Josef Myslivecek

Category: Musician

Learn more about Josef Myslivecek

Josef Myslivecek (March 9, 1737 – February 4, 1781) was a Czech composer of classical music.

Myslivecek and his twin brother, Jachym, were born in Prague to a prosperous mill owner. He studied philosophy at Charles-Ferdinand University, but he left school without a degree. He then followed in the footsteps of his father, eventually achieving, in 1761, the rank of master miller. Despite his success as a miller, Myslivecek abandoned the family profession to pursue music.

Myslivecek first began formal musical study in Prague during the early 1760s, when Franz Habermann and Josef Seger taught him composition. In 1763 he traveled to Venice to study with the organist and composer Giovanni Pescetti; family wealth and additional financial support from the Bohemian nobleman Vincenz von Waldstein made this possible. Apart from a visit to Prague in 1767–68, a short trip to Vienna in 1773, and an extended stay in Munich between December 1776 and April 1778, Myslivecek never left Italy.

In Italy, Myslivecek became known as Il Boemo (“the Bohemian”) and also Venatorino (“the little hunter”), which is a literal translation of his name. He was granted membership in the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna in 1771. He earned his living through teaching, performing, and composing music. He frequently received gratuities from wealthy admirers of his work, but he never accepted direct employment from any ruler, minister, or noble, not because such work was unavailable, but because he did not want to feel constrained by the tastes or dictates of a patron.

In 1770 Myslivecek met in Bologna a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father, Leopold. He remained close friends with the Mozarts until 1778: after Myslivecek failed to secure an opera commission for the younger Mozart at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, as he promised he would, the Mozarts ceased contact with him. Before his estrangement with them, Myslivecek featured prominently in letters exchanged between the father and son, and he influenced the early musical direction of the latter.

Myslivecek and Christoph Willibald Gluck were the first Czechs to become famous as operatic composers. However, their output was not distinctively Czech: Myslivecek’s operas contained features more common to the arias of his adopted home. During his period of active operatic composition (1766–1780), Myslivecek succeeded in having more new opere serie, twenty-six in all, brought into production than any other composer in Europe. His works were also the most frequently performed at the then most prominent opera venue in Italy, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. In spite of his obvious importance to the Italian opera scene of the 1760s and 1770s, his contributions to this culture have been largely ignored by opera historians.

Apart from composing operas, Myslivecek also wrote chamber music, concertos, oratorios, and symphonies. With near certainty, his Op. 2 string quintets can be said to be the earliest string quintets with two violas ever published. He also pioneered the composition of music for wind ensembles. His greatest composition may be the oratorio Isacco figura del Redentore, which was first performed in Florence in 1776, while his violin concertos merit recognition as important pieces composed between the generations of Vivaldi and Mozart.

Myslivecek died in poverty in Rome in 1781. His student, the wealthy Englishman James Hugh Smith Barry, paid for his funeral, and, supposedly, a marble memorial. That memorial has not been found, but his resting place in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina does feature a memorial placed there by latter-day Czech admirers.

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