Bach and Dretzel: About Influence

This piece first appeared on my public Facebook page (/JBHorganist), on July 1, 2014. It has been slightly edited.

There’s a problem with the many sites online who all say, copy-and-pastewise, that Dretzel’s Divertimento Armonico is “influenced” by Bach’s Italian Concerto. Let me unpack that for a second.

First of all, the word is always “influenced.” There is never any explanation of this term, any specifics, and as far as I know, no one has seen the outer movements (besides one or two people, myself included).

Secondly, Bach published Clavierubung II (containing the Italian Concerto) in 1735, and the Divertimento was published between 1719 and 1740, witness the reference to the Church of St. Aegidius. (Dretzel’s masterful hymn collection, which I’ve also fortunately found, is dated to 1731, and also references St. Aegidius.)

So, for there to be an “influence” of any type to be determined at some point, there is a maximum of five years in play: 1735 to 1740, in which year Dretzel left the Aegidienkirche. Yet the preface to the Divertimento, in both its Italian and German versions on successive pages, refers to the piece as “questa prima prova/dieser erste Versuch.” That is: “this first effort.” So it likely predates the magisterial hymnal, with its many-paged and deeply theoretical preface, by some time. And remember, the hymnal comes out in 1731.

The timeline favors my view that there can be no prima-facie “influence” of any vague or specific kind at all from the Italian Concerto to the Divertimento Armonico. Even if Dretzel bought the first copy and ran back home with it, he could hardly claim that his Divertimento was a “prima prova,” because he’d published a major hymn collection with extensive preface in 1731.

Here’s my best guess as to the timeline:

1717: studies with Bach at Weimar
1719: Goes to St. Aegidius, Nuremberg
1719-1725: Publishes Divertimento
1725-1731: prepares hymnal (975 hymns, preface, indices)
1731-? Composes BWV565 (Ringk’s ms. holds clues)
1735: Bach publishes Italian Concerto; no one in Nuremberg needed his permission to use Italian.
1740: leaves St. Aegidius
1775: dies the respected organist of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg.

The source of the “influence” canard is the usual tangle of misconnected odds and ends of scholarship, run through the magic of Wikipedia and the other soi-disant online authorities.

To dig deeper into the music, there is no influence at all. The style of the Divertimento is a tight, close, consistent match with BWV565, strongly arguing the same compositional voice. But there is no such case to be made with the Italian Concerto, at all, for even a measure.

A final thought: not many people were “influenced” by Bach. Krebs was, and who plays his pastiches? But Bach, genius that he was, was influenced by many voices. A forthcoming article on the Nicolai family will argue that the “apostolic succession” from Bach’s tutelage may not have meant as much as we would like.

As G. K. Chesterton said in another context, you can get your head into heaven, but you can’t get heaven into your head; if you try, your head will crack.

For organists, all roads do not lead to the north of Germany. To insist that they do is to commit a species of idolatry. Open up to the wider world of creativity.

About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food. Cat lover, too.
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