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  • Writer's pictureJohannes Pramsohler

The forgotten star violinist under a would-be “sun king”

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Johannes Pramsohler finds revelations in the music of Johann Jakob Kress, court concertmaster in Darmstadt. Why rediscover him today and why on modern instruments?

“If the concerto [TWV 53:D5] was not written for Pisendel, it must have been inspired by another violinist of uncommon ability,” wrote Steven Zohn in his impressive work about Telemann (Music for a Mixed Taste, Oxford University Press). Could this “other violinist” possibly have been Johann Jakob Kress? Who else but the concertmaster would have taken over the formidable solo parts of the violin concertos that are preserved in such great numbers in Darmstadt?

Not very much is known about this violinist, who obviously possessed extraordinary abilities. Probably born in 1685, the year of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, in Walderbach in the Upper Palatinate, Kress received his musical training in Oettingen under the auspice of Prince Albrecht Ernst II, and was engaged as “Kammermusiker” at the court of Darmstadt in 1712.

By that time, Darmstadt had developed into a respectable musical center. The reigning Landgrave Ernst Ludwig placed the advancement of the court’s musical life at the center of his endeavors. His mother Elisabeth Dorothea, who ruled as regent until Ernst Ludwig’s twenty-first birthday, already lay the foundation at the end of the seventeenth century in that she had the orchestra adopt the precise French style of playing. In 1709 Ernst Ludwig succeeded in engaging Christoph Graupner for Darmstadt, who in turn schooled the court musical establishment in the sensuous Italian style and in that way farsightedly introduced the “mixed German style.” In addition to Kapellmeister Graupner, the landgrave engaged numerous further musicians within the space of a few years.

Ernst Ludwig’s ambitious plans above all concerned the opera. Inspired by his visits to Hamburg, where he was celebrated as a connoisseur and patron by the circle of composers around Mattheson, Keiser, and Händel, he wanted to build a new opera house, which however was proscribed by his treasury. And thus, on 17 February 1711, the old theater (the former riding school), which had been renovated by the French architect Louis Rémy de la Fosse, was opulently inaugurated with Graupner’s opera Telemach. The instrumental music on this occasion was directed by no less than Johann Georg Pisendel, who had been invited to Darmstadt together with other guest musicians. However, Pisendel rejected the subsequent offer of a permanent position in favor of the concertmaster position in Dresden. Therefore, Kress was officially engaged the following year.

The politics of the seventeenth century, the many wars with their devastations followed by epidemics and famines, and also a princely lifestyle, which from today’s point of view was excessively opulent, had brought the landgraviate to the brink of financial ruin. The would-be “sun king” Ernst Ludwig could regularly pay neither his musicians nor his other court officials. In 1719 he already owed Kress a whole year’s salary and was even less solvent in the following years, so that Kress felt that he had no other choice than to submit his resignation. The landgrave thereupon appointed him to the position of concertmaster with a respectable salary increase, and Kress had to remain. He apparently attained such great prestige in Darmstadt that he had become indispensable.

Unfortunately, we do not know much more about Johann Jakob Kress. In her article in The New Grove, Pippa Drummond referred to Kress’s chamber music works as “unpretentious.” Had the attribution of his sonatas to Geminiani been confirmed, these works would have been seen with other eyes. His works in any event display solid craftsmanship and an interesting musical language that entirely assimilated Vivaldi’s basic compositional principles, but yet offers its very own combination of indeed economic, yet effective virtuosity and theatrical ideas. With the simplest of means, Kress creates in the violin concertos a sophisticated dramaturgy within a very confined space. Particularly striking are the ingenious violinistic techniques and an internal organization that often intervene even deeper in the orchestral musicians’ freedom than with Pisendel in Dresden, or in many a precisely marked Bach cantata. Kress writes, for example, slurred downbow staccato for the whole orchestra, places slurs over unusual numbers of notes, and proceeds in the accompanying voices with an intelligent structuring of the musical events.

Especially the first concerto of the collection, which is preserved in the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek in Münster, deserves recognition as “the godfather of the Fifth ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto.”[1] The reason for this assertion is the conspicuous thematic relationship between the two works; it is indeed entirely conceivable that Bach borrowed material from Kress. For in 1719, two years before Bach’s dedication to the margrave of Anhalt-Köthen, Ernst Ludwig apologized for having kept the Köthen concertmaster Josephus Spies for a while in Darmstadt after a guest appearance. Upon his return to Köthen, did Spies possibly have a work by Kress in his baggage?

The C-Minor Concerto (tracks 4–6 on the album) likewise begins with a unisono motif and lets the soloists have their say already after three measures of orchestral tutti. A poignant Adagio, in which the solo violin spins a sustained melody over the orchestra’s staccato (again here, too, an exact instruction for the execution in eighth notes with rest!), is followed by a whirling movement in 3/8 meter.

Kress’s violin concertos represent a complete antithesis to the other works on our program: they succinctly let expressive theatricality come into being within the shortest time, and thus contrast with the endless cadential figures in the Fasch concerto and the expansive bariolage passages in the overture by Endler.

The sixth and last work of the collection (Tracks 10–13) is the only concerto in four-movement da chiesa form. A slow introductory movement is followed by a fugato, an astonishing Adagio, and a highly spirited Allegro with virtuoso interjections by the solo violin.

Kress died in 1728, hardly in his mid-forties. He left behind a widow, who died a year and a half later, and three children of whom Ludwig Albrecht and Georg Phillip became talented musicians. However, his sons did not succeed in consolidating the potential fame of the Kress family of musicians. Owing to their early orphanhood and impoverished family background on the one hand, and through a certain social incompetence – Ludwig Albrecht reviled the Royal Chapel in Berlin, and Georg Phillip was said by his contemporaries to have had “rude manners and foul disposition” – on the other. Would fate have been more favorable had the Landgrave paid his musicians fairly?

May this recording, as a counterpart to my debut CD with works by and for the Dresden concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel, contribute to the rediscovery of a further forgotten violinist and show that fabulous music was made elsewhere in Germany in spite of more modest conditions and under considerably more adverse circumstances.


How did I prepare this recording with the Darmstädter Barocksolisten?

What was my approach when collaborating with an orchestra playing on modern instruments?

Before this recording, we had already played three projects together with the Darmstädter Barocksolisten, concentrating also on chamber music repertoire. Working in small groups provided an opportunity to go into details concerning style and sound issues. In this way, they gained experience with baroque bows and gut strings. And several of the orchestra’s members took part in the Académie Baroque du Périgord Noir, where I teach each summer. The orchestra was thus well prepared when we began to work in front of the microphones.

Opening the baroque repertoire to “modern orchestras” is not really new. Most of the time, “modern” musicians think that early music is mysterious and full of codes that they don’t understand. While that might be true for some 17th-century music, it is not for that of the 18th century. We work a lot on rhetoric, the idea of “direction” in the music, and musical structure. Then they are able to use all this background in the interpretation of their “core repertoire”.

For me it is always a great experience performing with a group well practiced in collective playing (the Darmstädter Barocksolisten are all members of the Staatstheater Darmstadt). They know each other much better than an orchestra made up of freelancers. You can focus on different subjects, and that’s always refreshing.


[1] James R. Oestreich, “Getting To Know Bach Better,” New York Times (23 January 2002), review of a concert by R. Goebel.

Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

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