Monday, March 05, 2007
March 4, 2007
A Composer Forgotten to All but Mozart
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
A FEW brush strokes have come to define the otherwise obscure 18th-century composer later known as Il Divino Boemo, or the Divine Bohemian: Josef Myslivecek.
He was a close friend of Mozart and a musical influence on him. He was one of the most celebrated opera composers in Italy in the 1770s. And he had his nose burned away in a botched operation for syphilis.
Myslivecek’s music is rarely played, but Concerto Köln has just released a recording of symphonies, “Il Divino Boemo,” on the Archiv label, the latest in a trickle of CDs over the years devoted to influences on Mozart. They include the likes of Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Johann Baptist Vanhal, Christoph Willibald Gluck and “the Eenies”: Giovanni Battista Martini, Pietro Nardini, Giuseppe Tartini and Niccolò Piccini.
Myslivecek’s music has its own merits. It is sprightly, modestly inventive, melodically pleasing. Just as much, it provides a slice of context for the works of Mozart, a composer of truly divine spark whose friendship with Myslivecek is one of the more touching stories in classical music.
“He was unquestionably one of the greatest models for the young Mozart in composition, and he had a close personal relationship with Mozart that was unique,” said Daniel E. Freeman, a lecturer in music at the University of Minnesota whose biography of Myslivecek, the first in English, is due out this year. “There is no other composer in his entire life,” Mr. Freeman said, for whom Mozart “expressed such affection.”
The Mozart family mentioned Myslivecek about 40 times in correspondence, which is the source of most of the personal information about him. Yet he has been given short shrift, Mr. Freeman contends, because relatively few scholars read Czech and because of German and Austrian “snobbery” toward Bohemian musical subjects.
“Mozart scholarship simply buried him for these reasons,” Mr. Freeman wrote in an e-mail message.
Myslivecek was born a son of a prosperous miller in Prague in 1737, one of identical twins. There is little established record of his early education, but he is known to have enrolled at Charles-Ferdinand University. Josef, a fine violinist, and his twin, Jachym, became apprentices in the family trade and master millers in 1761.
Josef quickly gave up milling and turned to serious musical study, grinding out symphonies instead of flour, including six named after the first six months of the year. In 1763, apparently with financial support from his brother — and from a local nobleman, Count Vincenz von Waldstein, a distant relative of the dedicatee of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata — Myslivecek went to Venice to learn opera composing. It was where the big money and fame lay.
He was a fast learner. His first opera, “Semiramide,” was performed in Bergamo in 1766, and his first big hit, “Il Bellerofonte,” two years later in Naples. He stayed in Italy for the rest of his life, writing operas for Turin, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Milan, Padua and Rome (at least 26 in all). Myslivecek also wrote violin concertos, keyboard works, arias, chamber music and symphonies, many of them designed to precede stage works. He was a pioneer in two forms: wind octets and string quintets with two violas.
Unlike most successful composers of the day, Myslivecek never worked full-time for a prince or a prelate. “He clearly wanted to be free,” Mr. Freeman said.
Sometime late in the 1770s things soured for Myslivecek. Two of his operas were failures, and his health declined. Some musicologists suggest that his popularity dipped because he clung to the somber, formulaic opera seria style, which was coming to seem old fashioned. Myslivecek fell into financial straits, forced to borrow from a bank for the poor, and died alone in Rome on Feb. 4, 1781. A wealthy English art collector and pupil, James Hugh Smith Barry, paid for his funeral at the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, where he is entombed.
In 1770, while Myslivecek was in his prime, he took up lodging at an inn in Bologna to prepare an opera there. A 14-year-old musical prodigy and his father checked in during their travels around Italy. The boy was Mozart, and he and Myslivecek struck up a friendship, which was cemented that summer when Mozart returned to the city. The Mozarts and Myslivecek visited each other daily. Their paths crossed again in Verona in 1771. Mozart once used some of Myslivecek’s discarded music paper as a blotter while writing to his mother.
Myslivecek supplied the Mozarts with contacts and even promised to secure an opera commission for Mozart in Naples. In return, Mr. Freeman said, Leopold Mozart felt obliged to procure Myslivecek commissions from the archbishop of Salzburg. When Myslivecek failed to deliver on the Naples commission, Leopold was stung.
“It destroyed the friendship, and deservedly so,” Mr. Freeman said. “He actually bamboozled Leopold. He kept them strung along for months with this promise of a commission.”
But the young Mozart remained a true friend. He showed his affection in a 1777 letter to his father, describing a visit to Myslivecek at a hospital in Munich after a doctor had done severe damage to Myslivecek’s nose in trying to remove disfiguring growths resulting from tertiary syphilis. Mozart’s father had urged him to stay away, probably because of the moral taint of the disease.
“Was I to know that Myslivecek, so good a friend of mine, was in a town, even in a corner of the world where I was, and was I not to see him, to speak to him?” Mozart wrote. “Impossible.” So he went, and they met in the hospital garden.
“When he came up to me,” Mozart wrote, “I took him by his hand and he took mine, in friendship. Just look, he said, how unfortunate I am! His words and his appearance, which Papa knows already from earlier descriptions, touched me so deeply that I couldn’t say anything, except, half crying: ‘My dear friend, I feel for you with all my heart.’ ” Mozart added, “If it were not for his face, he would be the same old Myslivecek, full of fire, spirit and life, a little thin, of course, but otherwise the same excellent cheerful fellow.”
Mozart admired Myslivecek’s music as well as his spirit. In one letter he suggested that his sister, Nannerl, memorize some of Myslivecek’s keyboard sonatas. He said they were easy to memorize, effective and “bound to please.” Another time he asked Nannerl if a particular Myslivecek symphony was available in Salzburg, as his music was making its mark on Mozart’s own compositions.
Extracting contemporary influences on Mozart has been a major subject of scholarship for more than a century, with varying degrees of significance placed on his assimilation of the music of others as he constantly traveled around Europe in the years before he settled in Vienna, in 1781. “Mozart was indeed a master imitator, capable of working in a large variety of styles,” Maynard Solomon writes in his biography “Mozart: A Life.” It was a skill Mozart was proud of.
In Myslivecek, Mozart found a model of the Italianate style and its graceful melodies and elegant rhythms. He borrowed ideas from Myslivecek’s works for his first opera seria, “Mitridate,” and themes for early symphonies of his own. He arranged a Myslivecek aria, which became the popular “Ridente la calma,” and was for a time considered the composer of Myslivecek’s oratorio “Abramo ed Isacco.” The Archiv recording includes seven orchestral works, all in three movements and mostly shorter than 10 minutes. The orchestration is simple: standard strings and usually two horns and two oboes or flutes. There is also a charming concertino for pairs of horns, flutes, clarinets and a bassoon, with strings.
Concerto Köln, a period-style band, plays at its usual impeccable level: nuanced phrasing, little joie-de-vivre moments of flipped-up grace notes, crisp articulation, inflections in loving color. The orchestra does justice to Mozart’s friend, and the music has wonderfully satisfying moments. But in comparison with the Italian-style symphonies Mozart was writing in his early teens, these works by the mature Myslivecek have a foursquare, predictable quality.
Myslivecek has few CDs devoted solely to him, although the online retailer ArkivMusic lists 20 releases with at least one number by him. Exceptions are a disc of string music on Toccata Classics and another of three octets for winds on Hungaroton, extremely appealing music that reveals Myslivecek’s mastery of vocal-style writing. A few selections of his music for the actual human voice can be heard on several recent releases by the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena on Deutsche Grammophon.
In death Myslivecek inspired several novels and an opera, “Il Divino Boemo” (1912), by the Czech composer Stanislav Suda. Maybe someone will write an opera about Suda someday: he was blind from the age of 6 months and composed by dictation.