well as ballet, symphonic concerts and, during Fasching, Lieder recitals.

Munich has always been an important centre for training musicians as well. The Central-Singschule school of singing was founded in 1830, followed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1846, which went on to become the College of Music and is now the University of Music and the Performing Arts. It is located on Arcisstraße in the former Führerbau of the Nazi party, and also has sites at Luisenstraße 37 – Reaktorhalle and the Carl Orff Auditorium as performance spaces – on Wilhelmstraße (a ballet academy), at the Prinzregententheater (postgraduate courses) and in the Gasteig cultural centre. The institution used the state-run Richard Strauss Conservatory as a second training centre for many years. This was integrated into the University in 2008. The Institut für Musikwissenschaft (Institute of Musicology) at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich on Ludwigstraße, which has been open since 1894, is another academic research and training centre. Its lecture hall is located on the third floor: it is from here that the White Rose Nazi resistance group threw their flyers into the atrium, leading to the arrest and execution of its members. One of these executed members was Professor Kurt Huber, a lecturer at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft who is buried in the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich-Hadern.

Today, many professional and semi-professional ensembles and choirs shape the city’s musical life: the Munich Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonic Choir and the Bavarian State Orchestra of the Opera along with the opera choir, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the radio orchestra, the radio choir, the Munich Symphony Orchestra and multiple smaller orchestras, choirs and early music ensembles, church music societies, singing groups – in total there are over 400 musical associations in Munich.

There are also new forums for presenting classical music, particularly thanks to Bayerische Rundfunk and its orchestras. Early efforts in Königsplatz eventually evolved into the Klassik Open Air music festival, now an institution in its own right, which takes place each year at Odeonsplatz and attracts locals and visitors with performances from both the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, along with their principal conductors and first-rate soloists.



Text: Helmut Mauró; Photos: Frank Stolle


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