Schau mal! Was hast du getan?
Für deine Kinder,
In der alten Burg,
Machtest Du ein Bettelein
Von alten Seiten.
Bisschen bei Bisschen,
Du hast die Musik zerriss’n
In kleine Stücke.
Du hast ein weiches
Nest für die Kinder gewebt
So wären sie warm.
Kinder, Ihr nicht wisst
Sie war Komponist eines
Wee Mother Rat, look
Now what you have done here, look!
For your small children,
In the old castle,
You made a soft little bed
From some old pages.
Bite by tiny bite,
You rendered all the music
Into small pieces.
You wove the music
Into a softly lined nest
So they would be warm.
Your babes didn’t know
You were the composer of
A rat lullaby.
I would like to tell you today the story of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. He lived about the same time as Bach, and was much admired by his contemporaries. He was highly regarded by most people…but perhaps not so much by his successor as Kapellmeister in the court at Gotha, Georg Benda.
Benda wrote that he had saved the best stuff, and separated it from the “junk.” That “junk” was stored in a castle attic, where it was mostly destroyed by rats.
While I suppose it’s possible that rats could have eaten the manuscripts, I recall a time that mice got into my outdoor garden shed. I found that they had nibbled the owner’s manual for my mower into long, neat strips, and made them into a nest. And this is what I pictured that they had done with poor Stölzel’s music.
There is good news and bad news about our composer and his repurposed compositions. An obituary listed his prolific output, which included 1,358 cantatas, a passion, oratorios, masses, instrumental works, and five operas.
Of perhaps thousands of works composed in Gotha, only about a dozen survive. His operas are gone.
Luckily, however, some of Stölzel’s music was published, and works he had written for the court at Sondershausen were preserved. However, even there, Stölzel’s music was disrespected: his manuscripts were found in a box behind the organ in 1870.
A few of Stölzel’s compositions were reworked by Johann Sebastian Bach, including the aria Bist du bei mir, which for many years was attributed to Bach himself. This aria, found in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, was an aria from Stölzel’s opera Diomedes. He also performed some of Stölzel’s cantatas in Leipzig. One of Stölzel’s works, a minuet can be found in Bach’s Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
Recently, I heard a piece of Stölzel’s music performed live (where I first heard the story of his music), and what struck me was how lively and engaging it was. It’s hard to feel “meh” about this music—it grabs you by the hand and makes you run with it. Let me give you some examples to choose from:
Here is the Concerto grosso a quattro cori in D.
How about a trio sonata for organ!
Even this religious work, a Te Deum, is lively.
Here is a discussion thread of enthusiastic commentary about Stölzel on the Bach Cantatas website. And here’s a video to introduce folks to Stölzel’s Brockes Passion.
But this article would not be complete without the one work Stölzel is known best for. Here is a beautiful rendition of Bist du bei mir. I hope you will enjoy it.
With thanks to the Rebel Ensemble for their wonderful performance and the Stölzel story.
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Heinrich_St%C3%B6lzel.
Fritz Hennenberg. Das Kantatenschaffen von Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Volume 8 of Beiträge zur musikwissenschaftlichen Forschung in der DDR. Leipzig, 1976 (Benda quote on p. 22).
Lorenz Christoph Mizler (editor). “VI. Denkmal dreyer verstorbenen Mitglieder der Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften; B.”, pp. 143–157 in Lorenz Christoph Mizler‘s Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV Part 1. Leipzig, Mizlerischer Bücherverlag, 1754.
Image attribution: Illustration from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter (1866—1943) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beatrix_Potter,_Two_Bad_Mice,_Hunca_Munca_babies.png (ok, technically not a rat, but you have to admit it’s a cute picture).