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Johann Friedrich Fasch

born: 15 April 1688
died: 5 June 1758
country: Germany

Although Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) is now a fairly minor figure in the history of music, during his own lifetime his works were highly treasured and actively sought after. Many of his works are found in the major repositories of eighteenth-century music, Dresden and Darmstadt. As we shall see, Fasch had direct contact with both of these places and he seems to have established a musical exchange network which, while keeping him up to date with the latest musical fashions, also helped increase the popularity of his own pieces.

Fasch was born into a family of lawyers and clerics. His father died when he was only eleven years old. According to an autobiography published in 1757 (the year before his death), he was heard singing by a relative who had connections with the court at Weissenfels and young Fasch was recruited into the musical ensemble there. Not long after, he became one of Johann Kuhnau’s first pupils at St Thomas, Leipzig and later read law at university. This, of course, was not unusual for musicians of the period, with families insisting that their children find a profession for life. It is unknown who financed Fasch’s studies. While in Leipzig, he became involved in what we would today call a ‘semi-professional’ musical group (then known as Collegium Musicum) which gathered socially and played the latest music. He later founded a second such group in the city, comprising mainly university students. To his delight, when he copied out parts for an overture suite which he had composed but headed with Telemann’s name, none of the musicians guessed the truth. Soon this group was providing music for university events and Fasch was commissioned to provide works, despite his own protestations that he lacked even basic knowledge of compositional techniques. In 1711, he wrote an opera for the prestigious Peter-Paul Fair in Naumburg.

At this point in his career, Fasch wanted to follow his Leipzig friends Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Johann David Heinichen by travelling to Italy which was then considered the ‘go to’ destination for hopeful young musicians. The Italians were masters of the virtuoso concerto and, above all, opera. Unfortunately for Fasch, the Duke of Gotha was not prepared to pay for such a venture, but he did give the young composer some money and letters of recommendation to travel to other German courts. Bitterly disappointed (at least, according to the autobiography), Fasch came up with a convincing plan B; he set out to visit his former prefect from St Thomas, Christoph Graupner, who had by then become Kapellmeister at the court of Hessen-Darmstadt, taking in as many of the courts with musical establishments on the way as he could. He spent more than three months with Graupner, studying composition and, presumably, playing violin in the court ensemble (he even wrote out some violin parts for his teacher’s church cantatas).

After several years employed in administrative roles (though with some musical activity), the next important station in Fasch’s career was Prague, where he was employed as a composer by Count Wenzel Morzin, whose ensemble included elite musicians from that part of the world. Their repertoire included the latest Italian works, including Vivaldi’s Op 8 set (featuring the famous ‘Four Seasons’). Indeed, the two years he spent in Prague could in some ways be considered the trip to Italy that Fasch never realized; the Morzin financial ledgers are full of payments to his agents south of the Alps for the procurement of the newest music.

In 1722, Fasch’s life changed. His friend, Stölzel (who had also worked in Prague), wrote from Gotha to tell him that the position of Kapellmeister at the neighbouring court of Anhalt-Zerbst was vacant. He arrived to take up the job in late September that year. Not long afterwards, news reached him that Johann Kuhnau (who had been in charge of music in Leipzig since Fasch’s school days) had died; Fasch was encouraged by a member of the city council to apply for the position. There were other contenders for the job, not least the most famous composer of the day, Telemann and Fasch’s former mentor, Graupner. Both were offered the job, but their current employers persuaded them not to accept by offering improved salaries and conditions.Of the remaining candidates, Fasch appears to have been the favourite, but he was not prepared to fulfil the requirement to teach Latin and seems to have withdrawn. As is well known, the position was eventually offered to Johann Sebastian Bach (more famous in those days as an organist than a composer).

Fasch remained (not altogether happily, it must be said—much of his responsibilities involved writing several cantatas per week and he did not share the court’s religious views) in Zerbst until his death in December 1758. Court politics aside, it seems that Fasch was appreciated by his employers; in the mid-1720s they paid the equivalent of his salary to the Dresden court in order that Fasch could spend several months there to keep abreast of the latest musical developments. We know from markings on Fasch’s autograph scores that Heinichen used his masses and psalm settings in services in the Saxon capital (as well as notating timings and the general reception of the works, he also re-wrote passages—sometimes extensively—suggesting that Fasch may have been taking lessons in composition). Surviving sources in Dresden’s famed Schranck II manuscripts collection also prove that Fasch took (or later sent) music to his colleague, the violinist Pisendel, who had performing materials written out by the court copyists. Indeed, a letter was published in a 1728 musical journal in which Fasch proposed the establishment of a music exchange network; specifically, he thought the sharing of complete sets of cantatas for the church year would give chapel masters more time for their other composing duties, but the scheme—which does seem to have been realized—might also have included other works before the publishing house Breitkopf and Härtel began selling music through their catalogues. It is surely no coincidence that the majority of Fasch’s surviving music is located in Darmstadt and Dresden.

from notes by Brian Clark © 2014


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