Johann Mattheson

Johann Mattheson
28.09.1681 - 17.04.1764


Born: September 28, 1681 - Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 17, 1764 - Hamburg, Germany


Johann Mattheson was a German composer, writer, lexicographer, diplomat and music theorist. He was a close friend of Georg Frideric Handel, although he nearly killed him in a sudden quarrel, during a performance of Mattheson's opera Cleopatra in 1704. G.F. Handel was saved only by a large button which turned aside Mattheson's sword. The two were afterwards reconciled.

The son of a well-to-do tax collector, Johann Mattheson received a broad liberal arts education at the Johanneum, studying English, French, and Italian and receiving general music instruction from the cantor Joachim Gerstenbüttel. At 6 he took private lessons in keyboard instruments and composition from J. N. Hanff as well as singing and violin lessons from a local musician. By the age of nine he was a prodigy, singing and playing organ in Hamburg churches as well as performing in the chorus of the Hamburg opera.

After graduating from the Johanneum in 1693, Johann Mattheson served as a page at the court of Graf von Güldenlöw, then made his solo debut with the Hamburg opera in 1696 in female roles. After his voice changed, he sang tenor for the opera in addition to conducting rehearsals and composing operas (1697-1705). He met G.F. Handel in 1703 and the two became friends, journeying together to Lübeck that year to apply for the organist post at the Marienkirche vacated by Dietrich Buxtehude's retirement; both turned down the position. The two remained close despite a violent argument in 1704 that led to a duel.

Johann Mattheson's chief occupation from 1706 was as a professional diplomat. He had studied English in school and spoke it fluently. In 1704 he became the tutor of Cyrill Wich, son of the British envoy to Hamburg, Sir John Wich. Sir John appointed Mattheson his personal secretary in 1706, a position of considerable status and salary that he held for most of his life, serving Cyrill when he succeeded his father in 1715. He went on diplomatic missions abroad representing the ambassador. In 1709 he married an English woman.

In 1718 Mattheson became music director of the Hamburg Cathedral, for which he composed much sacred music, but he gave up the position in 1728 because of deafness. In 1719 he was named Kapellmeister to the Duke of Holstein, later becoming legation secretary (1741) and counsel (1744) to the duke.


Johann Mattheson was a prolific composer up to the 1730s, especially of sacred music and opera. The bulk of his compositional output was vocal, including eight operas, and numerous oratorios and cantatas. He also wrote a few sonatas and some keyboard music, including pieces meant for keyboard instruction. Unfortunately, all of hismusic except for one opera, one oratorio, and a few collections of instrumental music were missing after World War II, but were given back from Erivan in Armenia in 1998. This includes four Operas and most of the oratorios. The manuscripts are now located at the Staats and Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, former Hamburg Stadtbibliothek.

Johann Mattheson is mainly famous as a music theorist. He was the most thorough writer on performance practice, theatrical style, and harmony of the German Baroque. In addition to some original work - particularly on the relationship of the disciplines of rhetoric and music - he was a compiler of most of the ideas current at the time. His literary writings constitute a large body of work (all published in Hamburg) that comments on nearly every aspect of music making in his day. Of particular interest is Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), containing a wealth of information for the Kapellmeister-in-training, including an attempt to systematize the doctrines of rhetoric as they apply to music. Of great historical importance is Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (1740), a biographical lexicon of 149 musicians; many of the entries were based on information provided by the subjects themselves. Other important writings include Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1713); the first German music periodical, Critica musica (1722-25); Der musicalische Patriot (1728); Grosse General-Bass-Schule (1731).

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