A Black Life in Reformation Heidelberg: Dietrich Mohr, Kettledrummer and Trumpeter

by Dr. Matthew Laube (Birkbeck College, University of London)

In ‘“The Harmony of One Choir”? Music and Social Unity in Reformation Heidelberg’, published in Past & Present No. 248, I explored the ways in which music differentiated and reinforced the identities of urban subgroups in Reformation Heidelberg. I examined differences in the social and acoustic profiles of the city’s parish churches, as well as student cultures of song which helped university communities to stand out from the urban fabric and cultivate trans-national and cross-confessional cultures of studenthood.

There were a number of perspectives on this question of how Heidelbergers stood out from, and blended into, urban society which did not make the final cut in the published article. Although alluded to in the conclusion, I did not look at the ways in which sound helped to reinforce membership in professional networks, such as fishermen or professional musicians. Nor was I able to discuss other forms of difference in the city, for instance, difference of skin colour. As a result, my article did not discuss a little-known but well-documented African German musician named Dietrich Mohr, who lived and worked in Heidelberg during the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Dietrich’s archival record offers the opportunity to think more deeply not simply about the potential advantages of standing out from the social fabric – as my analysis of parish church music and student cultures emphasised – but also the opportunities afforded by embeddedness, participation, and contribution to the customs and structures of profession and the wider urban system.

Dietrich Mohr was employed as a kettledrummer and trumpeter at the Palatine court of Friedrich IV and Friedrich V from c.1600 until c.1616. We do not know the circumstances which brought Dietrich to Heidelberg, although ‘Mohr’ in seventeenth-century German contexts might suggest someone of sub-Saharan African descent.1 Dietrich first appears in archival records in 1600, when he is listed in the city’s habitation documents as an apprentice musician living in the household of his teacher, Hans Georg Obrigck. Unlike other city residents, Dietrich is not referred to by name; instead, Palatine authorities anonymise Dietrich, stating simply that Obrigck ‘has living with him the Moor, who is training with him.

To an extent, Dietrich’s role and experience as a court musician was one shaped by stereotype. As Kate Lowe and others have observed, stereotypes of Black Africans included a range of beliefs, including that they were immoderate, exotic or noble savages, good musicians, care-free or lazy, while German courts frequently showcased Black musicians in order to reinforce the normality of whiteness.2 Such stereotypes match the way in which the Heidelberg court portrayed Dietrich in festival books c.1600. An engraving of Dietrich survives in Beschreibung der Reiss (Heidelberg, 1613), created to celebrate the 1613 Palatine wedding of Friedrich V to Elizabeth Stuart, which shows Dietrich playing the kettledrum with eight trumpeters in a procession before the Ringelrennen.

Figure 1. From “Beschreibung der Reiss”… (Heidelberg: Vögelin, 1613), Plate No. 2. Image courtesy of Heidelberg University Library. B 5089 RES.

According to Beschreibung der Reiss, the trumpeters are dressed in heavy and colourful layers with blue hats with red tips and blue, red and yellow cloaks and silver trumpets. In contrast to this abundance of clothing, Dietrich – described as a ‘black moor’ – is notable for his striking lack of clothing, appearing ‘entirely naked’ except for an ‘Indian apron’, a ‘Hungarian hat’ adorned with feathers, and taffeta adorning his kettledrum, typical attire for German courts which exoticised Black musicians. The Black Central Europe project is an excellent resource which has compiled and critically examined many similar images and sources of Black Europeans. Attitudes and actions emphasising the otherness and exceptionality of Dietrich – keeping him at arm’s length from mainline society – likely also shaped his experience outside of official functions. As Arne Spohr has recently written, Black trumpeters in early modern Germany regularly faced physical assault and popular resentment, especially when they accumulated wealth or gained the favour of princely patrons.3

Heidelberg’s criminal records do not survive to tell us about Dietrich’s experience of assault. It is worth speculating that Dietrich likely did experience some degree of resentment and violence similar to Black trumpeters elsewhere in Germany, alongside other strategies of othering and erasure, such as the omitting of his name from habitation records in 1600. Without denying the difficulty and marginalisation faced by Dietrich, other documentation from Heidelberg renders this picture more complex. Rather than reinforcing stereotype or providing evidence of Dietrich being kept at arm’s length, extant documents also reveal that Dietrich if given the chance – deeply embedded himself in the customs and structures of his profession and the urban system.

Records reveal that Dietrich did not live on the social and geographical margins in the parish of the Spitalkirche. Instead, like other court musicians, Dietrich lived in the parish of the Barfüßerkirche, located on the eastern side of the city near the castle. The Barfüßerkirche was one of the central and well-resourced churches of the city which, among other things, featured the regular singing of the musically trained school pupils in the Klosterschule. As was customary, Dietrich lived with his teacher. Between c.1600 and 1601, Dietrich lived with Hans Georg Obrigck on the street Mittel Kalthenthal, along with Hans Georg’s wife, Margareth, their three children (then aged 3-10 years old), and a housemaid. The normality of Dietrich’s domestic arrangement is reinforced by the fact that, in 1600, at least three other apprentice trumpeters also lived with senior court musicians.

Figure 2. View of Heidelberg, looking south. Barfüßerkirche circled in red. Image courtesy of Heidelberg University Library, Franz Hogenberg, “Civitates orbis terrarvm” (1) (Köln, 1593), 34a.

Such a living arrangement for apprentices was typical for a variety of reasons. For cash-strapped senior musicians, taking an apprentice meant receiving additional payment for the apprentice’s room and board. It also allowed senior musicians to introduce first hand the routines of professional court musicians, and enabled teachers to form, oversee and even restrict the behaviours of young apprentices during formative teenage years. As my article discussed, youthful rowdiness – much of which incorporated music – proliferated in Reformation Heidelberg. The teenage Dietrich was almost certainly aware of this: he may have heard nocturnal singing from his window, or may have participated in it himself. Singing also formed part of Dietrich’s domestic life as a trainee. Perhaps within earshot of neighbours or passersby, Dietrich and Hans Georg likely sang together as part of Dietrich learning trumpet calls or teaching Dietrich to read music. This domestic singing, filling the home with the sounds of professional training, marked the home of Obrigck and other musicians as unique within the wider domestic soundscapes of the city. At the same time, other sounds of the Obrigck household brought it into conformity with mainline society. Like countless homes across Heidelberg, Dietrich also likely sang hymns and Calvinist psalms at the breakfast and dinner table with the Obrigck family, as part of the professional and pastoral oversight provided by Obrigck as well as the family Hauskirche overseen jointly by Hans Georg and Margareth.

Domestic arrangements like Dietrich’s enabled musicians to cultivate networks of profession, friendship, and kinship. Geographically, most court musicians lived in close proximity to one another on the eastern side of the city, often on the same or adjacent streets. This, together with ample evidence of the close professional and social bond developed by trumpeters in German courts in the early seventeenth century,4 makes it likely that Dietrich frequented the nearby homes of fellow trainees and other court musicians. Dietrich possibly spent time in the home, a few doors away on Mittel Kalthenthal, of fellow trainee trumpeter, Abraham vom Fuertt, who lived with two senior trumpeters, their families, and a house maid named Dorothea. By 8 November 1601, roughly a year after habitation records were created, Dietrich was married to a woman named Dorothea – quite possibly the same Dorothea working as a house maid in the home of fellow court musicians – and baptised a daughter in the Barfüßerkirche named Margaretha. The god mother chosen by Dietrich and Dorothea, also named Margaretha, herself also lived in the nearby home of one of Dietrich’s close professional contacts – the court watchman (Wechter), Georg Nicklaus.

Dietrich’s salary is one area which marks a contrast between Dietrich Mohr and John Blanke, a trumpeter in England at the courts of Henry VII and VIII, who petitioned and was granted a pay rise around 1509/10.5 Court payment records from Heidelberg in 1602 reveal that Dietrich earned the same – not less compared to other young trumpeters. However, we also learn that in 1602 Dietrich and Dorothea, following the birth of their daughter, applied for and received a loan for 100 Guldens from Anna Maria Dörr, the widow of the Electoral protonotary Valentin Dörr. As security, Dietrich and Dorothea offered half of the new house they moved into as a married couple, also located within the parish of the Barfüßerkirche along the city wall, next door to Hans Siegmund, a confectioner, and Lienhard Sigl, a cloth cutter.

While some early modern European stereotypes may have cast Africans as immoderate or lazy, receiving a loan like this should not be interpreted as a sign of financial irresponsibility, or even as exceptional. Other court musicians, including senior ones, also took out similar loans, and Heidelbergers of all sorts borrowed money at important junctures in life. In 1559, for instance, linen weaver Hans Leitz and his wife Martha received a loan of 150 Guldens when they became guardians of the five children of deceased court trumpeter, Ludwig Waldhorn. My Past & Present article described how some university students took out loans for excessive drinking in taverns. However, receiving a loan in Reformation Heidelberg was not always linked to immoderation or rituals of rowdiness. For some like Leitz and Mohr, borrowing money could be driven by reasons of compassion or necessity, especially at significant moments in the life cycle, including the arrival of children.

My article in Past & Present focused on the ways in which music helped Heidelbergers to stand out from the social fabric. But to view Dietrich Mohr primarily from the perspective of the Palatine court and doubtless other Heidelbergers too – emphasising his otherness and exceptionality through spectacle or violence would also be to miss Dietrich’s deep embeddedness and contribution to the urban system. More research on Dietrich and other Black musicians is needed, and the reopening of archives closed by COVID-19 will hopefully facilitate that. But as research continues to explore the movement and influence of Black musicians in early modern northern Europe, Dietrich Mohr can perhaps serve as one example of some of the ways in which Black musicians in the face of difficulty, discrimination and exclusionenmeshed themselves in, and contributed to, the physical, social, financial, and acoustic worlds around them.

Matthew Laube would like to thank his Birkbeck colleagues Kat Hill, Charlie Jeffries, Jana Mokrisova, Filippo De Vivo, and Stephanie Wright for commenting on drafts of this post.


1Arne Spohr, ‘“Mohr und Trompeter”: Blackness and Social Status in Early Modern Germany’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 72 (2019), 619-20.

2Kate Lowe, ‘The Stereotyping of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe’, in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. T.F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe (Cambridge, 2005), 17-47; Elmer Kolfin and Epco Runia (eds.), Black in Rembrandt’s Time (Zwolle, 2020), 43; Spohr, ‘“Mohr und Trompeter”’, 626.

3Arne Spohr, ‘“Mohr und Trompeter”.

4Stephen Rose, ‘Trumpeters and diplomacy on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War: the “album amicorum” of Jonas Kröschel’, Early Music, 40/3 (2012), 379-392.

5See, for instance, Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (London, 2017), Ch. 1; David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London, 2016), 59-61; also, the John Blanke Project.


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