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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Mozart's Contemporaries

I don't need to tell you that in the world of classical music there is an enormous amount of music by an enormous number of composers that we rarely if ever get to hear these days. (See the start of yesterday's post...) The miracle of recording - something unthinkable to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven - has made it possible for us to hear music which Bach, Mozart or Beethoven would never have dreamed of.

Yet even with the technology available to us, there is so much music out there we'll never hear. We all know this, and tend to take refuge in staying with the so-called "great composers". This is because they are great, and because once we step off the beach of the familiar, we find ourselves in an unsignposted sea of the unknown.

This post, like the last, will be unashamedly kaleidoscopic. I want to cast a wide and fast-moving net over composers who were contemporaries of - and in many cases known to - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We know Haydn and Mozart respected each other professionally and became good friends; we suspect Mozart may have briefly met the young Beethoven, and he certainly taught the young Hummel. But these better-known names aside, who else was at work in European music during Mozart's era, and what did their music sound like?

I'm going to look at seventeen composers born in the period 1736 to 1765; that is, 20 years before and 9 years after Mozart's own birth. Some of their names may be familiar, and while none is a Mozart (who was?!), all are people who in themselves could fill an entire blog post like this. I'll go through them in chronological order of birth; I hope this serves as an appetiser for future explorations.

We start with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, who was born in 1736. Albrechtsberger's career centred on the church and he was eventually Kapellmeister at St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. He was one of the highly-respected teachers of the late 18th century and his pupils included Hummel, Moscheles and Beethoven. Albrechtsberger could write in a learned, academic style, but he also wrote in a lighter, more melodic vein as well. Some of his works have remained in the repertoire, most notably his virtuosic concerto for alto trombone. [listen]

Kupelwieser: Johann Georg Albrechtsberger

Albrechtsberger was known to and respected by Mozart; they shared a love of the music of JS Bach. Also admired by Mozart, but for very different sorts of music, was the Bohemian composer Josef Mysliveček, who was born in 1764. Having studied in Venice, Mysliveček made his name as an opera composer in both Italy and Bavaria, and Mozart is known to have admired his piano sonatas and his sacred oratorio Abraham and Isaac. Yet this period in European music was also the period of the symphony, and symphonies were produced by the thousand at this time. Mozart's and Haydn's contributions to the form are well-known; here's one of Mysliveček's. [listen]

Bust of Josef Mysliveček on his birth house in Prague

The most famous composer in Europe during Mozart's lifetime was Joseph Haydn, who falls outside the scope of this survey in that he was born in 1732. However Haydn's younger brother Michael - born in 1737 - was a respected composer who wrote some astonishingly good music. He was also a teacher and is known to have taught the young Carl Maria von Weber. In his lifetime his church music in particular was held to be better than that of his more famous brother. Michael Haydn also wrote symphonies and chamber music and worked for 37 years at the Salzburg court where Leopold Mozart was based and where the younger Mozart also was employed for some years.

Michael Haydn

Among Michael Haydn's 400 or so sacred works is a magnificent Requiem in C minor, composed for the funeral of the Salzburg Archbishop Schrattenbach in 1771. It was also performed at the funeral of Joseph Haydn in 1809. Mozart would definitely have known this work and his unfinished Requiem of 1791 bears a number of striking similarities to Michael Haydn's setting, testament alone to its influence and the admiration in which it was held. That this work is not widely known and performed is one of the great injustices of our musical culture. [listen]

The violinist and composer Carl Ditters was born in 1739. He was later ennobled to the rank of knight, permitting him to add "von Dittersdorf" to his name, and it's as Dittersdorf that his name is best known today. Dittersdorf worked in a number of central European courts and composed for the theatre, as well writing symphonies and chamber music. His German operas (there are more than 30 of them) are reminiscent of those of Mozart but they have more of a folk element to them. His symphonies (again, more than 30) and chamber works seem to invoke the spirit of Haydn and his string quartets in particular seem to show him at is most inventive and engaging. [listen]

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf

Known by the German form of his name, the Czech composer Johann Baptist Vanhal was also born in 1739, a few months before Dittersdorf. He eventually became Dittersdorf's pupil and after travels throughout Europe as a violinist and teacher, settled in Vienna from around 1780. Thus he was in Vienna at the same time as Mozart, and like Mozart, Vanhal supported himself by teaching, performing and composing. He moved in the most important musical circles in the city; the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (who sang in Mozart's operas) tells us that Vanhal on one occasion played the cello in a quartet where the other players were Mozart, Haydn and Dittersdorf.

Johann Baptist Vanhal

It's as a composer of symphonies that Vanhal is mostly remembered today. His music is polished, stylish and well-crafted, reminiscent of middle Haydn, especially in this G minor symphony. [listen]

Yet another composer born in what is now the Czech Republic was Václav Pichl, who was born in 1741. Like Vanhal, he had an itinerant career which nevertheless led him to Vienna. He was a renowned violinist, and also a writer on a wide range of subjects. Some 900 works by Pichl are known, nearly all of which survive. This alone is reason enough for a reassessment of his work. Among his more than 30 concertos is this violin concerto which stands eloquently alongside those of Mozart and Haydn. [listen]

Bust of Václav Pichl on his birth house in Bohemia

Carl Stamitz is one of the better known names among Mozart's contemporaries. Although he was born in Mannheim (in 1745) he too was of Bohemian origin, and was the son of another famous composer, Johann Stamitz. A travelling virtuoso string player, Carl Stamitz had a precarious life, failing to really establish himself in a long-term position. His symphonies and concertos merit exploration these days, in particular his concertos for multiple soloists. He wrote more than 30 works in the "symphonie concertante" mode, mostly for two solo string instruments and orchestra. This is the finale of one such work, for violin, viola and orchestra, composed in the early 1780s. [listen]

Carl Stamitz

The Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa was born in 1749 and held posts in Venice, St Petersburg, Vienna and Naples. Although he wrote sacred music, secular cantatas, chamber music and keyboard sonatas, Cimarosa's fame rested on his composition of some 60 comic operas. Today his best-known work is an opera composed in Vienna in 1792: Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage). This is the end of the first act, a delightful passage which looks back to Mozart and forward to Rossini. [listen]

Candido: Domenico Cimarose (1785)

The name of Antonio Salieri, who was born in 1750, is inextricably linked with that of Mozart (who was born six years later). The Amadeus associations are unfortunate, not to mention inaccurate, and Salieri deserves to be assessed on his terms once and for all. An opera composer of great skill and huge reputation during his lifetime, Salieri also composed symphonies and sacred music. He was also a respected teacher, and Beethoven, Franz Schubert and the young Franz Liszt were among those he taught during his long life (he died in 1825 at the age of 74).

Mähler: Antonio Salieri (1815)

There is no substance at all to the idea that Salieri and Mozart were rivals; indeed, Salieri seems to have been highly stimulated by the presence of Mozart in Vienna. It's also worth remembering that while Mozart is credited with more or less inventing the piano concerto, that Salieri wrote piano concertos before Mozart's masterpieces in the form. This is part of one, composed in 1773. [listen]

Map of Bohemia (1800)

Next we come to Antonio Rosetti, who, like many of the composers we’ve looked at so far, was born in Bohemia (famous then - as the Czech Republic still is today - as the home of great wind players; his birth name was Franz Anton Rösler, but he had changed it to the Italian form by around 1773.) The date of his birth is not known for certain but it’s thought to have been around 1750. A double bass player by training, he was a respected orchestral trainer and composer, holding court positions in a number of European centres. He wrote over 40 symphonies, in addition to more 60 concertos, plus string quartets, sacred music and music for wind ensemble.

Antonio Rosetti

Among his concertos are a number featuring the horn, the part of Rosetti's repertoire which is most remembered today. It was during his tenure as Kapellmeister at the court chapel of the prince of Oettingen-Wallerstein that Rosetti raised the orchestral standards to a level which gave him international renown. In the orchestra were a number of internationally-famous horn players and it was for them that Rosetti wrote his works for one or two horns and orchestra. This is one of the concertos for two horns. [listen]

Muzio Clementi was born in Italy in 1752 but made his career in England. He is best remembered today as a composer of piano music; his sonatas are often given to students as preparatory works before tackling the bigger sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. Beyond the 70 or so sonatas and many shorter pieces, Clementi also wrote his monumental Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), published in three volumes between 1817 and 1826. A number of authors used this title for their graded theoretical or teaching works (perhaps most famously the 1725 counterpoint textbook written by JJ Fux). Clementi’s publication contains 100 studies for keyboard which are still used in the development of piano technique.

Muzio Clementi (1794)

In Vienna in 1780, during one of his European tours, Clementi had a famous encounter with Mozart in which they took part in a keyboard playing contest. Mozart acknowledged that Clementi had technical ability but regarded him as a mere "mechanicus" and "a charlatan like all the Italians". Clementi, on the other hand, appears to have been only complimentary regarding Mozart's playing.

Clementi also devoted much energy to the writing of symphonies, although only two survive today in complete and authentic copies; these were published in 1787. Unfortunately four later symphonies (now known as Clementi's symphonies 1 to 4) exist only today in incomplete manuscript copies and can only be played in conjectural reconstructions.

The two published symphonies are elegant works which suggest the work of Haydn and Mozart; the finale to the D major symphony is an excellent example of Clementi's orchestral writing. [listen]

Franz Anton Hoffmeister, born in 1754 and therefore two years older than Mozart, is an interesting character. He studied law but as soon as he qualified to practise he took up a career in music. He was a composer but he also made a name for himself as a music publisher. He was one of the first music publishers to become established in Vienna and in addition to issuing his own works, he printed works by Vanhal, Haydn, Pleyel, Mozart, Beethoven and many others.

Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1806)

Mozart's string quartet K499 was published by Hoffmeister and is now known as the "Hoffmeister" quartet. As for Hoffmeister's own works, he wrote a great deal. Apart from numerous German operas, there are more than 66 symphonies, around 60 concertos, and an enormous amount of chamber music. Hoffmeister, like Mozart, also showed himself to be right up-to-the-minute with his understanding of the capabilities of the newly-emerging clarinet. [listen]

One of the most remarkable musicians of the age was born in Italy in 1755, the year before Mozart. His name was Giovanni Battista Viotti and he is today remembered for his 29 virtuosic violin concertos. He also composed a vast amount of chamber music and a violin teaching manual which is an invaluable guide to playing techniques of the period.

Giovanni Battista Viotti

Viotti's life would make an amazing movie. He was a touring virtuoso early in life, retiring into the service of Marie Antoinette as a music administrator until the Revolution forced him to flee to London. There he became involved as a performer, being a prominent player in Haydn's concerts in London. Trumped-up political charges forced him to flee to Germany but a couple of years later he was back in London working as a wine merchant. He went to Paris around 1820 but his time there was deeply unhappy. He went back to London in 1823 but died there the following year.

Among Viotti's dazzling violin concertos, no 22 in A minor is the one most often played today. It was written in the mid-1790s; this is the last movement. [listen]

Paul Wranitzky was a Czech composer and conductor born in the same year as Mozart (the original spelling of the surname was Vranický). He and his younger brother Anton were both respected violinists and composers, and both were known by Haydn and Beethoven. Paul Wranitzky was much admired also as a conductor; Haydn put the Viennese premieres of The Creation under his direction, and Beethoven insisted Wranitzky conduct the premiere of his first symphony. He wrote a huge amount of music: some 51 symphonies, operas, ballets, concertos, chamber music and much else. His Grand Characteristic Symphony for the Peace with the French Republic was written in 1797 and contains several features which would reappear in Beethoven's Eroica symphony the following decade. Despite being written for strings alone, it is a powerful and dramatic work. [listen]

Paul Wranitzky

Yet another Czech-born composer who found his way to Vienna in the 1780s was Franz Krommer, who was born in 1759. His music was widely-disseminated throughout Europe during his lifetime and held in high regard in England, France and Italy. Krommer wrote a number of symphonies but his fame rested (and still rests) on his concertos and chamber music featuring wind instruments. This is one his quartets for oboe and strings. [listen]

Franz Krommer

And again, another Bohemian composer. Jan Ladislav Dussek, son of Jan Dussek senior, was born in 1760. He studied in Prague and Hamburg and travelled through much of Europe before settling in London in 1789. His music publishing interests and career as a performer put him at the centre of London's musical life for a decade before the publishing business went bankrupt in 1799. He subsequently worked in Prussia and in his later life was a concert promoter and teacher. He died in Paris in 1812.

Jan Ladislav Dussek

Dussek's output as a composer is almost entirely made up of keyboard and chamber music. One of his most famous piano sonatas is the Elegiac Sonata on the death of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. It’s a tribute to his then employer, who fell in battle against Napoleon in 1806, but far from being a perfunctory occasional work, it's clear that Dussek felt a real loss with the Prince's death. [listen]

Many of the musicians mentioned above spent some time in England, but the last of Mozart's contemporaries on my list was actually born there. Thomas Attwood was born in London in 1765, nine years after Mozart. He was a boy in the choir of the Chapel Royal and the Prince of Wales was so impressed with his musical ability that he sent him to the continent to study. After studies in Italy he lived in Vienna from August 1785 to February 1787. During this time he became one of Mozart's composition students and his exercises with Mozart's corrections on them still survive. Mozart spoke highly of Attwood, who in turn became pivotal in promoting Mozart's music in England.

Attwood's career as a performer, composer and administrator in England in the early 19th century was illustrious. His later friends included Mendelssohn.

Thomas Attwood (c. 1815)

Apart from some chamber works and secular songs, Attwood's compositions are primarily theatre works and church music. He wrote more than 30 musical theatre pieces, mostly farces and comic operas, and for the church he wrote services and anthems. Among this last category is this sublime miniature, Teach me, O Lord, written in 1797. [listen]

Every one of the seventeen composers I've touched on here wrote an astonishing amount of excellent music. Part of their misfortune for posterity is that they lived at the same time as one of the greatest geniuses - some would say the greatest genius - Western music has ever known. I hope that this has encouraged you to look a little more at some of the less well known composers of Mozart's time. He may have been unique, but he wasn't alone.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2009.

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Mario Olivero
Mario Olivero
19 jun 2023

Very nicely done! I enjoyed reading this article.

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