A Composition Course with Karl Friedrich Zelter

October 1, 1981

Karl Friedrich Zelter was born on December 11, 1758, the son of a Berlin mason. He was apprenticed to his father's trade and became a master mason in 1783. He also studied music, including lessons on the organ and violin. Among his earliest compositions was a cantata performed at the dedication of a new organ at St. George's Church in Berlin. So enthusiastic was the theorist Marpurg about this youthful work that Zelter was encouraged to take lessons in composition from two former students of J.S. Bach: Karl Friedrich Fasch and Johann Philipp Kirnberger. By the age of 25 he had established a reputation as an excellent violinist, conductor, and composer. In 1791 Zelter joined Fasch's Singverein, a group of about 30 musicians who met regularly at members' homes to perform new works, especially those of Fasch. On Fasch's death in 1800, Zelter took over leadership of the group and expanded its repertoire, focusing particularly on the works of J.S. Bach. In 1807 he founded a Ripienschule for orchestral practice, and in 1809 the Liedertafel, an informal group of 25 singers, poets and composers who met once a month for supper and to perform their own music.

The most important of Zelter's compositions are a number of large and small choral works, secular part-songs for men's voices for the Liedertafel, and many solo Lieder with piano accompaniment. Most noteworthy among the latter are the settings of texts by Zelter's good friend Goethe.1 Zelter's songs were Goethe's favorite settings of his own poems, principally because the poet, who found Beethoven's settings of his texts too complicated and paid no attention to Schubert's, liked Zelter's rather simple, straightforward style.

As important as his performing and composing activities, however, was Zelter's career in music education. He was made a member of the Königliche Akademie der schönen Künste in 1806 and promoted to the rank of professor there in 1809. He founded institutes for church and school music in Königsberg in 1814, Breslau in 1815, and—most importantly—in Berlin in 1822. The latter he directed until his death. Among his students were not only a whole generation of German church musicians and organists who achieved local prominence, but also a number of major nineteenth-century musical figures. His most famous protégé was Felix Mendelssohn, but he also taught the great Lied composer Carl Loewe, the theorist and author of a significant composition text Adolf Bernhard Marx, and the opera composers Otto Nicolai and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Zelter died on May 15, 1832, leaving a large body of music and a number of musical institutions he had founded, but most significantly a living legacy in his students.

There is no doubt that Zelter's teaching forms an important chapter in German compositional education. Moreover it would help us greatly to understand the works of his students if we knew how they were taught to compose. Unfortunately Zelter, unlike his teacher Kirnberger and his student A.B. Marx, never published a composition method. As a result we have yet to close a yawning gap in the history of music theory, education, and composition.

The gap can be narrowed. A set of important documents for at least part of Zelter's composition teaching has been lurking in Berlin libraries for many years, awaiting discovery and study. They show us some of what Zelter taught, demonstrate how he led the student up to the writing of small pieces, and reveal some of the qualities that made him so highly respected in his own day.

To approach these documents we must first meet another musician. In Magdeburg on the day after Christmas in 1800 Gustav Wilhelm Teschner was born. He was the son of a church organist in the nearby town of Kroppenstedt and as he grew up he received lessons from his father and later from other organists in Magdeburg. In 1824 this young man went to Berlin to study singing and composition at the Königliche Institut für Kirchenmusik. Not surprisingly his most important teacher there was Professor Zelter. The material we shall consider here is nothing other than Teschner's notebooks from these courses. The period of Zelter's tutelage seems to have stood Teschner in good stead, for after further vocal study in Italy and Dresden he returned to Berlin to teach. He was appointed to a royal professorship at the ripe age of 73. In addition to his teaching he published a few small compositions and collections of vocal exercises. He also became a collector and editor of early music from both Germany and Italy. Teschner died in 1883.

The earliest of Teschner's three notebooks is entitled Gesangübungen and its title page explains that these vocal exercises are "verfasst vom Professor Zelter." It is now owned by the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in West Berlin (call number Mus. ms. 23 571). The other two books are held in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in East Berlin and are simply enough titled Zweiter Cursus der Compositionslehre and Dritter Cursus der Compositionslehre (call numbers Mus. ms. Autogr. theor. Teschner).

All three of these books are written out mostly in ink in a neat hand. There are a few entries in other hands than Teschner's; these will be mentioned below. The books themselves were large ones with plain white paper which Teschner ruled with staff lines as he needed them. The Gesangübungen are in vertical format, an economical layout for a notebook with brief entries such as vocal exercises. The other books are in oblong format, which, of course, has the advantage that the composer is not as often required to write out clefs and key signatures.

When we turn to the contents of the first volume (see Table 1), it immediately becomes obvious that Zelter's singing instruction leads the student beyond vocal exercises—the section headed "A" in the table of contents—to practice in musicianship: the sections "Tonleitern," "Intervalle," and "Chromatische Tonleiter."


TABLE 1. Gesangübungen—Table of Contents

  "A" [109 exercises, apparently designed to improve general vocal skills, notated in
the key of C]
  "Tonleitern" [vocalises consisting of simple upward and downward scales accompa-
nied by bass line, copied out in all twelve major keys beginning on C and going upward
  A. Terzen auf und Secunden absteigend
B. Quarten aufwärts und Terzen abwärts
C. Quinten aufwärts und Quarten abwärts
[A-C are accompanied and copied out like the
  "Tonleitern" above.]
  D. Sexten aufwärts
[copied in C and all sharp major keys]
E. Septimen aufwärts
[copied in C, D, E-flat]
F. Septimen abwärts
[copied in C, D, B-flat with key signature of one flat]
G. Octaven aufwärts
[copied in C, B]
  "Chromatische Tonleiter"
  No. 1 [copied in all keys as in the "Tonleitern" above]
No. 2 [two vocalises, both written in C major]
  [six exercises, with accompanying bass lines, each intended for all keys beginning on
F, but with only incipits and with bass lines omitted after the first few]
  [Vocalises in simple forms. Pages 52-53 present a binary piece in E Minor in 6/4 me-
ter—first in a neat ink copy, then in a messy penciled version. There follow sets of pieces in
each of the keys through the cycle of fifths, as follows:]
  A. [pieces in C Major, A Minor]
B. [pieces in G Major, D Minor]
C. [pieces in D Major, B Minor]
D. [pieces in A Major, F-sharp Minor]
E. [pieces in E Major, C-sharp Minor]
F. [pieces in B Major, G-sharp Minor]
[G.] [pieces in F-sharp Major]
H. [pieces in F Major, D Minor]
I. [pieces in B-flat Major, G Minor]
[J.] [pieces in E-flat Major, C Minor]
[K.] [pieces in A-flat Major, F Minor]
[L.] [pieces in D-flat Major]

After the specialized exercises for trills, he proceeds to small-scale vocalise pieces and, by implication, problems of musicality. From the singer's point of view there is surely much to be learned from these as calisthenic vocal exercises, but for the moment we must leave that aspect of the book to a separate study in the history of vocal pedagogy.

From the second section on, the student is exposed to principles of music theory. Here one meets scales, accompanying bass lines which must be regarded as unfigured continuo parts, and transpositions of each exercise to various keys. Teschner must have developed writer's cramp long before he finished copying each of the scale exercises and the first of the interval exercises in all the major keys. Perhaps he gave up or the iron fist of the teacher relaxed a bit, for later exercises are copied only in a few representative transpositions. By the time he reached the trill exercises, Teschner was able to save copying time by using only the incipits in each key.

At the end of the book vocal matters are actually yielding to compositional ones. A number of calligraphic styles appear here, giving the impression that the later part of the book comprises a collection of pieces by several of Zelter's students. It is suggestive of the change in emphasis here that the pieces are organized not by vocal or musicianship problems, but rather by abstract theoretical principles—the group of major keys with their parallel minors, progressing through the cycle of fifths. The texture of these vocalises is simple—melody and bass line. There are sometimes figures in the bass, and now and then one can find an Alberti pattern, but certainly there is nothing very complicated here in a compositional sense. These little items must be considered to have been compositional as well as vocal exercises, for several were treated as harmonization assignments. Melodies were written first, and the bass lines are sometimes missing or incomplete, sometimes in pencil rather than ink, and sometimes written in a different hand from the melodies they accompany. In at least one case a pencil trial was later gone over in ink.

Zelter must have made it clear to his students that performance, theory, and composition are inseparable aspects of general musical education. In fact he seems to have taken his voice pupil rather quickly from vocal studies to composition. Teschner had come to Berlin early in 1824; by August he was ready to proceed to the work represented by the Zweiter Cursus der Compositionslehre (see Table 2).


TABLE 2. Zweiter Cursus der Compositionslehre beym Herrn Professor Zelter / 1824—Table of Contents

No. 1 16 Aug. 1824 [C Major]
No. 2 d. 18 Aug. 1824 [G Major]
No. 3 d. 19 Aug. 1824 [D Major]
No. 4 d. 23 Aug. 1824 [A Major]
No. 5 d. 24 Aug. 1824 [E Major]
No. 6 d. 25 Aug. 1824 [B Major]
No. 7 d. 2 Septbr. 1824 [F Major]
No. 8 d. 6 Septbr. 1824 [B-flat Major]
No. 9 d. 7 Septbr. 1824 [E-flat Major]
No. 10 d. 10 Septbr. 1824 [A-flat Major]
No. 11 d. 14 Septbr. 1824 [E-flat Major]
No. 12 d. 15 Septbr. 1824 [B-flat Major]
No. 13 d. 17 Septbr. 1824 [F Major]
No. 14 d. 18 Septbr. 1824 Dorisch (ohne vol21id276) D moll
[Jesu, meine Freude]
No. 15 d. 20 Octbr. 1824 Phrygisch [O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden]
No. 16 d. 21 Octbr. 1824 Lydisch (ohne vol21id276)
No. 17 [undated] Mixolydisch
No. 18 d. 27 Octbr. 1824 Aeolisch
No. 19 d. 28 Octbr. 1824 die Aufgabe im Alt
[Auf Christen, bringet Preis und Ehr]
No. 20 d. 5 Novbr. 1824 Melodie im Tenor
[O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden]
No. 21 d. 9 Novbr. 1824 Melodie "Jesus, meine Zuversicht"
im Basse
No. 22 d. 10 Novbr. 1824 Mel: Jesus, meine Zuversicht
No. 23 d. 11 Novbr. 1824 Mel: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
No. 24 [undated] Mel: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
No. 25 d. 23 Novbr. 1824 Mel: Nun ruhen alle Wälder
No. 26 d. 28 Novbr. 1824 Mel: Ach Gott wie manches Herzeleid
No. 27   Mel: Nun danket alle Gott, etc.
No. 28   Mel: Straf mich nicht in deinen Zorn, etc.
No. 29   Mel: Ein' feste Burg ist uns. Gott
No. 30   Mel: Allein Gott in der Höh' sey Ehr

[Nos. 27 to 30 were never composed; only the titles appear.]

The second book of the three is devoted to four-part chorale-style settings. These are notated in open score, using vocal clefs, and move in predominantly half notes. Almost every piece is dated, the course lasting from August 16 to November 28, 1824. Teschner's hand is the only one to be seen here except for a few simple corrections by Zelter—a wrong pitch, wrong note values, hidden parallels, and so on.

The procedure in these pieces was first to add a bass line and figures to a given melody, then to complete the alto and tenor parts.2 In the first month of the course Teschner undertook the settings of 13 chorale-style melodies, proceeding through all the major keys according to the cycle of fifths—first the sharp keys from C to B, then the flat keys from F as far as A-flat, then back to F. Except for a very few passing tones, the chordal homophonic texture is maintained throughout. These pieces are untitled and the soprano lines do not appear to be taken from actual chorales.

After a one-month vacation Teschner returned to his composition course and was assigned five chorales with modal melodies: Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. These include two familiar chorale melodies, "Jesu, meine Freude" (Dorian) and "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" (Phrygian). As one might anticipate, the true nature of the task here is to find workable major-minor settings for the different phrases of the modal cantus, and not actually to set the modal melody in a modal context. These five pieces occupied Teschner through the second half of October.

Zelter's next assignment was the setting of chorales with the cantus firmi in other voices than the soprano. Number 19, written on October 28, is subtitled "die Aufgabe im Alt," and the entire first verse of the chorale text "Auf Christen, bringet Preis und Ehr" is written below the alto staff. The next exercise, subtitled "Melodie im Tenor," is a setting of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden." The last of this set is thoroughly labeled "Melodie 'Jesus, meine Zuversicht' / im Basse," and dated November 9.

The final group of settings comprises studies in ornamental figurations applied to the overall block-style texture. These were to bring the total number of compositions to 30, but Teschner completed them only as far as No. 26. Each of the chorale melodies is identified in the manuscript, and the dates run from November 10 to 28. Number 22 was first written out in straightforward half notes, then divisions were applied, using eighth-note ornamentations, occurring in all the voices at various times (see Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 - Setting of "Jesus, meine Zuversicht" by G.W. Teschner.



Number 23 was copied without the benefit of a preliminary chordal version; the ornament featured is a five-note turning figure. Numbers 24 to 26 make use of quadruplet, triplet, and sextuplet divisions respectively.

November 28, the date of the last chorale entered in the book, was the first Sunday of Advent in 1824. Apparently master and pupil took a Christmas vacation during the month of December—at least from their composition lessons, though like all musicians, they probably had a good deal to occupy them during the Christmas season! Immediately after the New Year began, Teschner undertook his third course under Zelter.

Zelter's Dritter Cursus . . ., which occupied Teschner from January through May of 1825, consisted of the composition of original pieces in small dance and variation forms: minuet, gavotte, chaconne, and polonaise. The book includes not only music, however, but also a prose description of the structure and style of each genre (see Table 3).


TABLE 3. Dritter Cursus der Compositionslehre / beym Herrn Professor Zelter / 1825—Table of Contents

Menuet [prose description]  
Menuetto I d. 6/7 Januar 1825
Menuetto II d. 10/11 Januar 1825
Menuetto III d. 14/15 Januar 1825
Menuetto IV d. 18/20 Januar 1825
Menuetto V d. 23/24 Januar 1825
Menuetto con tre variazione [undated]
Gavotte [prose description]  
Chaconne [prose description]  
Polonoise (alia Polacca) [prose description]  
Gavotte I d. 22 Februar 1825
Gavotte II d. 23 Februar 1825
Gavotte III d. 1 März 1825
Gavotte IIII d. 1 März 1825
Gavotte V d. 1 März 1825
Gavotte VI d. 1 März 1825
Gavotte VII d. 1 März 1825
Gavotte VIII d. 2 März 1825
Gavotte IX d. 2 März 1825
Gavotte X d. 2 März 1825
Gavotte XI d. 3 März 1825
Gavotte XII d. 3 März 1825
Gavotte XIII d. 5 März 1825
Gavotte XIV d. 5 März 1825
Gavotte XV con variazione [undated]
Gavotte XVI d. 15 März 1825
Gavotte XVII d. 15ten März 1825
Gavotte XIIX d. 15 März 1825
Gavotte XIX d. 16 März 1825
Gavotte XX d. 16 März 1825
Gavotte XXI d. 16 März 1825
Gavotte XXII d. 17 März 1825
Gavotte XXIII d. 17 März 1825
Gavotte XXIV d. 17 März 1825
Chaconne d. 25/30 März 1824 [sic]
Chaconne II d. 16/18 April 1825
Polonoise I [undated]
Polonoise II [undated]
Polonoise III d. 20ten May 1825
Polonoise IV [undated]
Polonoise V comp. d. 28 May 1825
Ciaconna (Chaconne) von Joh.  
  Kuhnau (nicht J.C. Kuhnau)
Gavotte von J.S. Bach [BWV 815]
Gavotte von J.S. Bach [BWV 816]
Gavotte von J.S. Bach [BWV 817]
Gavotte aus der Oper Armide von Gluck  
Gavotte von G.F. Händel  
Chaconne von G.F. Händel  
Chaconne von G.F. Händel  
Polonoise Joh. Phil. Kirnberger  
Polonoise J.S. Bach [BWV 817]

The explanation of "Menuet," with which the volume begins, states that the style is distinguished from that of other social dances by its "charming and noble propriety." It is in a moderate tempo in 3/4 meter. The melody unfolds in two strains of eight measures each, with a caesura in measure 4, and a full cadence in measure 8 in the tonic or a related key, or else a half cadence in the tonic. To give variety a second section is added, in a closely related key. The first part is set in four voices and played by the full orchestra; the second, in three voices for two violins and bass or two flutes and bassoon, and it is therefore called "trio."

As far as the history of the minuet is concerned the discussion here indicates that the dance had for a long time been included with other types in suites and partitas. In the middle of the preceding century, south German composers had begun to include minuets in their three- and four-voice sonatas. This practice had become very popular, but now the minuet has become stylized so that neither the number of measures nor the faster rhythms of modern symphonic minuets are suitable for dancing. The greatest master of the symphony and sonata minuet was Joseph Haydn.

There follow five minuets by Teschner. All but No. IV have the minuet written in keyboard score (soprano and bass clefs) with melody and figured bass. The trios are also in keyboard score with two parts on the upper staff, mostly in thirds and sixths, and bass line. Minuet No. IV shows Teschner's ability to handle a slightly more interesting scoring for four parts. This section of the book concludes with a Menuetto con tre variazione. The minuet is the one that was No. IV of the five, but the inner parts are realized, and the trio is omitted. The variations are idiomatic for the keyboard and feature figurations in triplets and then sixteenth notes. Frequent chromatic insertions give a rather syrupy flavor.

Descriptions of the three remaining genres follow, with compositions in these genres put off until after the prose discussions. In general each definition follows the pattern established in the notes on the minuet. The gavotte is described as a moderately cheerful and pleasant type of dance, in 2/2 meter and with an upbeat of two quarter notes. The fastest notes are usually eighths. It falls into two eight-measure strains, except when it is used in piano pieces and suites rather than for dancing, in which case these lengths may be more flexible. This much of the material on the gavotte comes from Johann Georg Sulzer's Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste of 1775.3 Teschner carefully wrote Sulzer's name at the end of the paragraph. He then added a supplementary definition by Zelter, who apparently wanted to clarify the rhythmic style of the gavotte, emphasizing that "The mark of the gavotte is: duple meter in two with the divisions in the middle of each measure." The reason for this emphasis, Zelter told Teschner, is that many composers have neglected to make this stylistic trait clear in their work. The master also suggested some very specific guidelines on the character of the gavotte. He took particular issue with Mattheson, who in his Der vollkommene Capellmeister, suggests that it expresses "jauchzende Freude."4 Zelter insisted that this would bring the gavotte too close to the style of the bourrée, which he said Mattheson also describes "gänzlich falsch." The gavotte is simple, free, light, pleasant, benevolent. In minor keys it may have a touch of sorrow; if written in 2/4 time and eighth notes it can be gentle, frisky, childlike, naïve; in alla breve it is serious and yet naïve; and in 4/4 time it can even be comical.

The book includes 24 gavottes (!) by Teschner, scored in a style similar to that of the minuets, that is with melody (now in treble clef) and figured bass. The figures are sometimes in pencil, sometimes simply omitted. In two cases there are written-out inner voices. Teschner experimented with 2/4 meter as well as 2/2, and even tried two gavottes in the minor mode. A few of these pieces bear small corrections by Zelter, but one is particularly interesting because Zelter apparently rewrote it on a separate sheet which is inserted into Teschner's book. The teacher took one of his student's opening ideas and worked out a new continuation. His intention was probably to show Teschner a more convincing way to handle the cadences in each strain. The two versions are presented here so that the reader may judge how convincingly he succeeded (see Ex. 1).


Ex. 1 - Gavotte by G.W. Teschner (upper staves) and version by Zelter (lower staves).




The discussion of chaconne is comparable to the genre definitions given before, explaining the ground bass principle and that the bass phrases are usually 4, 8, or 16 measures long, in a moderate 3/4 time, beginning with a two-quarter-note upbeat. The most interesting statement here is that the chaconne was "originally from Africa, brought from there to Spain and to other nations." This idea of African origin for the chaconne seems to have been Zelter's own invention, as no other sources for such a history have been found. Probably the assumption was that anything that came to northern Europe from Spain must have been of Moorish ancestry.

Teschner entered two chaconnes of his own composition into his book. Each has a 16-measure theme. The first treats its theme rather too freely, allowing it at times to disappear in favor of variations on the opening melodic motive, and to modulate for the length of three complete statements of the bass to the subdominant. This trial must have met with disapproval from the teacher, for its successor is far more regular, and succeeds in demonstrating more convincingly that the student does understand the basic principle.

Polonoise [sic] or "alla Polacca," according to Teschner's notes, is structured like the minuet. The true polonaise, however, is not as quick as the minuet, and its character is grave. Its style differs from that of the minuet in that the conclusion of each strain is on the weak beat of the measure. Of Teschner's five polonaises, the first is marked "N.B. ist nicht streng im Charakter der Polonoise." The comment is in Teschner's handwriting, so Zelter may have made this criticism orally. The second polonaise is corrected by Zelter, and the remaining three seem to have been satisfactory.

The end of the volume contains copies of model pieces for gavottes, chaconnes, and polonaises. Most examples are taken from Bach's French Suites (BWV 815, 816, 817) and Handel's collections of keyboard pieces written 1718-20 and published in 1727. There are also a gavotte by Gluck from Act 1, Scene 3 of the opera Armide, a chaconne by Johann Kuhnau,5 and a polonaise by Kirnberger.

These three documents show us a carefully planned and systematic approach to the teaching of composition. Each stage builds on the preceding one, from the addition of bass lines to given melodies, to the composition of original dance pieces. In the earlier stages the exercises are assigned in order to demonstrate abstract principles of musical theory. Later even music history is included in this well-rounded curriculum. Zelter's highly systematic course makes everything clear for the student; it seems unfortunate that he never published this composition method.

The picture of Zelter presented here correlates with the many accounts of his sometimes rather gruff and crusty character. A glimpse of this side of the man is given in the comments he makes on the gavotte, where he criticizes his contemporaries for distorting its rhythmic character, and Mattheson for his descriptions of both gavotte and bourrée.

The manuscripts also reveal what may have been the main source of Zelter's popularity and influence as a teacher—his special relationship with his students. Zelter met Teschner where he was, and proceeded from that point. The young singer and organist began with vocal exercises and vocalises with keyboard accompaniment, but was immediately made to apply theoretical skills to them and then to compose his own vocalises.

Yet the very personal character of his instruction that made Zelter so much sought after as a teacher is probably the reason for his not having published a composition method for the general musical public. It is fortunate indeed that Teschner's notebooks have been preserved so that we can recover this material on such an important figure for the history of musical education, theory, and composition.

1See Raymond Arthur Barr, Carl Friedrich Zelter: A Study of the Lied in Berlin during the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1968). Chapters 3 and 4 give an excellent summary of Zelter's life.

2At least we know that this is how Zelter had instructed Mendelssohn to proceed a few years earlier. See Margaret Crum, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Bodleian Library Picture Books Special Series No. 3 (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1972), p. 11 and Plate 2.

3Johann Georg Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (Leipzig, 1775; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967). The music articles were written by J.A.P. Schulz and Kirnberger.

4Johann Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739; reprint Kassel: Bärenreiter [1954]), p. 225.

5Published in Denkmäler Deutscher Tonkust, Vol. 4 (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1958), pp. 99-102.

5384 Last modified on October 25, 2018