Apart from the St. Thomas cantor in Leipzig, no other church music position is as highly regarded as the cantor of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche. The birthdays of two former Kreuz cantors happen to coincide this week.
Their artistic base was the Kreuzkirche, Dresden's Church of the Cross. Both were devoted conductors of the famous boy choir there, or Kruzianer, as the singers are named locally. One, Gottfried August Homilius, was born 300 years ago, on February 2, 1714; the other, Rudolf Mauersberger, 125 years ago, on January 29, 1889. Though living nearly two centuries apart, the two have several things in common, and their works are performed by many church choirs to this day.
Student of Bach
Homilius, the son of a pastor from Rosenthal in southeastern Germany's Erz Mountains, began law studies at the University of Leipzig in May 1735. But legal issues were of far less interest to him than music. After contacting the then cantor of St. Thomas' Church, he soon found himself a student of none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, writing vocal music and playing organ at Leipzig's St. Nicholas' Church during performances led by his instructor.
Homilius became a highly regarded organ virtuoso. In 1742, he auditioned on the Silbermann organ in Dresden's Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and was hired the following day as organist. In June 1755, the Dresden City Council named him Kreuz cantor and music director for the three main Protestant churches in their jurisdiction: St. Sophie's, the Frauenkirche and the Kreuzkirche.
'The best composer of sacred music'
Homilius' refined organ works, motets, oratorios and passions, composed in the new "style of sensitivity," were widely known and distributed. Copies circulated in Switzerland, Austria and even in the far off Baltic countries. Music author Johann Friedrich Reichardt agreed with contemporaries that Homilius was "the best church composer we have now."
In 1760, during the Seven Years' War, Prussian troops had bombarded Dresden and completely destroyed the old Kreuzkirche. Both the Kruzianer and their cantor found refuge in the Frauenkirche, so his works were made for performance in that singular interior space.
Kreuz cantor under the Nazis
Almost two hundred years later, on February 13, 1945, Rudolf Mauersberger, too, witnessed the destruction of his cherished Kreuzkirche. Also hailing from the Erz Mountains, Mauersberger had been appointed Kreuz cantor and choirmaster in 1930. In the longest tenure in the history of that office - 41 years up until Mauersberger's death in 1971 - he led the church's choir to world fame in the shadow of two dictatorships.
In 1933, after the Nazis seized power, Mauersberger was compelled to join the Nazi party but consistently refused to lead the Kruzianer in propaganda songs. Defying prohibitions, he even regularly led the choir in performances of works by Jewish composers.
'How the city in devastation lies'
In the night of February 13, 1945, when bombs rained over the city two months before the end of World War II, Dresden was nearly completely destroyed. Tens of thousands of people died; both the Frauenkirche and the Kreuzkirche burned to the ground. Eleven Kruzianer were among the casualties. To Mauersberger, the death of his "boys" was like the loss of his own children.
"I escaped from hell as though by a miracle," Mauersberger later said. It was clear to him that the choir must survive. In the days that followed, he began composing the disturbing motet "Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst" (How the City in Devastation Lies). "Over the course of the year 1945, I gradually managed to reassemble the choir," he said. "We lived in the cellar of the school in Dresden-Plauen and longed for the moment when we could sing our vespers in the old Kreuzkirche again."
"Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst" premiered in the ruins of the Kreuzkirche at the first post-war vespers on August 4, 1945. Among the soloists was the later star tenor Peter Schreier, who had joined the choir as a male alto in 1943.
"I remember the first performance vividly. After we'd trooped for weeks from the provisional boarding school in Plauen to the burned-out Kreuzkirche to carry away the rubble, we finally got to the point where we could perform this motet," Schreier recalled.
'He was our father'
It was a new beginning. Mauersberger had re-established the choir in a short stretch of time. Dresden residents could again hear their Kruzianer sing regularly in the Kreuz Choir vespers. In 1947, the choir boys embarked on their first post-war concert tour, and Mauersberger donated the ticket proceeds to the reconstruction of Dresden's churches.
After the German Democratic Republic was founded in 1949, its Communist regime sought to present the Kreuz Choir at party events as a "choir of the working class." To the end, however, Mauersberger adhered to the sacred music tradition of the nearly eight-centuries-old choir. At services and at the popular vespers, Mauersberger and the Kruzianer performed church music unhindered by party functionaries.
"Rudolf Mauersberger led me to music and influenced my entire artistic life," said Peter Schreier. "He was our father. All my former choir comrades venerate him to this day."