aboutJOSEF MYSLIVEČeK

Historický film o nejslavnějším českém umělci 18. století

Introduction

A native of Prague, Josef Mysliveček (1737–1781) developed into one of the leading musical personalities in the whole of Europe. He was in his time the most sought-after opera composer in Italy and can be described without exaggeration as having been the most celebrated artist of Czech origin in the 18th century. He collaborated with the vocal stars of his time, consorted with powerful nobles, and influenced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself. His music continues to fascinate listeners to this day with its energy, ingenuity, and emotional depth.

STORY

There is relatively little we can say about Mysliveček's life with absolute certainty, and he remains largely shrouded in mystery.  In comparison with other composers, period documents and letters are scarce, and we know practically nothing about his personal life in adulthood. His music, however, which continues to speak to us with immense force and eloquence, has been preserved almost in its entirety.

Childhood and youth

Josef Mysliveček was most likely born in Sova Mills in Kampa on 9 March 1737. His father was Matěj Mysliveček, a wealthy and influential miller. Mysliveček's mother, Anna Terezie, also came from a family of millers. In addition to a twin brother, Jáchym, Mysliveček also had a sister, Maria Anna, who entered a convent in adulthood. Jáchym made his living as a miller in Prague until his death. We know for a fact that the family was wealthy and materially sound, with Mysliveček's father buying, among other property, the “U Modrého šífu” house (Blue Ship House) in the Old Town (now Melantrichova 13). Josef likely attended a Dominican school at the Church of St. Giles, where he also probably went to music lessons. Afterwards, he would appear to have switched to the Jesuit college in Klementinum, where great emphasis was placed on the musical preparation of its students. We know that he enrolled at Charles-Ferdinand University but left after the first year because he “made no progress in logic”. He subsequently learned the trade of miller, studying hydraulics and mathematical subjects, among others, as required of the millers of that time. He successfully completed his studies, was admitted to the Prague Guild as a master miller and began working in the family mills. 

Departure to Italy

Mysliveček did not focus on music until he was twenty-five, at which stage he suddenly decided to change his path in life and become a composer and violin virtuoso. It is possible that he was influenced in his decision by the fact that Italian operas were once again being performed in Prague at that time after a forced absence caused by the Seven Years’ War. These productions likely caught his attention so much that he decided to make his mark on the genre himself.

He first completed his musical education in Prague with František Václav Habermann and Josef Seger and began writing his own compositions surprisingly quickly – his oldest surviving work is the successful Symphony in C major. However, an Italian education was indispensable for opera composers of that time and Mysliveček, like other important musicians from the Czech lands, such as Christoph Willibald Gluck, who spent his childhood and youth in Chřibská near Děčín and at the manor in Jezeří, and native of the town of Most Leopold Gassmann, departed for Italy.

Mysliveček left for Italy in the autumn of 1763 with the support of prominent patron of the arts Count Vincent of Wallenstein. He went to Venice, probably because the Italian operas which were performed in Prague, and the vocalists who sang in them, were often of Venetian provenance. In 1766, about two and a half years after his arrival in Venice, his first opera Semiramide was staged in Bergamo, and met with considerable success, bringing Mysliveček further opportunities, including an invitation to compose an opera for Naples.

Achievements in Italy

During his time in Italy, Mysliveček travelled from city to city, composed for various theatres, and never accepted a permanent position. He was primarily associated with the Neapolitan Teatro San Carlo, which was the most prestigious European stage of its time in terms of Italian opera seria. It was in this esteemed theatre that more of Mysliveček’s operas were performed than anywhere else. 

Mysliveček's first opera for Naples, Il Bellerofonte, met with an enthusiastic reception. The main roles were sung by tenor Anton Raaff and soprano Caterina Gabrielli, two of the most famous opera stars of the age, and Mysliveček went on to work with them many times in the future. Other favourite collaborators included Luigi Marchesi, one of the most admired male sopranos (castrati) of that time. The positive response to the opera led to commissions for many other Italian theatres, including Florence, Rome, Venice, Turin, and Bologna

Mysliveček also achieved great success in Munich, where his opera Ezio was performed in 1777, as was his oratorio Isacco, figura del redentore, which Wolfgang Mozart suggested in a letter that "the whole of Munich" was still talking about even six months later.

Mysliveček and Mozart

Mysliveček first met Wolfgang Mozart and his father Leopold in Bologna in 1770. He is mentioned in twenty-eight of the surviving letters from the Mozart family correspondence from between 1770 and 1778, although even this significant amount of correspondence is probably only a fraction. We can only guess at the actual level of personal contact and the number of letters involved. In 1770, Wolfgang Mozart, aged 14, worked on the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, which was to be performed in Milan.
Mysliveček was an important mentor to Mozart at that time, introducing him to the latest trends in composing Italian opera seria. Mozart's Mitridate can be described without exaggeration as a “Mysliveček” work, with Mozart borrowing a number of musical ideas from Mysliveček's opera La Nitteti for his own opera.
Mysliveček and Wolfgang Mozart met for the last time in Munich, at which time Mysliveček was already seriously ill. Mozart visited him in hospital and wrote about the meeting in a letter to his father in much detail and with great emotion.
The friendship between Mysliveček and the Mozarts was later to cool when Mysliveček was unable to make good on his promise of getting Wolfgang a commission for an opera at Teatro San Carlo. Mozart returned to the genre of opera seria at the end of his life, when he composed the opera La clemenza di Tito, which premiered at the Estates Theatre in Prague in 1791 on the occasion of the coronation of Leopold II as Bohemian king. Mysliveček composed music for the same libretto some seventeen years earlier.

Close of life

In the final years of his life, Mysliveček suffered from major health problems and pain caused by a progressive disease, most likely syphilis. Despite this, however, he continued to compose operas and instrumental pieces. Three years before his death, he presented one of his best operas of all, L'Olimpiade, which was played in honour of the nameday of the King of Spain. One comment from the time states: The famous aria "Se cerca, se dice", in particular the second part "Che abisso di pene, lasciare il suo bene", was received with awe, bordering on frenzy. 
The music Mysliveček wrote for this aria is truly a masterpiece of the most beautiful and eloquent vocal style and uses a completely new and very complex accompaniment.

In addition to illness, Mysliveček also had financial problems and had to resort to taking out several loans from a bank for the poor.
It is not known exactly when he died, but there is a record of a funeral which took place in Rome in the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina on 4 February 1781. This date was soon accepted as the date of his death. He left behind virtually no possessions, and the priest who recorded his funeral took Mysliveček to be a 65-year-old man, when in reality the composer did not even live to the age of forty-four.

Compiled from Daniel E. Freeman’ guidebook Il Boemo: průvodce po životě a díle Josefa Myslivečka (Vyšehrad, 2021) and the monograph Josef Mysliveček, "Il Boemo" (Calumet Editions, 2023).

IL DIVINO BOEMO

When the name of Josef Mysliveček is mentioned, many Czechs first associate him with the nickname “Il divino Boemo” – “the divine Czech”, perhaps because it emphasizes the great success of a compatriot abroad. But in fact, this nickname is only a half truth.  Period documents provide evidence that Mysliveček was referred to in Italy as “Il Boemo”, that is, “the Czech”, for the simple reason that his Czech surname was hard for the Italians to pronounce, leading to all sorts of variations and distortions. It is also true that a number of other prominent composers were given similar place-of-origin nicknames: for example, G. F. Handel (Il Sassone) and Baldassare Galuppi (Il Buranello). The popular legend of the “the divine Czech” comes from the romanetto “Il divino Boemo” by nineteenth-century Czech writer Jakub Arbes, which was published more than a hundred years after Mysliveček's death. The phrase "Il divino Boemo" then appeared in the title of several works about Mysliveček's life: from opera to biographical novel to TV film. There is, however, no period evidence for the nickname. Of course, this changes nothing of the fact that Mysliveček was one of the most popular composers in Italy of his age and that listeners there truly adored his music. 

WORK

Josef Mysliveček achieved mastery in almost all major music genres of the time. He excelled among his contemporaries from the 1760s and 70s in writing some of the best serious operas of the age, as well as extremely successful concerts, symphonies, and chamber pieces. We might describe Mysliveček's musical style as firmly embedded in the Italian taste of the time, but with many Central European elements that he acquired while studying in Prague.

Opera

Those composers who wanted to achieve the greatest glory and success in the 1760s had to assert themselves in the field of Italian serious opera: opera seria. At that time, this was the most prestigious and dazzling genre of music which accompanied spectacular social events and that enjoyed the support of the most prominent European nobles and church dignitaries. 

Mysliveček's operas were performed before royal families to mark important events in their lives and featured the most famous singers of the time, such as Caterina Gabrielli, Luigi Marchesi, and Anton Raaff. His most successful operas include Bellerofonte, Il gran Tamerlano, Romolo ed Ersilia, L'Olimpiade, and Adriano in Siriia.
Mysliveček composed his operas based on the favourite librettos of the time. One of the most popular authors associated with opera seria was poet Pietro Metastasio, who wrote sixteen of the librettos for Mysliveček's twenty-six operas. The plots of these operas take place in distant regions or in ancient times and feature, for example, Roman emperors and commanders or ancient rulers as their heroes. Opera plots also frequently drew on classical Greek myths. In addition to opera, Mysliveček also wrote successful oratorios, religious musical dramas on biblical themes.

Mysliveček composed eight oratorios in seven years, but only the scores for four of them have been preserved to this day: Tobia, Adamo ed Eva, La passione di Gesù Cristo, and Isacco, figura del redentore. The last-mentioned oratorio is one of the greatest highlights of Mysliveček's work, and was in the past mistakenly referred to as the piece by Wolfgang Mozart.

The most prestigious genre in the field of instrumental music in the 1760s and 1770s was the symphony. Mysliveček was one of the leading symphony writers of his time and was undoubtedly the best among his contemporaries in Italy. His instrumental compositions further include, for example, outstanding violin concerts, string quartets and quintets, oboe quintets, and octets for wind instruments.

Compiled from Daniel E. Freeman’ guidebook Il boemo: průvodce po životě a díle Josefa Myslivečka (Vyšehrad, 2021) and the monograph Josef Mysliveček, "Il Boemo" (Calumet Editions, 2023).

Recordings
Vocal music:

Adamo ed Eva

Passacaille: 2019. Il gardellino, conducted by Peter Van Heyghen, soloists V. Contaldo, L. Mancini, R. Mameli, A. Rossi. 
CD on the label's website. Spotify.

Simona Šaturová - Decade:
Mozart & Mysliveček

Nibiru: 2014. L'armonia terrena, conducted by Zdeněk Klauda.
CD on the label's website. Spotify.

Magdalena Kožená - Le belle immagini: Mozart – Gluck – Mysliveček

Deutsche Grammophon: 2001. Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Michel Swierczewski. CD on the label's website. Spotify.

Instrumental music:

Complete Violin Concertos

Supraphon: 2022. Dvorak Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Libor Pešek, soloist Shizuka Ishikawa. CD on the label's website.

Oboe Quintets, String Quartets

Michaela Hrabánková. CD on the label's website. Spotify.

Complete Music for Keyboard

Nicholas McGegan, soloist Clare Hammond. CD on the label's website. Spotify.

Violin Concertos

Accent: 2018. Collegium 1704, conducted by Václav Luks, soloist Leila Schayegh. CD on the orchestra's website. Spotify.

Books

Mozart in Prague

Daniel E. Freeman. Calumet Editions, 2021. Available directly from Calumet Editions.

JOSEF MYSLIVEČEK IN CZECH CULTURE

Josef Mysliveček worked in a musical environment that demanded a constant supply of new works to keep listeners interested, and it therefore comes as no surprise that his eminence quickly tumbled after his death. What is more, Italian serious opera was slowly going out of fashion as a genre. Many of Mysliveček's operatic arias circulated in Czech churches and monasteries, where they were copied with Latin religious texts, but his operas were not performed at all during the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.

During the nineteenth century, a number of unfounded stories began circulating about Mysliveček's life, in particular about its adventurous aspects. The nickname "Il divino Boemo", taken from the title  of a romanetto by Jakub Arbes, began to spread  more than a hundred years after the composer's death. There has been a considerable renewal of interest in Mysliveček's work since the 1990s, as evidenced by the number of recordings and productions. 
In 2013, the orchestra Collegium 1704, conducted by Václav Luks, performed a modern Czech premiere of the opera L'Olimpiade at the National Theatre in Prague with an international cast. The production was nominated for the prestigious British Opera Awards in the Rediscovered Work category. More recently, contemporary opera stars such as Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, and Ann Hallenberg have included Mysliveček's arias on their albums.

In 2015, a documentary by director Petr Vaclav, Zpověď zapomenutého (Confession of the Vanished), arrived in cinemas, linking the search for Mysliveček's fate and personality in preserved period documents with footage from rehearsals for the above-mentioned production of his opera L'Olimpiade.

ILBOEMO

In Czech cinemas from 20 October 2022