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The forgotten genius of the baroque

Lisa Besuch/gnbNovember 13, 2013

November 13th marks the 350th birthday of Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, a man forever immortalized by having a street named after him in the German city of Halle. But who exactly was he?

Image: Thomas Ziegler

This question about who he was remained unanswered even for the residents of Halle's Zachowstraße in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. That is, until 2009, when an additional explanatory plate was added to the street sign solving the mystery. It said: "Composer, organist and teacher of Handel."

A father's influence

Born in Leipzig on November 13th 1663, the young Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow was surrounded by instruments at an early age. He grew up in a musical family which soon located to the central German town of Eilenburg an der Mulde, where his father took up office as a piper with the alta capella, the local wind band common in continental European towns at that time.

Since the 14th century, town pipers were responsible for signaling each hour of the day - sometimes with hymns or quiet pieces. City pipers were increasingly engaged as accompaniment for local festivities, concerts and operas, and the young Friedrich Wilhelm spent five years learning this trade under his father. However, it was the organ which interested him most and would develop into a life-long love affair.

Stadtpfeifer um 1555
City pipers in a 16th century carvingImage: gemeinfrei

Initial success in church

Friedrich Wilhelm's career trajectory was steep. By the age of 20, he was the official organist at the Marienkirche church in Halle and also conducted the city choir and town musicians. He also began composing his own cantatas. His choral and organ pieces, often written for several voices, were dramatic and expressive. According to church musician Hermann Max, Zachow's works shouldn't be restricted only to a religious setting: "In my opinion, this is music of the highest quality. It ought to be listened to all the time, not just during church services."

From the Middle Ages to the Romantic era, central Germany was arguably the region with the richest musical culture, with both urban and rural areas producing their fair share of well-known and significant composers. Zachow's cantatas and oratorios soon led to him becoming one of the Baroque era's most significant composers, with his choral fugues being worthy precursors to works which would come later from Johann Sebastian Bach.

An influential teacher

Zachow's fame didn't just make him rich during his lifetime; it also ensured that he became a role model for many aspiring young musicians and, as a teacher, he was more than happy to share his knowledge and expertise. The well-known Baroque organist Johan Gottfried Kirchhoff and composer Johann Gotthilf Ziegler numbered among his students.

Marktkirche in Halle Orgel
The organ at the historic Marienkirche church in HalleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But arguably Zachow's most famous student was one Georg Frideric Handel, who received organ, violin and oboe lessons. The time Handel spent studying at Zachow's School of Church Music certainly laid the foundation for his later compositional craft and led to his first job as organist at the Halle Cathedral when he was only 17 years old. Without Zachow's guidance and influence during his formative years, it is unlikely Handel would have gone on to enjoy the status as one of Europe's great masters.

Zachow's influence, predominantly heavy use of repetition and word painting, is echoed in Handel's 1707 psalm "Dixit Dominus" - one of the composer's earliest works, completed when he was 21. Church musician Hermann Max, who plays at the annual Handel Festival in the town of Halle, noted that: "It's typical of music at the end of the 17th century that it's composed and played as if it were spoken. I think it's wonderfully rhetorical and I always try to convey that when playing it."

Deutschland Großbritannien Geschichte Musik Komponist Georg Friedrich Händel
Zachow's famous pupil: George Frideric HandelImage: ullstein bild - AKG

A tradition through the ages

Throughout his life, Handel felt personally and professionally obliged to his former teacher. Upon Zachow's death in 1712, Handel provided financial support to his widow and five children.

Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow: a composer whose legacy is much greater than the small, unremarkable plaque installed on a residential street in Halle. Indeed, his music and compositions extend far beyond his own time.