CARL DITTERS von DITTERSDORF (1739-1799)
"...Ditters has done most honor to the nation because he is a good composer as well as a great violinist." C.D. vn Dittersdorf 1766
Born in Vienna in 1739, he was the son of a costumer at the Imperial Court Theater. His surroundings were financially comfortable enough that the family could get him enrolled in a Jesuit school, giving him music and French lessons as well. He showed a great aptitude for the violin and, as well, composition. Joining the establishment of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen in 1751, he came to study with Giuseppe Bonno, a famous opera composer at the time (and later Court Kapellmeister for Joseph II). Bonno taught him in the art of Fuxian counterpoint and free composition.
Ditters remained in service to the Prince up to 1759, composing symphonies, concertos and serenades. He apparently quit the service of the Prince without permission to work for a Count Breda in Prague, but this lasted only a few months before the authorities showed up to arrest Ditters for failing to gain permission to leave his post with the Prince. At the age of 20, Ditters was apparently worth acquiring and retaining by the nobility, both for his skill at the violin and compositional efforts.
In the end, he went back to Vienna and became a first violinist at the Burgtheater, which also entailed him to appear before the Emperor and Court on festival and gala days in order to play solos and concertos. The surviving records of the time show that he was a major contributor of new works to the Burgtheater for concerts and a featured soloist as well. Ditters was so much in demand that he managed to get some of his orchestral duties lifted so that he could do more private teaching, composing and give concerts.
He became close to Gluck and studied his operas with an eye to improving his own efforts. In 1763, both Gluck and Ditters left for Italy to take up opera; Gluck to fill some commissions and Ditters to study and perhaps help. In the end, after a few months, they were summoned back to Vienna to deal with the festivities concerning the coronation of Archduke (later Emperor) Joseph as King of the Romans. Once back, Ditters again took up the concert stage to demonstrate his abilities with the violin, and premiered several more of his compositions.
At his point, Ditters was so well thought of that he was offered 1000 gulden to be first violinist at the Burgtheater and as well continue to play the solos for the court as before. He accepted, but the manager was dismissed before the contract could be finalized. His replacement, Count Wenzel Sporck, refused to honor the agreement reached. In the end, the count relented to an extent, but once his contract was up in 1765, Ditters refused to stay any longer, quit the Burgtheater and took a post in Romania to an Archbishop Patachich.
Here Ditters began to compose his first vocal works, including operas and oratorios, as well as a continued stream of instrumental materials. His pay was less than half of his Vienna years, and so he made up for that shortfall by selling music and taking short concert tours. On one of these he came to the notice of the Prince-Bishop of Breslau, whom he later (once the Archbishop disbanded the court orchestra) joined and stayed with for about 20 years.
It was around this time (1766) that an article received wide circulation in the German states extolling the virtues of Northern German composers (read "Berlin") and panning the efforts of those in the Viennese school. It apparently questioned the abilities of both Haydn and Ditters as to their skills in composition. A reply was generated in October of 1766 that extolled the skills of the Viennese composers then in the city of Vienna. While no author is stated, the inside information, literary acumen displayed and the choice of composers receiving the greatest praise (Ditter's friends as well as himself) points strongly to Herr Ditters as the composer of this particular work.
Ditters, it seems, was always on the lookout for his best interests and another way polish himself up some was to use concert tours as a method to scout for possible posts he could apply for. The Prince-Bishop of Breslau, recognizing the abilities of Ditters, used financial rewards, flattery and eventually titles as incentives to stay. In 1770, Ditters was made a Knight of the Golden Spur, as were Gluck and Mozart. In the end, a patent of nobility was secured from Vienna, and from June 1773 on, the composer Ditters was officially Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf ( "von" as the noble "from" or "of" and Dittersdorf the non-existent town Ditters chose to be a "noble" of).
The 1770's saw Dittersdorf continue his "exile" in Breslau from the main music centers to continue to pursue vocal music, which turned towards small comic operas and oratorios. He visited Vienna on several occasions for their premiers, keeping in touch with his friend Haydn, who used these small operas as guides for his own efforts at the court at Esterhazy. Supposedly, on the death of Florian Gassmann the Kapellmeister, Joseph II offered the post to him. Dittersdorf refused, he says, based on the pay, but probably more likely as an attempt to pay back the Court for his contract troubles of 10 years earlier. However, there is a greater chance that he never was offered the post in the first place. Dittersdorf had shaped his career so as to be capable of being offered such a prestigious posting. To turn it down, in Vienna of all places, seems very unlikely.
The 1780's became the pinnacle of his compositional career. He composed the 12 symphonies (only six now exist in score, the rest just in piano reductions) after the Metamorphoses of Ovid (legendary classic mythological tales). In 1786 he received a commission to write a German opera for the Burgtheater, which became the singspiel Doktor und Apotheker, one of the first great German opera works (The Abduction is often considered the first) and equaling Mozart's efforts in popularity. It is probably the most known of all of Dittersdorf's works today.
Dittersdorf then turned to string quartets, after many years of refusing to compose them. Having seen the efforts of Haydn and Mozart in this field, he may have been reluctant to take a comparison, but it seems interesting that he took the plunge after his sitting in on that great classic event, the playing of one of Mozart's quartets by: Haydn and Dittersdorf on violin, Mozart on viola and Vanhal on cello. However, once they were written, in true Dittersdorf style, in an effort to get Artaria to publish them he referred to his great respect for Mozart's quartets, but said that they were too consistently artful to be bought and played by everyone. Didn't, he seemed to say, they need to publish easier, more popular works? Artaria did in fact publish these quartets.
In the end, Dittersdorf continued to compose comic works for the Vienna stages as well as other, minor works. He wrote his autobiography and apparently enjoyed his last decade in semi-retirement, dying two days after dictating the last pages of his life's story, on 24 October 1798. He was a virtuoso violinist who succeeded in concertos and comic operas, the same areas Mozart achieved his greatest successes in. His use of musical wit and traces of folksongs have led more than one reviewer to match him up with Haydn (maybe to some listeners, but I donít see as close of a matching). However, with his work in the theater, his stunning solo efforts within his own concerto works and his showmanship to advance his career reminds one more of Mozart than any of his other contemporaries.
The Six Metamorphoses Symphonies After Ovid, a 2 CD set by Chandros Records (CHAN 8564/5
Concertos: in F for Viola, Doublebass in E flat and a Sinfonia Concertante for Viola and Doublebass on the Supraphon label (SPR-110951)
Quartets: From the last six noted in the article above, numbers 1,3,4,5 CPO 999-038
Singspiel: Doktor und Apotheker BYR 1002 38/9, a 2 CD set
Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd Edition Groves Dictionaries, New York 2000
Artaria Composers Section
Liner notes from the various CDs noted above.
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