Municipal Music Association of Düsseldorf (Städtischer Musikverein zu Düsseldorf e.V.), established in 1818
Concert Choir of the State Capital of Düsseldorf
(Konzertchor der Landeshauptstadt Düsseldorf)
Städtischer Musikverein zu Düsseldorf e.V.
FAO: Manfred Hill
Robert Schumann did not even spend four years in Düsseldorf but, still, these years are amongst the most important ones in his biography. He had been appointed there as municipal music director. It was the first and also the last time that Schumann held public office. His obligations as music director consisted in running the choir association and holding each year ten concerts with the municipal orchestra and four church music events at the two principal parish churches of St Maximilan and St Lambertus. For this, he was paid 700 thaler per annum which was considered quite a good income.
Apart from Leipzig and Berlin, Düsseldorf in the 19th century was one of the major music towns in Germany. This reputation came about mainly due to the tradition of the Lower Rhinemusic festivals, founded in 1818, which were held every year at Pentecost in either Cologne, Elberfeld, Aachen or Düsseldorf alternately. At the beginning of 1818, an association of music lovers was constituted to prepare and conduct the first music festival, held on 10th May 1818, which saw the performance of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, conducted by municipal music director Friedrich August Burgmüller. This is considered the birthday of the Municipal Music Association of Düsseldorf which soon proved to be the soul of the town’s public musical life. After some time, it managed to attract all devotees involved in playing music so that eventually no other such associations were around. From now on, the Municipal Music Association not only played concerts itself but also became host of such concerts.
The first music directors in Düsseldorf included well-known figures whose position in musical history at that time already could be considered definitely above the level of musical quality of the newly founded Association. Appointing these was obviously dictated by a desire for strong representation: Decisions were made on the basis of prestige values and not in terms of solutions to internal musical issues which the Association had to struggle with in the early days. The appointments of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Robert Schumann to the post of municipal music director were thus far-sighted and by all means ambitious decisions, even if the terms of office of both composers were to prove not particularly fortunate.
Whilst the mixed choir of the Music Association consisted of amateurs only, the orchestra, along with the music-loving devotees, also included a few professional musicians on municipal salaries. The brass players were eventually recruited from the Prussian military musicians stationed in Düsseldorf but the instrumentation changed frequently. This led to adverse fluctuations in the orchestra. Moreover, the three groups thus arising differed in social status as well as in musical competence and motivation. For most of the playing amateurs, the aspect of socialising and leisure activities was clearly important for their participation in the orchestra. Apart from the problems inevitably brought about by the diverging levels of the individual participants, the necessary musical seriousness come off badly from this altogether. Not least, the tensions naturally arising between professional musicians and amateurs (drawn in large part from the town’s dignitaries) held latent potential of resentment.
It was precisely Schumann with his high demands on musicality, discipline and determination for performance, to encounter such heterogeneous composition on his arrival in Düsseldorf. Quite having a premonition but not fully realising the situation, he first appeared well pleased, similar to Dresden before a choir association, to now preside for the first time over his “own” orchestra. Having at his disposal both bodies of sound, he was able to compose, to try out his own works with both of them, and to eventually have them premiered. It was not least due to this circumstance that well of over a third of the entire Schumann oeuvre was created in Düsseldorf, including some of his most famous works.
Upon his arrival in September 1851, the new music director was welcomed enthusiastically. During the first months, the press lauded the high artistic excellence of his performances, as well as the appealing composition of the concert programmes. Very soon thereafter, however, this precisely sparked a fierce debate with the administration committee of the Music Association. In this debate, not only was the fact criticised that Schumann had deleted many “lighter” bravura pieces from the repertoire, which the public favoured and was accustomed to, and that, instead, he had included in the programme (apart from his own ones) some rather unknown works at that time which were considered difficult to perform, such as by Beethoven, Bach, Handel and Gluck, as well as by the contemporaries Mendelssohn, Gade and Hiller, but, in particular, the fact that he considered himself solely in charge of decisions regarding content of the concerts. It is true that his predecessor Ferdinand Hiller had also attempted during his term of office to break up the well-trodden pattern but apparently without that level of consistency with which Schumann now proceeded.
Another issue arose due the fact that the singers were used to being conducted from the piano during rehearsals. The method applied by Schumann to conduct from a stand, indeed still relatively rare at that time, caused the choristers enormous difficulties. Clara Schumann eventually joined him in the rehearsals and took over the piano part. In addition, in order to compensate for the taciturnity and bad comprehensibility of her husband, she even tried to convey to the musicians his interpretation and correction instructions. But still so, no comprehension could be achieved which was due not least to the basic problems of which Schumann had well been informed by his predecessors in office, Mendelssohn and Rietz. Bearing this in mind, he should have acted from the very beginning much more pointedly before the two bodies of sound, choir and orchestra, which were predominantly composed of amateurs, military musicians including a few professional musicians only, and were tainted with this Rhenish mentality so alien to him. Instead, the divergences colliding with regard to demands, views, mentality and procedures were of a nature that they simply turned out in surmountable in the course of time.
All participants obviously found it difficult to classify Schumann’s behaviour. Schumann, rather averse to social life, now saw himself confronted for the first (and also last) time with a situation in which he had to act and pass for a public authority. He adjusted himself to this unfamiliar role most reluctantly only, given that it was deeply contrary to his nature. Before the final breakup when Schumann terminated his activity in the autumn of 1853, due to constant quarrelling between the music director and the choir association, an agreement had been reached through the choir’s management that Julius Tausch was to conduct all choir rehearsals as Schumann’s deputy, whilst the music director himself was to be left with rehearsing the orchestra and conducting the performances only. The Lord Mayor of Düsseldorf, Ludwig Hammers, subsequently obtained that the sick music director would still be paid the full salary for 1854.
After the Schumann era, the administration committee probably understood that a famous name at the top of the Music Association was not necessarily a guarantee to compensate for certain shortcomings of the musical infrastructure. In fact, the expectations placed in Schumann’s successor, Julius Tausch, were not really be satisfied either, but at least a sense of continuity could be developed through his ongoing work over many years. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the overall situation definitely changed for the better, which allowed the Municipal Music Association to build up its international reputation soon thereafter.
Irmgard Knechtges-Obrecht, translated by Thomas Henninger
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