Dittersdorf, Karl Ditters von
Austrian composer and violin virtuoso Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799) was a very popular, prolific, and versatile composer who served in a number of courts, producing operas and symphonies. Along with Joseph Haydn, he was considered a bright star in Viennese music. Though he enjoyed enormous popularity in his own time, he is virtually unknown today, except among music experts.
Even though his compositions are infrequently performed today, and publications of his music are hard to come by, Ditters was once considered a top composer of the Classical era of music. At one point in his career, his popularity was so great that people ranked him in the same class as Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Today, those composers are considered far more superior to Ditters, and certainly much more important, but at the height of his career, Ditters was considered an eminent Austrian composer and one of the leading figures in Viennese music.
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf was born in Vienna, Austria on November 2, 1739, as Karl Ditters. As a young boy, Ditters enjoyed the advantages of a comfortable upbringing. His father was an embroidery worker, so his family was relatively well off. In addition, Ditters received a good education, both at home and at a Jesuit school. At home, he learned how to play music from his father, who was an amateur musician. At school, he studied French, religion, and music.
A Precocious Talent
Ditters was only seven years old when he took up the violin, and he demonstrated a precocious talent for the instrument. Several years later, one of Ditters' teachers, Josef Ziegler, helped him obtain membership as a violinist in a Benedictine church orchestra.
In March, 1751, Ditters was recommended to Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen–Hildburghausen, who hired the young boy to be part of his court orchestra. It was quite an accomplishment for the 11–year–old violinist. Ditters not only benefited from the position itself, but the Prince felt close enough to Ditters to raise him as a son, providing him with continuing musical education as well as instruction in languages and sociology. Eventually, Ditters would be considered a violin virtuoso.
During this educational phase, Ditters' violin study became much more intense and sophisticated, as he studied under two renowned teachers: Giuseppe Trani, who schooled him on the instrument, and Giuseppe Bonno, who taught him musical composition. At this time, Ditters also made acquaintances with the budding Austrian musician and composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809).
Secured Contracts and Musical Patronage
Ditters stayed with the Prince's orchestra until 1761, when the Prince left Vienna to assume the regency in Hildburghausen and was forced to dissolve the musical unit. However, the Prince did not leave his musicians without affiliation. Each orchestra member received a three year contract to work at the Imperial Chapel, under the service of Count Durazzo, the theater director for the Imperial Court.
At first, the situation was a grim step down for Ditters. He was underpaid and forced to perform dreary chores that were beneath an accomplished violinist. However, certain circumstances would turn out to have a positive impact on his later success. For one, the dramatic music he was exposed to as a member of a theater orchestra would greatly influence the development of his own musical compositions. In addition, he became friends with musician and composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), the German composer who would gain great fame for his operas. Gluck helped free Ditters from some of his more tedious duties, and he helped Ditters find some music students to teach. The friendship became even more fruitful when, in 1763, Gluck asked Ditters to travel with him to Bologna, Italy. During the trip, which was financed by Count Durazzo, Ditters had the opportunity to perform several violin concerts.
In 1764, Ditters' contract with the theater orchestra ended. Around the same time, Count Durazzo was replaced by Count Wenzel Spork. When Ditters' contract expired, he could have stayed on, but he did not want to work with Spork, due to personal differences. Instead, Ditters accepted a position as Kapellmeister (chapel master) to the court of Adam Patachich, a Hungarian nobleman and the Bishop of Grosswardein in Hungary. In accepting the position, Ditters assumed a post that was recently vacated by Hadyn. It proved to be a good career move. At the Bishop's chapel, Ditters assembled his own orchestra and singers. With his newfound freedom, he composed his earliest vocal works, including operas and the oratorio Isacco, figura del redentore. He also produced cantatas, orchestra pieces, and chamber music.
A setback occurred in 1769 when Empress Maria Theresa criticized the bishop for his rumored lifestyle at Grosswardein. As a result, the bishop dismissed his entire chapel, including the orchestra, and Ditters was without a job.
Ditters then traveled through Europe for about a year, and in the course of his journeys, he met Count Schaffgotsch, Prince–Bishop of Breslau, who would become his next patron. The count invited Ditters to stay at his castle at Johannisberg. The two men became good friends, and Ditters would spend his next 20 years at the castle, where he would enjoy his most productive years as well as experience his greatest fame.
Flourished at Johannisberg Castle
At Johannisberg, Ditters lived a somewhat secluded existence, but his reputation in Europe grew and his music became very popular. His instrumental music became widely distributed and his vocal music, including his operas, operettas and singspiels, were often performed, particularly in Vienna. At the same time, he continued producing new works, composing symphonies, chamber music, and opere buffe. In all, he created 12 pieces for the stage between 1771 and 1776.
He became one of the best–known and most popular composers of the period. In 1773, his oratoria, L'Esther ossia La Liberatrice del popolo giudaico nella Persia, was especially well received. He followed this in 1786 with another oratoria, Giobbe (Job), which was even more popular. His renown among the public seemed to increase with each composition, and his music was very much in vogue throughout Europe, where his symphonies, overtures, masses, oratorios, operas, cantatas, and concerti were frequently performed. His other famous oratorios from this period included Isacco, figura del redentore (1766) and Il Davide nella Valle di Terebintho (Davidde penitente) (1771).
During the period, he also gained significant personal honors, including titles. With the Prince–Bishop's help, Ditters became a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur in 1770, an honor that was bestowed upon him by the Pope. In 1773, he returned to Vienna to conduct a performance of Esther. Emperor Joseph II was so impressed with Ditters' oratoria that he offered him post as chapel master, but Ditters decided to remain at Johannisberg. To influence this decision, Count Schaffgotsch had named Ditters Amtshauptmann of nearby Freiwaldau. The post required a noble title and, for a fee, he was granted one by the Empress Maria Theresia. Afterward, Ditters became known as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf.
Fame Increased with Public Appearances
Throughout the 1780s, Ditters increasingly broke away from his Johannisberg seclusion. In the early 1780s, he began making frequent appearances in Vienna. By mid–decade, six of his twelve programmatic Ovid symphonies had been performed in the imperial Augarten.
Ditters enjoyed a major breakthrough on July, 11, 1786, when his comic opera, Der Apotheker und der Doktor, caused a sensation in Vienna and was subsequently performed in the most prominent theaters in Europe. During the last half of the decade, he composed eight more comic operas. Four of these earned him even more international acclaim. These included Betrug durch Aberglauben, Die Liebe im Narrenhause, Das rote Käppchen, and Hieronymus Knicker.
By now, Ditters had become an internationally famous composer. In 1789 he traveled to Berlin, Germany, on a special invitation from Friedrich Wilhelm II, who had him stage a spectacular performance of Hioband Apotheker. In 1794 Ditters began composing comic operas for a small Silesian court theater at Oels in Poland.
Career Took a Downward Turn
Ditters' fortunes took a bad turn in 1795, however. Count Schaffgotsch, the Prince–Bishop of Breslau, who housed Ditters at Johannisberg for nearly 20 years, passed away. Ditters was forced to leave the castle. He was granted a pension, but it provided him with barely enough money to survive. Compounding his woes, Ditters suffered arthritis.
Fortunately, he was spared from these dire circumstances by an invitation from Baron Ignaz von Stillfried, who offered to put Ditters and his family up in his castle, Rothlhotta, in southern Bohemia. Ditters accommodations were rather spartan, but Rothlhotta provided him a home until his death.
Ditters spent his last years supervising operatic productions and preparing his own compositions for publication. However, he found that his reputation as a leading light in the music world had greatly declined. Public performances of his works were few and far between. Finally, his music was not performed anywhere. In addition, music publishers turned down his new compositions, claiming that there was not a demand for his works anymore.
The news greatly depressed the ailing Ditters, and it contributed to his death in Bohemia on October 24, 1799. He was 60 years old. Almost as if anticipating his death, Ditters managed to complete his autobiography, Lebenbeschreibung, three days before he passed away. Though his writing style has been criticized as flowery and highly embellished, his autobiography nevertheless provides a revealing glimpse into the life and times of an eighteenth–century court musician. The work was eventually published in Leipzig in 1801.
Right from the start of his 40–year career, Ditters displayed a prolificacy, versatility, and creativity that was remarkable. He tried his hand at all musical genres, and he proved he could produce successful compositions in each. Though his works are rarely performed today, he was one of the leading composers of the Classical era, which began around the second half of the eighteenth century and lasted until the early nineteenth century, when it began to give way to the Romantic era of music (circa 1820).
The Classical style, which was also reflected in the era's literature and architecture, was more formal, more clearly articulated, simple, and more natural than works from the preceding Baroque era. The music was characterized by homophony, or a dominate melody over a subordinate harmony.
The best known composers of the period include Ditters' friend Haydn as well as Mozart, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven. At one point in his career, Ditters' name ranked among the best composers of the Classical era, and his popularity was greater than Haydn's or Mozart's. However, today Ditters' ranking has considerably lessened and his works are rarely performed.
Even so, his output was enormous. He composed operas, sacred vocal music, symphonies, chamber music, and keyboard music. Today, his best known works are his symphonies. He composed 120 of these works over the span of several decades, and they provide insight into his development as a composer. Ditters' symphonies display considerable wit, unexpected touches, and unique approaches that often set him apart from his contemporaries and no doubt contributed to the great popularity he enjoyed.
His programmatic symphonies are considered his best, and the 12 that were based on Ovid's Metamorphoses are his best known. Six of the twelve have survived, as have many of his symphonic compositions. Today his symphonies are noted for their folk–like melodies that were culled from the period.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 2001.
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"Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799)," Composers.Net,http://184.108.40.206/database/d/Dittersdorf.html (December 27, 2004).
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