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Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (Composer)

Born: September 6, 1656 - Schönfeld, Bohemia
Died: August 27, 1746 - Rastatt, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Johann Caspar [Kaspar] Ferdinand Fischer was a German (Bohemian) Baroque composer and Kapellmeister. Johann Nikolaus Forkel ranked Fischer as one of the best composers for keyboard of his day, however, partly due to the rarity of surviving copies of his music, his music is rarely heard today. There can be no doubt that J.C.F. Fischer belongs to the ranks of the important and influential keyboard composers of the 17th/early 18th centuries. Unfortunately, the sparse surviving biographical information provides only a highly incomplete picture of his life and his musical development. No biographer ever seems to have deemed J.C.F. Fischer worthy of his pen, nor are there any contemporary accounts to help clear the mists of time.

According to recent research, he was born in 1656 in Schönfeld (in the Egerland region of Bohemia, south-west of Karlsbad) and died in 1746 in Rastatt. In Schlackenwerth, a small town at the foot of the Erzgebirge mountains, J.C.F. Fischer attended the grammar school run by Piarist friars (the order was founded in Rome in 1617 to promote the education of the poor). It was presumably here that he received his first lessons in composition - the monastery archive contains an early work by him - and learnt to play the keyboard and the violin. The Schlackenwerth court band doubtless held a special appeal for J.C.F. Fischer, taking as it did its members from a wide variety of the different musical centres of the day. This gave the young musician the opportunity to become acquainted with a broad range of music, and in addition to perfecting his instrumental skills J.C.F. Fischer probably played in the concerts given by the orchestra. A few years later, in any case (sometime between 1686 and 1689), he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Saxon-Lauenburg court in Schlackenwerth.

The profund polyphony and refined counterpoint of J.C.F. Fischer 's compositions suggest that he studied with other prominent teachers. He could have taken advantage of the possibilities offered by the Dresden court, which was not so far away, and he might even have had close personal contact with the Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692, a pupil of Heinrich Schütz).

One composer whose influence is evident throughout J.C.F. Fischer's œuvre is Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), one of the leading and most respected musical figures of his time. To this day, we cannot be sure whether J.C.F. Fischer had the chance to study in Paris, but he definitely took the opportunity to make an intensive study of Lully's work in two places closer to home. In the Bohemian capital Prague, in particular, Georg Muffat (1653-1704) helped disseminate Lully's style. As a widely-educated composer who was familiar with the different stylistic schools of the day, Muffat also attended performances of Lully's music in Paris and even met the master in person. J.C.F. Fischer travelled to Prague several times in the retinue of his employer - Schlackenwerth maintained a residence in the city -, where he met the local musicians and gathered valuable information about the special features of the Lully style of playing.

J.C.F. Fischer derived a similar level of inspiration from the relations of the Schlackenwerth court with Schloß Raudnitz on the River Elbe, where the library contained works by Lully. Here, too, musical performances given by the court musicians at different festivities afforded J.C.F. Fischer the opportunity to get to know more compositions from Lully's pen, and the Frenchman's works were doubtless a valuable source of inspiration to him just a few years before he started to write orchestral suites of his own.

The year 1690 saw the marriage of Princess Francisca Sibylla Augusta of Sachsen-Lauenburg (1675-1733) to the Margrave of Baden, Ludwig Wilhelm (1655-1707), who had gained the nickname "Turkish Louis" after he successfully repelled the invading Turkish armies. As a result of the marriage, the royal household was to relocate to Rastatt, and at the same time J.C.F. Fischer was appointed Kapellmeister to the Baden court. Initially, though, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) with its repeated outbreaks of hostilities, prevented the move to Rastatt: the court stayed in Schlackenwerth for the time being.

Undeterred by the chaos of war, Margrave Ludwig began extending the Rastatt residence into an imposing palace, which he then moved into with his wife in 1705. When he died two years later from fatal war injuries, the Margravine took over the reins of government.

Continuing difficult circumstances and the long delay in moving the court to Rastatt plunged J.C.F. Fischer, who published his works at his own risk, into economic straits. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that at first only part of the royal household, which had been reduced as a result of the war, moved to Rastatt. J.C.F. Fischer's income from his work at court was pretty meagre at this time. But he apparently still managed to feed and clothe his family, which had now grown to six children, with the proceeds from lessons, diverse musical activities and occasional compositions. Maybe he was able to earn a reasonable living thus: we certainly don't know of any attempts on his part to apply for a post at one of the many other music-loving German courts.

Another eight years were to pass before J.C.F. Fischer was finally able to move to Rastatt in 1715 - the War of the Spanish Succession had been brought to an end by a peace treaty the year before. Under the regency of Margravine Sibylla Augusta, Rastatt now developed into a flourishing residence after the French model. The new situation doubtless led to a marked improvement in J.C.F. Fischer's (financial) circumstances.

The archives reveal little about the composer's private life and family circumstances. In 1691 he was wed to Maria Francisca Macasin von Sternenfels (1674-1698), who bore him three children before she died at an early age. Another three offspring came from J.C.F. Fischer's second marriage, presumably to a certain Anna Francisca (her surname and origin are unknown) in 1700. The composer also outlived his second wife, who passed away in 1732.

The courtly surroundings in which J.C.F. Fischer worked are clearly reflected in his compositions. In addition to eight orchestral suites in the French mode - printed in 1695 under the title Le Journal du Printemps - his œuvre contains many secular and sacred works (Singspiele, scenic dialogues, settings of the Mass, sacred concerti, psalm settings etc.) and also five one- to three-act operas which were performed on festive occasions.

A futher important category are J.C.F. Fischer's keyboard works. Particular mention should be made here of the organ cycle Ariadne Musica featuring preludes and fugues in 20 different keys. This work was published in 1702, 20 years ahead of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Part I (BWV 846-869); J.S. Bach actually held J.C.F. Fischer's work in high regard and took some of his thematic inspiration from the older man's cycle. Georg Frideric Handel also knew J.C.F. Fischer's work and sometimes borrowed from it.

In 1696 J.C.F. Fischer published Les Pièces de Clavessin [sic] for the harpsichord and related plucked keyboard instruments. In the second edition, which came out roughly two years later with the pretty title Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein ("A little bunch of musical flowers" !), he also expressly recommended the delicate-sounding clavichord for playing the pieces. In 1736, forty years after the first collection appeared, J.C.F. Fischer brought out another set of keyboard suites entitled Musicalischer Parnassus and dedicated to the nine Muses, the goddesses of the liberal arts (Parnassus was the seat of the Muses in antiquity).

One characteristic feature is the combination of the dance movements that J.C.F. Fischer uses as the basis of these works. With the exception of a few French composers, the sequence Allemande - Sarabande - Courante - Gigue became established as the 'core movements' in many keyboard suites of the time (in the 18th century, such suites were often referred to as "clavier partitas"). By way of contrast, J.C.F. Fischer became the first composer in the German-speaking countries to use many of the French dances made fashionable by Lully (ballet, bourée, gavotte, menuet, passepied etc.) in his keyboard works. He didn't adhere to a particular order, preferring to offer the listener or performer great variety instead. (The four 'core movements' only appear in three of his 17 suites.)

Their modest dimensions notwithstanding - many of the individual movements are only 10-24 bars long - J.C.F. Fischer's music sparkles with melodic and rhythmic richness. With the relatively brief movements, J.C.F. Fischer was doubtless taking into account the instrumental skills of his potential customers. Three particularly splendid (and longer) movements are the final chaconne of the Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein, the chaconne of the suite Euterpe and the passacaglia of the suite Uranie. Here, J.C.F. Fischer shows himself to be an outstanding contrapuntist and a skilled keyboard virtuoso, who presumably cut a fine figure with his improvisations, an art much practised at the time. One fine example of his talent for variations is the aria and variations in E minor from the Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein.

Both attractive and striking is J.C.F. Fischer's combination of densely-woven preludes, whose diversity is evident in the choice of title alone (Praeludium, Toccata, Tastada, Ouverture, Harpeggio etc.), with the "light-footed" dance movements that follow them. He possessed an exceptionally varied musical spectrum, reflecting the principal styles current in his time: arpeggios and virtuoso scales structured in the Italian mode (Preludes VI and VIII), overtures in the French style (the suite Calliope) and melodies with a contrapuntal emphasis in the best German tradition.

The tonal range of the Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein is selected to allow all the pieces to be played on an instrument with the range C/E-c3 and a short broken octave. This type of keyboard was especially common in the 17th century, and did not have a chromatic bass. The space-saving design favoured a transparent, 'verbal' sound and also enabled the musician to play attractive-sounding tenth fingering in some bass registers without any difficulty. To this end, the key used for the note E on other keyboards was retuned to C, while the keys usually used for F sharp and G sharp were divided into two: the front part is for the oft-needed bass notes D and E, while the back of the key plays F sharp and G sharp. The rarely-required ground notes C sharp and D sharp were done away with. This speciality of the 17th and early 18th century is found not only on some plucked instruments, but also on clavichords in particular. As mentioned above, J.C.F. Fischer recommends this type of instrument with its very delicate but infinitely nuanceable tone in his preface to the Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein.

Sad to relate, there are no inventory lists to give an idea of the types of keyboard instrument used in Schlackenwerth and Rastatt. There are, it is true, entries in the registers of the parish of St. Alexander in Rastatt that mention a "clavizimlarius" (a maker of keyboard instruments), but no instruments from any such workshop have come to light. However, it is fair to generalise that, apart from the clavichord, two main types of plucked instrument were in use by J.C.F. Fischer's contemporaries. Many harpsichords, especially those from the south of Germany, were modelled on Italian instruments, which produced a very graphic, somewhat percussive sound rich in overtones thanks to their light construction and short scaling. In regions with French influence, there was also a fondness for harpsichords built in the Franco-Flemish style, either imported from the country of origin or copied by local harpsichord-makers. These instruments are more sturdily built and have a different interior construction, so that they, too, have a rich spectrum of overtones. On the whole, though, they sound more as if they were 'singing', the notes produced are not so sharply accentuated.

Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer served the Baden court for almost 60 years, albeit with the assistance of the man who was to succeed him, Franz Ignaz Zwifelhofer (1694-1756), towards the end of his career. Sadly underrepresented in today's concert repertoire, his music reveals itself on closer study to possess a marked individuality, stylistic diversity and elaborate harmonies. The following quotation from Ernst Ludwig Gerbers Neues historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler, c1812/14 bears witness to the high esteem in which J.C.F. Fischer was held until the late 18th century: "He was among the strongest klavier players of his time and is reputed to have made the names of the ornaments and the correct way of performing on the instrument known in Germany."

J.S. Bach Connection

Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer was a major influence in transmitting the LuIlian style to Germany. Of his celebrated keyboard collections, the Ariadlle musica neo-organoedum (1702) is particularly relevant to J.S. Bach. The paired preludes and fugues cover no fewer than 19 keys. At least two of J.S. Bach's subjects in The Well-tempered Clavier Part I (BWV 846-869) suggest the influence of J.C.F. Fischer, and an early version of Bach's collection partly follows J.C.F. Fischer's ordering, with the minor mode preceding the major.

Works

Much of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer's music shows the influence of the French Baroque style, exemplified by Jean Baptiste Lully, and he was responsible for bringing the French influence to German music. J.C.F. Fischer's harpsichord suites updated the standard Froberger model (Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Gigue); he was also one of the first composers to apply the principles of the orchestral suite to the harpsichord, replacing the standard French ouverture with an unmeasured prelude.

Many compositions by J.C.F. Fischer were published during his lifetime. These published pieces include:

Le journal du printemps (1695), a collection of eight orchestral suites (ouvertures) for strings (the first and last with two trumpets ad libitum, that is, optional.) Each suite begins with an introductory ouverture and ends with a chaconne or a passacaglia. Le Journal du printemps and Georg Muffat's Florilegium (published the same year) were the first collections of orchestral suites published in Germany.
Pièces de Clavessin (1696), several harpsichord suites. The suites explore different styles and genres: for instance, the 5th one consists of an aria and nine variations, and the 8th only includes a prelude and a chaconne. This collection was later expanded by J.C.F. Fischer and the new version was published in 1698 under the title Musicalisches Blumen-Büchlein.
Vesperae seu Psalmi vespertini (1701), a collection of sacred music.
Ariadne musica (also known as Ariadne musica Neo-organoedum, 1702). This is a collection of pipe organ pieces (most written for manuals only or have optional pedal) in two parts:
- The first part contains twenty preludes and fugues in nineteen different keys and one in the Phrygian mode based on E. It is considered a significant precursor to
J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier.
- The second part contains five ricercars based on chorale melodies.
Lytaniae Lauretanae VII (1711), a collection of sacred music.
Blumen-Strauss (before 1736), a collection of organ pieces.
Musikalischer Parnassus (Musical Parnassus, c1738), nine dance suites for harpsichord, each named after one of the Muses. The suites represent a fusion of German and French styles, updating the old Froberger model by inserting many additional movements, making use of the latest dance forms of the time and using new ideas such as double minuets and double rig. As a result, some of the suites include as many as nine parts and are quite long. The longest movement of all in the Musikalischer Parnassus and the longest movement by J.C.F. Fischer still extant is the Passacaglia from the Uranie suite, which some experts believe may recount the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. This movement is probably J.C.F. Fischer's best-known piece, and has been recorded by
Trevor Pinnock and other harpsichordists.

Evidence exists of numerous lost works, among them an opera in Italian style, miscellaneous chamber works, court music and keyboard pieces.

Source: Verlag Dohr Köln (Author: Gerald Hambitzer, 2001); Wikipedia Website; Malcom Boyd, editor: Oxford Composer Companion J.S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 1999, Article author: John Butt)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (November 2008)

Works previously attributed to J.S. Bach

Chorale Prelude for organ Christ ist erstanden, BWV 746

Links to other Sites

Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (Verlag Dohr) [German/English]
Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (Wikipedia)
Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer Biography (Naxos)

Johann Casper Ferdinand Fischer (Answers.com)
Review of "L'Œuvre pour orgue (Intégrale)" (abeillemusique) [French]

Bibliography

Rudolf. Walter: Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Hofkapellmeister der Markgrafen von Baden (Quellen und Studien zur Musikgeschichte von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart), Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang (1990)

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Last update: żNovember 13, 2008 ż11:43:50