Johann Mattheson

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Johann Mattheson was an important writer, a diplomat, a musical theorist, and a composer. His music was well-regarded by his contemporaries, but so little of it has survived that it is impossible to make…
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Johann Mattheson was an important writer, a diplomat, a musical theorist, and a composer. His music was well-regarded by his contemporaries, but so little of it has survived that it is impossible to make a clear assessment of it. His main importance to musical history is as an observer and chronicler of the musical scene of his age.

His father was a tax collector in Hamburg who provided Johann, his third and only surviving son, with a thorough and broad education. By the age of nine, it was clear that he was an organ player of child prodigy rank. He also had lovely boy soprano voice and was accomplished on viola da gamba, flute, oboe, lute, and violin. It was not surprising that he was much in demand, nor that he accepted a position as a singer with an opera company. His father sent him to the Johanneam to study the law, but also got an offer to be a page, singer, and musician in the Hamburg court of the Norwegian Count von Güldenlöw. Mattheson rationalized that the opera was a kind of "musical university" so that he didn't have to go to a real one; he was all of 15 at the time. At this point, his father marched in, broke the boy's contract, and took him home. Mattheson later wrote that he "wept bitter tears."

Mattheson was able, however, to remain active in Hamburg's Goose Market Opera while studying. He became friends with a slightly younger musician in the orchestra, George Frideric Handel. They even remained friendly when they set off together to compete for the position of assistant and successor to Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck. However, there was an odd northern German tradition that to get such a job, you had to marry the boss' daughter. The two young organists had a look at the woman in question and decided the job wasn't worth it. (Johann Sebastian Bach turned the job down for the same reason. For the record, one Johann Schiefferdecker got the job and the daughter's hand later, in 1707.)

In 1704, Mattheson had an important premiere with his opera Die Unglückselige Cleopotra (The Misfortune of Cleopatra), when he sang the role of Antony. After he died in Act III, he decided to exercise the composer's prerogative of playing the harpsichord continuo part and conducting. However, Handel was already settled on the bench and not disposed to give it up. The two were already quarrelling over what Handel saw as the stealing of a pupil, Cyrill Wich, and the two ended up in an argument that disrupted the performance. Mattheson suggested that they take the struggle outside. One of them called the other out and they drew swords on each other. Mattheson made a wild thrust at Handel. Musical tragedy was averted when his sword hit one of Handel's large brass buttons and was snagged on it. The two soon reconciled and Handel even cast his friend in the lead of two of his own operas.

In his singing career, Mattheson performed in 65 new operas, including several of his own. His attaining the position of tutor for young Cyrill Wich was a turning point in his life that showed the wisdom of his father's insisting on completion of his legal and university training. Wich was the son of the English ambassador to Hamburg and Mattheson's tutelage of the boy included general education as well and made him a resident in the Wich's house. Mattheson enjoyed the status this gave him and he also showed himself to be a capable secretary for the ambassador, a position he retained for most of his life.

This evolved into a position of major importance, which continued when young Wich inherited his father's office in 1715. Mattheson frequently traveled as the ambassador's official representative, with diplomatic status. He became an expert in Anglo-German trade and finance and an accomplished linguist and student of English law. In 1709, Mattheson married Catharina Jennings, daughter of an English minister.

Despite all this, he also filled musical positions, including music director of the Hamburg Dom (cathedral) (1715 - 1728) and Kapellmeister of the court of the Duke of Holstein (from 1719). Increasing deafness compelled him to give up his musical positions after 1728; however, he prolifically kept writing music until 1740, as well as translating English books and writing many articles for journals (including valuable discussions on contemporary music and performance). He became a wealthy man, donating the bulk of his fortune after the death of his wife to St. Michael's Church to restore its organ that had been destroyed in a fire in return for burial of himself and his wife in the church.

At one time, the bulk of Mattheson's output was believed destroyed in the burning of the Hamburg Stadtbibliothek as the result of Allied bombing during World War II; at the time virtually none of it had been assessed or cataloged by experts. However in 1998 the Mattheson collection was discovered in Armenia and returned to Hamburg, and slowly Mattheson's works are being revived, such as his 1710 opera Boris Goedonov, premiered 295 years late in January 2005.

The music that is generally known has a striking, even folk-like melodic simplicity and excellent craftsmanship.