This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Feuer in der Oper! Fire at the Opera House!

22 November 2013

It was described only as Hoftheater, Dresden. The hazy image had no people, no vehicles, no shop fronts. It appeared to be just another faded photograph of an unremarkable city building. But a closer look revealed that the dark blotch at the top of this carte de visite was not a discoloration, but actually smoke and fire! This was no ordinary architectural photo but a record of a great catastrophe.

It also turned out to be the key piece to a puzzle.

Written in ink on the back was an annotation.

Hoftheater in Dresden
Während des Brandes
Court Theater in Dresden
During the fire

The photographer is Marie Steffen-Groth of Dresden, Annen Strasse, vis-à-vis No.1, who was active from 1865 to 1876, according to a terrific website that documents early European photographers -  The website does not say, but since the first name is feminine, we must presume that Marie was a female photographer, which adds another dimension to this unusual picture.

My reason for acquiring this photo was because it was part of a large set being broken up by a dealer for individual sale. All except this one were cdvs of members of an orchestra. Here are just two musicians of the group that I purchased.

This distinguished flutist sits for the camera while holding his fine blackwood flute. On the back is written in pencil ?f? Dr. Fleischer. The backstamp, like that of the Hoftheater photo, is for Marie Steffen-Groth & Co. but someone has struck through the address on Annen Strasse, leaving the und Dohna Platz No12. as printed.

Madam Steffen-Groth's camera was moved back a bit for this violinist who sits as relaxed as if he was waiting for the concert to begin. Written on the back is ?_? ?Reg___gisatr? Weigel Viol.1. 

At some future date, both musicians will return for Part 2 of the Dresden Hofoper Orchester, as that is the ensemble I believe they were members of. All of the other musicians were from Dresden and many had written their names on the back of the photographs. About a third posed in Marie Steffen-Groth's photography studio.

But this story is about the Hoftheater - the Royal Court Theater and Opera House of the King of Saxony.  On the 21st of September, 1869 at half past eleven in the morning, the Dresden watchman rang the alarm. The Opera House was on fire!

When the photo is corrected for fading, the fire and smoke seem to leap out from the roof of the theater. But it is really a clever special effect that Marie Steffen-Groth's studio painted onto an older photo of the Hoftheater. This was a commemorative photo made as a souvenir of the fire. The real inferno would have been far too hot for a photographer to set up a camera this close. And where are the firemen?

They were actually very busy.

Erstes Opernhaus Sempers ca1850 1860
The Hoftheater was also known as the Semperoper , named after its architect Gottfried Semper (1803-1879). The Dresden Court Opera first opened on 13 April 1841 with an opera by Carl Maria von Weber, and would be the site of many premieres of music by the great composers of the 19th century. One of its first opera directors was Richard Wagner, who staged his operas  Der fliegende Holländer (2 January 1843) and Tannhäuser (19 October 1845) in Dresden. In 1849, Wagner ran afoul of the authorities when he became involved in the unsuccessful May Uprising in Dresden. To avoid arrest he fled to Switzerland, and would not return to Germany until 1862.

Dresden Hoftheater c1841
Source: Wikipedia

This colored illustration from 1841 shows the opulent interior of the Dresden opera theater. The orchestra would be just in front of the stage. Hanging from the ceiling is an impressive chandelier. According to a recent investigation by Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR), the Dresden Semperoper Fire was an accident caused by workmen using a flammable rosin to glue rubber gas hoses to the chandeliers. MDR put together an elaborate report for television using people in historic costume and with authentic 1869 fire fighting equipment. It is in German but the report has some great photos.

Several of those modern MDR images use the same techniques of special effects that were used by the Steffen-Groth studio and other Dresden artists of the time. A picture of a fire really needs color for best effect.

Source: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

This is a Lithograph of the Hofoper showing the 1869 fire. In the foreground, very small firemen are valiantly manning the hand pumps to spray water on the flames. It would be in vain. In fact their bigger problem was that the conflagration might spread to adjacent court buildings.

Source: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

In this next colored Lithograph, which is also from the archives of the Dresden Art Museum, the artist has depicted a more realistic number of firemen and spectators. The fire fighters appear more professional but the Dresden townspeople really don't look properly horrified. One could almost believe there was a brass band playing a concert in the background.

Source: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The photographers came out the next day and this photo of the Hoftheater shows the ruins after the fire. Since most of the interior and structural components were made of wood, the building was a total loss. However no one was killed and no other buildings were touched by the fire.

 Could some of the musicians of the orchestra be in the group posed in front?

Dresden Altstadt Semperoper 1865
Dresden has always been famous for its art and architecture, and considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. This photo taken in 1865 from the riverfront shows the Dresden Royal Court Cathedral in the center and the Semperoper on the right beyond the old Augusta Bridge that crosses the River Elba.

Following the great fire, the opera house was rebuilt by Gottfried Semper's son, Manfred Semper according to his father's plans, and reopened in 1878. The music of symphonies and opera would fill this new hall for 67 years, until one dark night in February 1945  when alarms would again sound.

Dresden after the bombings of February 1945
Source: Wikipedia

On February 13th, 1945, in one of the largest air raids ever conducted by the Royal Air Force, somewhere between 22,700 and 25,000 people perished in a devastating firestorm that destroyed not only the Hoftheater but incinerated over 90 percent of Dresden's city center. In that one night 772 British bombers dropped 2659.3 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs over the city. It still remains one of the most controversial and tragic events of World War 2.

The Semperoper of Dresden
during flooding of the River Elba in 2005
Source: Wikipedia

The city was rebuilt though it took many years. After the war, Dresden was part of East Germany and behind the Iron Curtain. Reconstruction of the Semperoper was not finished until the reopening on 13 February 1985, exactly 40 years after the bombing. The program was the same opera last performed before its destruction in 1945, Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber. Today it is the home of the renown Staatskapelle Dresden, but this magnificent theater is still subject to threats, this time from water of the River Elba, shown here in the flooding of 2005.

The photo of the Dresden Hoftheater Fire is one piece of a larger puzzle that needs more time to solve. So stay tuned for more stories on the orchestra musicians of Dresden. They were all there on that fateful day in 1869.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where momentous events are the feature this weekend.


Gail Perlee said...

Such a beautiful but enduring building - being rebuilt after a devastating fire, then rebuilt again after being bombed. I do hope the river Elba doesn't cause it any more problems. Very nice post with great pictures.

Karen S. said...

I think that the architecture is quite stunning, a very engaging building. The two separate photo of each holding their own instrument their expressions are quite odd, especially the second one! Quite a string of postcards to show off the fire, and yes it would be really strange to have a concert in the background! The aftermath of the fire with the people milling looks the most believable to me! The last present day photo is simply beautiful!

Jackie van Bergen said...

What a beautiful building - we don't have such magnificent ancient buildings here in Australia.

Jo Featherston said...

Wonderful images you've gathered together here. We visited Dresden a few years ago, and they have some fabulous art and treasures that they somehow managed to hide away so that they were not destroyed during WW2. As Allied visitors, you do do feel somewhat guilty about the fact that the destruction was caused by our side, seemingly without military targets being present, and the accounts of the fireballs that engulfed large numbers of inhabitants are quite horrific.

Postcardy said...

Interesting post. It is depressing that not only the buildings but huge numbers of people were bombed during the war.

Claudia M. said...

Interesting read, and I'd like to correct/amend the annotation on musician Weigel's photograph. It says "Herr Regierungsrath". In that time, Rat was spelt different, i.e. Rath (senior civil servant). Seems like he wasn't a professional musician.

Jonathan said...

Ironic that the Opera House was damaged by fire long before its destruction in World War II. I read David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden a few years back. He is his own worst enemy, and apparently the book is not viewed as credible, but some of his points (such as that Dresden, at the time of the bombing, was full of refugees from points further east in Germany) are still valid.

Boobook said...

Great detective work, beautifully illustrated as usual.

ScotSue said...

A fascinating account of a beautiful building and the people who performed there, You have such a great collection of images.

Bob Scotney said...

An interesting building that deserved a better fate both at the time and subsequently.

Wendy said...

It's interesting that so many companies produced "souvenirs" of a terrible fire. Still, what a testament that the opera house continued to rise from the ashes. The need for art and music and beauty in the world is stronger than a fire or a flood.

Vaughn Hollund said...

I read in a book by Schoenberg, "Style and Idea" that Richard Wagner lived in excile as outlaw for participating in setting the Dresden Hoftheater on fire, as reaction to "artistic curruption".

Vaughn Hollund said...

p. 145 :)

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you for adding that information, Vaughn Hollund. I have just checked a copy of Schoenberg's book and that is indeed what he writes on p. 145. However I have never seen it in any history of the Hofoper or Dresden, so it is a very curious allegation for Schoenberg to make against Wagner. Could this be an old unsubstantiated rumor that Schoenberg was repeating?

SilkeP. said...

I just like to add:
On the Portraits, the first says Hr Dr. Fleischer (yes, that's an old H, probably Hr, short for Herr -> Mr), the second one: also Herr, Herr Regierungsrath Weigel, a Government official, he probably played violin in an orchester next to his normal job kind of.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you SilkeP. That detail is much appreciated. Translating old handwriting styles is a special skill that I yet to master in the German language.


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