There is more than one War Requiem

Eleven young choristers from the famous Kreuzchor were among more than 25,000 who died in the British and American bombing of Dresden on February 13th 1945. As well as this terrible human loss the famous choir also lost its its Neo-Gothic choir school on the Georgplatz, its library of sheet music and archive, and its very raison d'être, the beautiful Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) which dated from the 13th century. The history of the Kreuzchor dates back to the 14th century, and its reputation grew through the Reformation and into the 20th century.

In 1932 Rudolf Mauersberger was appointed cantor, and the choir's reputation spread through its acclaimed performances of Bach's choral music in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition, and the Kreuzchor made two tours of the USA in the 1930s. A year before he died in 1971 Rudolf Mauersberger recorded Bach's Matthäus Passion with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The two choirs were the Kreuzchor and the Thomanerchoir directed by his brother Erhard Mauersberger from Bach's own Thomaskirche and the soloists included Peter Schreier and Theo Adam. The recording by Berlin Classics remains in the catalogue. Some may view it as inauthentic Bach, but for me it is a Desert Island disc.

Following the destruction of Dresden, Rudolf Mauersberger was determined that music would literally rise from the ashes of the choir school and Kreuzkirche. His first response was the composition of the heartwrenching funeral motet Wir liegt die Stadt so wüst which was first performed by the Kreuzchor in the burnt-out shell of the Kreuzkirche in August 1945, with Mauersberger using the rubble of the ruined church as a podium. We use the adjective 'moving' so glibly these days, but what must the young choristers have felt as they sang this lament not just for their destroyed city, but also for eleven of their own friends who had been killed only six months before? The photo below shows the Kreuzchor singing in the burnt-out Kreuzkirche in May 1946.

The composition of the choral cycle Dresden (RMWV 4/1), from which the funeral motet is taken, was followed by Mauersberger's masterpiece, his Dresden Requiem (RMWV 10). This was completed in 1948, but was revised several times with the final version dating from 1961. Although Mauersberger's reputation was built on his Bach interpretations the Requiem is not re-heated Bach, but is very much a work of the 20th century. Like Brahms' Requiem, which the Kreuzchor sings every year, the Dresden Requiem is sung in German. It draws heavily on Luther's translation and includes six Lutheran chorals which provide links back to Bach. The imaginative scoring is for three choirs (all SATB) in different locations in the church. Spatial effects are used with a distant choir of young voices representing the departed in a dreadfully moving way. The Agnus Dei is an alto solo written for the young Peter Schreier who was a chorister with the Kreuzchor at the time of the first performance. Much of the singing is a capella, but the score also uses a small ensemble of organ, celeste, trombones, double basses and percussion.

These days warhorse Requiems are trotted out for so many routine performances, but Rudolf Mauersberger's Dreden Requiem remains unknown. Which is unjust as it is a magnificent and poignant work which ranks alongside Britten's War Requiem in its use of music to reflect on the horrors of war. Perhaps its unjustified neglect is simply because it commemorates the bombing of Dresden, an episode that many on the victorious side would prefer to be written out of history. Fortunately there is a first class modern recording from 1994 by the Kreuzchor under its then cantor Matthias Jung. The recording, which is seen above, is on the Carus-Verlag label, and can be bought from the Carus website, which also site has audio samples, while several copyright-breaching copies are available on YouTube. Below is a session photo from the Requiem recording in the Lukaskirche in Dresden; the Lukaschirche was the venue for many celebrated recordings including EMI's 1970 Die Meistersinger with Karajan conducting the Dresden State Orchestra and Opera Chorus.

The Kreuzkirche was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1955. Every year since then the Dresden Requiem has been performed in the restored church. Following the performance a long procession of local people carrying lighted candles walks to the Frauenkirche. As well as remembering the dead the candlelit procession became a symbol of silent protest against the repressive East German regime until democracy returned in 1989. Rudolf Mauersberger was cantor of the Kreuzchor for forty years. Thirty-eight of these were under the tyranny and dictatorship of the Nazis and Communists, and during this time he successfully saved the choir from secularisation in the face of ideological and political pressures. Mauersberger lived to see the reopening of his beloved Kreuzkirche; but he died in 1971 some years before the fall of Communism and that other event which marked the final triumph of light over darkness in Dresden, the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche.

The Dresden Requiem is preceeded in performance (and on the superb Carus recording) by Rudolf Mauersberger's motet Wir liegt die Stadt so wüst. This is a setting in German of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Here are the words which are so horribly relevant to the tragedy that befell Dresden on the 13th February 1945.

How lonely sits the city that was full of people. All her gates are desolate. The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street. From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend. Is this the city, which was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all earth
The exact death toll from the bombing of Dresden will never be known due to the large numbers of refugees in the city; but official estimates put the figure at more than 25,000. In the whole of the Second World War the death toll on the UK mainland from bombing of cities was 60,595, and in North America it was six. As well as the tragic loss of life in Dresden our cultural heritage suffered terrible loss. Among the buildings destroyed in the city by the British and American bombs were the Semper Opera House where eight of Richard Strauss' operas were given first performances, including Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Intermezzo, and where Wagner's Rienzi and Flying Dutchman were premiered. Also destroyed were the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater where Wagner's Tannhauser was first performed, and the Frauenkirche where Johann Sebastian Bach played in an organ recital in 1736, and where Wagner conducted the first performance of his Biblical scene Das Liebesmahl der Apostel in 1843. The human and cultural loss caused by the bombing of Dresen was terrible. Rudolf Mauersberger's forgotten Dresden Requiem serves as a poignant reminder that in war there is no winning side, just two losing sides.

First published in November 2016. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


any thoughts about the Mauersberger Luke Passion setting? The last requiem settings I picked up on recording were Frank Martin and Toby Twining and I had not heard of Mauersberger before. For those of us in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. dealing with lockdown circumstances there are digital download forms of Mauersberger's work if you're stuck not being able to get to music shops and mail services are slow.
Pliable said…
WtH, thanks for that. Unfortunately I do not know the Mauersberger Luke Passion setting. So the views of you and other readers would be welcome.

I would like to say from lockdown in Norfolk, England that it is pleasing that these recent posts are attracting an appreciative and knowledgeable audience. Recently I have been coming to the sad conclusion that the only way to retain a classical readership is to report the latest COVID inspired doom and despondency story or puff the latest Zoom selfie.

Talking of 'collecting' Requiems these links may help pass the long hours of lockdown in the Pacific Northwest :
I've been on something of a Medtner and Sorabji phase since I got done writing about Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues at my blog, and I finished a big project called Ragtime and Sonata Forms which is about, well, what the title says it's about.

So I'm backlogged enough it'll take me time to get to the Requiem but it's on my to get to list for listening. You know that Medtner and Sorabji take time. :) I'm only halfway through listening to the Medtner piano sonatas. When I get to the Mauersberger I can come back and comment. As personal favorites go I've been most partial to Durufle's Requiem (which I know some people find interminably dull). As a choir director I know once put it, it feels like the kind of requiem that you could actually perform for a funeral as distinct from Verdi (bleh) or Berlioz (also bleh for me)
Fnirkly said…
Fascinating post, must have a listen to this work as soon as possible. As for scarcely-known War Requiems, I would strongly urge having a listen to Finnish-born Moses Pergament's "Den judiska sången" (The Jewish Song), finished around 1944 and premiered in Gothenburg in 1945, weeks after the liberation of Auschwitz. An immensely moving work, in essence a choral symphony of Mahlerian scope. More on it here:

A live recording from 1974 has been published in recent years:

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