|Copyright 2014 by
Jonathan B. Hall.
All rights reserved.
Jonathan B. Hall
Musician and Writer
Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel
In the spring of 2010 (to be exact, on Holy Saturday morning, April 3), I was sitting at the
piano in my living room, taking a quiet morning before going up to Vail's Gate, New
York--where I was due to play the Easter Vigil for the Convent of Saint Helena.
I was playing through the misattributed works in the Bach catalog: those pieces that enjoy
the rare privilege of a BWV number, but have turned out to be not by J. S. Bach.
One of them was a prelude in A minor. It was clearly a harpsichord piece. I began to play
through it. It was marked adagio molto. When I came to the following figurations I was
In an instant, I had the insight: this is the composer of 565. There is no passage in Bach
that does this kind of thing, but there is almost an identical passage in 565 that does.
Further research led me to the work of Isolde Ahlgrimm, who had studied this movement
years earlier and decisively re-attributed it to Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel (1697-1775) of
Nuremberg. What she did not do, though, is make the critical additional step: to see that
her re-attribution strongly implied the re-attribution of 565. (Make a mental note of it: this
prelude has a BWV number. Dretzel has fooled us once already.)
I immediately contacted the library Ahlgrimm had visited, and got a scan of the entire piece
by Dretzel--his Divertimento Armonico or Harmonische Ergötzung. I studied it and found
myself growing rapidly more and more convinced of my insight. Within a month I had
drafted a 6,000 word article and mapped out my musical examples.
Then, of course, began the parade of non-responses from musicology journals and
conferences alike, and (finally) one extraordinary reply from an editor who asked: "Couldn't
you have picked another candidate composer?"
Eventually, I presented the paper to Jerome Butera of the Diapason. He accepted it, and it
finally came out in January, 2013. The piece is titled "BWV565: Composer Found?" There
was one colorful objection, accusing me of "musicology in retrograde." I wrote a response,
and the other party withdrew his commentary from publication; so you haven't read either
Meanwhile, I have played the piece in public twice: for its North American premiere (only
one copy exists, after all!), in 2010, in Indianapolis, at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church; and
in Montclair, New Jersey, in 2012, at Central Presbyterian Church. In both cases, I
contextualized the piece in the South German, largely Catholic tradition of organ playing
that American academics still largely overlook.
Most recently, I presented on the fugal movements--for unlike the Bach Italian Concerto, the
Dretzel Divertimento ends with a fugue--at New York University, for a graduate seminar in
counterpoint. Also, I have presented my thesis at the national AGO convention in Boston,
June 2014. A west-coast colleague has written enthusiastically to tell me that he has
begun to play the second movement (the proper title of which is "adagiosissimo," a
solecism only found here, and in Bach's early Capriccio and later Orgelbüchlein) at recitals,
and is making converts to the cause wherever he goes.
I have long chafed at the assertion--backed up by exactly nothing--that Bach "must" have
written the Toccata and Fugue in D minor--the famous "Phantom of the Opera Song" --as a
teenager. This struck me as highly unlikely on the face of it. Compare the pieces we can
certainly date to Bach's nonage, and none of them even remotely hint at this idiom. The
reasons for the attribution are two: the notion that Bach might have been undisciplined in
his youth, a "clavier hussar" in the popular term; and that it's harder to dispute the
authorship of juvenilia.
Likewise, all the copy-and-paste sites online-- Answers, Wikipedia, Barnes and Noble, even
bach-cantatas.com (which should know better)-- blithely assert that the Divertimento is
"influenced" by Bach's Italian Concerto. It is no such thing. Play them both and you will
understand my firmness. The sole basis of this belief is that Dretzel's title page and
introductory text are given in both Italian and German. No Bachian influence is needed to
explain that, for one who understands the confluence of musical cultures in the south of
Germany at the time.
(Also: Bach's work is published, albeit in Nuremberg itself, in 1735; making Dretzel's
verbiage about "this my first effort" extremely unlikely, as his massive hymnal had been
published in 1731. The Divertimento would not be his "prima prova/erste(r) Versuch" at all
in that case.)
More disappointing is the scholarship that still passes hand-to-hand the idea that Bach
wrote the piece as a youth. It's an easy idea to master, and fits our notions of "genius."
But it's unproven and unwarranted; especially when a better candidate is hanging about.
Let's let go of Bach and embrace Dretzel--just for this one piece. We gain more than we
lose; for we lose a myth, but we gain a priceless insight into the actual organ practice of a
large area that, up to now, we have simply flown over on the way to Leipzig.