E minor, the dark brown key of the Passion. A chorus of baroque strings rises up to penetrate the sea of silence with the pale light of its gut strings. It is not the rich euphony of the 19th century, but one of slender transparency and yearning warmth, that almost emaciated sound ideal of the 17th century, so rich in privation, which shimmers like a touch of gold leaf amid the darkness. The first sounds already form that archetype of pain, the falling semitone, which has become the epitome of musical melancholy since early modern times. But as soon as this sigh is heard, the theme jumps up a diminished fourth and elevates the simple lament to a motive of the cross. Musical chiaroscuro. Kyrie Eleison.
For a number of years now, the commemoration of the ‘Relief of Vienna’ on 12 September 1683 has occupied a firm place in conservative circles. The Viennese Identitarians honor it with an annual event at Kahlenberg; but the examination of aspects of our identity often remains quite superficial. ‘Winged rider’ romanticism and torchlight processions are then musically framed by Rainhard Fendrich’s I am from Austria with Identitarian-adapted lyrics, and militant contemporaries fall back on the inevitable lines of: “then the winged Hussars arrived,” from Winged Hussars by the Swedish metal band Sabaton. While this serves different forms of kitsch, it does not promote a real understanding of our history and identity.
What all this has in common, however, is the insight into the power of music to arouse emotions. If there were no historical sources for music in which the attitude towards the life of that epoch could be heard, there would still be something to be said for attempts to emotionally capture this historic event. In fact, there is a rich repertoire of music from the Habsburg Empire of the late 17th century. Even a commemorative mass celebrating the liberation of Vienna has survived, composed by Johann Caspar Kerll who, as Viennese court organist, experienced the siege and the accompanying hardships firsthand. His Missa in fletu solatium obsidionis Viennensis, the mass “for the consolation of the lamentation over besieged Vienna,” which was first performed in September 1683 and published in 1688.
Photo: Public Domain.
Johann Caspar Kerll is mostly known today only to enthusiasts as a composer of music for keyboard instruments. He was born in 1627 in Adorf, Saxony, the son of Protestant refugees from Bohemia in the midst of the horrors of the 30 Years War. His childhood must have been marked by great privation; the Vogtland suffered regular raids and looting, especially by the troops of General Holk, who had the Adorf suburbs set on fire in 1632 before dying a year later of the now raging plague.
Kerll’s father was himself an organ builder, organist, and probably his son’s first teacher in this craft. The boy’s extraordinary talent soon became apparent and, as early as the mid-1640s, the young Johann Caspar was drawn to Vienna, where—after his conversion to the Catholic faith—he was taught by the then director of music at the royal court. He continued his studies in Rome in 1648-49 with Giovanni Carissimi, where he also met the Jesuit priest and polymath Athanasius Kircher, whose Musurgia Universalis (1650) contains Kerll’s first published composition.
In 1656, Kerll became Kapellmeister at the Munich court. In 1664, during this very successful and fruitful period for him, Emperor Leopold I elevated him to the hereditary nobility. However, in 1674, intrigues by Italian musicians, led to his departure from Munich. Kerll returned to Vienna, where he initially remained without a position: claims that he was organist at St. Stephen’s Cathedral at that time cannot be substantiated due to lost church records. Finally, in 1677, Leopold I appointed Kerll as organist of the Viennese court. At this time Kerll was already friends with Alessandro Poglietti, another court organist, and as early as 1675 Kerll appeared as godfather to one of Poglietti’s daughters.
The appointment at the Viennese court represented a high point in Kerll’s career. But soon the echoes of Gryphius’ verses Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas! recurred. In August 1679, the plague broke out in Vienna and Leopold I moved the court chapel to Prague for the winter, but Kerll’s wife, who remained in Vienna, succumbed to the epidemic. The plague prompted Kerll to compose a collection of Magnificat verses, the Modulatio organica, published in Munich in 1686. In his earlier compositions for keyboard instruments, Kerll had already used tone-painting (a preference he shared with his colleague Poglietti), as for example in his Battaglia, a musical battle painting, and his popular Capriccio sopra il Cucu, a playful polyphonic work based on the cuckoo call. The direct reference to the plague of 1679 is contained in the preface to the Modulatio organica and was the first to show a tendency to include biographical events in Kerll’s oeuvre.
In 1682-83, Kerll married a second time, but a new shadow was already looming on the horizon: the Ottomans under Kara Mustafa were moving towards Vienna. At the beginning of July 1683 events came to a head: on 7 July, Leopold I left the city in a hurry, together with his court, but this time Kerll stayed behind. Even before Vienna was surrounded by Kara Mustafa’s 100,000 men, large parts of the surrounding countryside were suffering from the bands of marauding Tartars who were hurrying ahead of the army. During these days, up to 80,000 people fled from Vienna, among them probably Alessandro Poglietti and his family. He fell into enemy hands during the flight and was “miserably slain by the Tartars.” His children were sold into slavery.
When the Viennese city commander Count von Starhemberg gave the order to burn down the suburbs on 12 July, in order to provide no cover for the advancing Turks, Kerll must have been haunted by childhood memories at the sight of the blazing inferno. The year of 1632 in Adorf seemed to repeat itself—death, plague and violence, once thought to have been left behind in embattled Saxony, caught up with him again at the peak of his creativity in Vienna. On 15 July, Starhemberg refused the Ottomans’ offer of surrender, at which time he had 11,000 soldiers and 5,000 citizens under his command to defend Vienna. Right at the beginning of the siege, Starhemberg had a large pit dug for the expected dead, as well as gallows erected as a signal for potential deserters. Kerll will also have performed military service in the defence of Vienna, at the latest when all men fit for military service were mobilised on 27 July.
August was marked by mine warfare, disease, and increasing desperation in occupied Vienna. On 1 August, the Turks shelled St. Stephen’s Cathedral during Holy Mass; a few days later dysentery broke out in the city, further decimating the remaining defenders. Vigilante lynch law partly prevailed, and alleged arsonists and spies were subject to short processes. Every day, rockets lit up the night sky above St. Stephen’s to quicken the steps of the approaching relief army and send the urgent signal: “We are still here!” It was only when the Viennese observed preparations for a possible relief in the Ottoman camp on 31 August that faint hope began again to germinate.
The first days of September were once again marked by fierce fighting, and by the time of the relief of Vienna on 12 September the city was in dire straits. But Vienna was saved. Kerll had also survived the siege and immediately set about writing his consolatory Missa in fletu solatium obsidionis Viennensis. The opening of the mass combines baroque splendour with great sorrow. Divine magnificence and earthly transience go hand in hand, the omnipresent memento mori hovers like a sword of Damocles over all joy, and every sorrow has a little glow of the promises of eternity. The entire emotional world of the Baroque moved within this dichotomy.
In the Christe eleison, the falling semitone of the opening gives rise to a chromatic motif which, like the pleading entreaties of the besieged Viennese, yearns upwards to Christ the Mediator. This ascending chromaticism is also found in the second Kyrie and is underscored by heart-rending eleison cries, haunting rows of seventh-ninth suspensions that give expression to despair as sighing motives.
Photo: Courtesy of James Steakley, licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.
But the baroque man does not encounter the Most High in the Theatrum mundi, only in lament. The second theme of the Christe eleison is already characterized by an ascending sequence. Sequences were part of the Baroque craftsmanship, but they are much more than just filler. Both the Et in terra pax of the Gloria and the beginning of the Sanctus are determined by almost identical sequences and thus express that other component which, in addition to lamentation, determined the attitude to life at that time: the consolation born of divine providence, the insight into the inevitability of things and the resulting submission to the will of the Most High. Fiat voluntas tua—Thy will be done!
This consolation is also expressed in another Baroque convention, the Picardy third. The custom of ending with a major chord even in minor works was introduced as early as the 16th century for reasons of purity of tuning, but it was also used expressively in the 17th century. Nowhere is this more evident in Kerll’s Mass than in the two extended Amen sections of the Gloria and Credo. Here the contrasts of expressive lamentation and humble acceptance of fate culminate in sweeping chromatic passages in which the chaotic horrors of war are pictorially illustrated. Kerll himself noted in the score that consonances were to be avoided—but nothing lends more weight to this lament, which seems almost modern in its unleashing, than the conclusion in major, a sudden and cathartic moment of light in which man makes peace with his lot and in which salvation comes to him in the greatest need, whether by an army of relief or ultimately by the grace of God. Amen—So be it!
After the Siege of Vienna, Kerll became quiet. Several trips to Munich are documented, where, in addition to prints of his works, the only surviving portrait of him was created. In 1692, Kerll gave up his Viennese position to move to Munich, where he died a short time later on 13 February 1693.
Johann Caspar Kerll was born in the midst of the turmoil of the 30 Years War, rose to become one of the most important composers of the 17th century and, armed with sabre and musket, was one of the defenders of Vienna in 1683, the “Golden Apple”, the object of Kara Mustafa’s desire. At that time, the wave of Islamic expansion crashed against the city walls of Vienna and the centuries-long retreat of Islam from Europe began. This achievement of our ancestors was accomplished under the greatest privations in the awareness of the transience of all earthly things and with unshakable trust in God. Despite this—or perhaps precisely because of it—they did not forget the value of beauty born of the specifically occidental nature, as it also comes to us in Kerll’s Missa in fletu solatium obsidionis Viennensis. This beauty knows pain—but also consolation. In this, it resembles the love of God for his children. And like this love, the defenders of Vienna never gave up. This is our identity; it is important to remember it and to strive for it, over again and over again. Amen. So be it!
David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, writer, and the artistic director of the Telemann Centre in Magdeburg.
This essay was translated from the original German. It has been edited for length and clarity.