A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Mattheson, Johann

MATHESON [App. p.715 "the name should be spelt Mattheson throughout"], Johann, German musician and writer, born Sept. 28, 1681, at Hamburg, son of a clerk of excise; as a child showed striking symptoms of versatility, which his parents carefully cultivated. Besides the ordinary education he studied music, and at nine years could play the harpsichord and organ, sing and compose. His ability and versatility were truly extraordinary, and recal those of the 'admirable Crichton.' A good classical scholar and a proficient in modern languages, a student of law and political science, a fine player both on harpsichord and organ, and thoroughly skilled in theory, an elegant dancer, a master of fence, and a cultivated man of the world. The first step in his changeful career was his appearance in 1697 as a singer in the Hamburg opera, then in its most flourishing condition. In 1699 he produced his first opera, 'Die Pleysden,' siuging his part on the stage, and then sitting down at the harpsichord to conduct the orchestra. To this period belongs his acquaintance with Handel, who came to Hamburg in 1703. Matheson tells us that he recognised Handel's genius immediately, that they became at once attached, and that their friendship continued, with occasional breaks caused by Matheson's vanity, during the whole time of Handel's stay in Hamburg (1709). He claims to have done Handel an important service by introducing him to the musical world of Hamburg, at that time very celebrated; but he acknowledges that he picked up from him many a 'contrapuntal device.' Handel's 'Nero' (1705) was the last opera in which Matheson appeared; he then retired from the stage, and declined more than one organist's post which was offered to him. He became tutor to the son of the English envoy, and in 1706 was made secretary of legation. His post was one of labour and responsibility, but he still continued to teach, conduct, compose, and write on musical subjects. In 1715 he was appointed Cantor and Canon of the cathedral; and took an active part in the development of the Church-cantata, so soon after carried to its highest pitch by J. S. Bach. [See Kirchencantaten.] This was the result of an attempt, made more particularly by the Hamburg composers, to vary the monotony of congregational singing by the introduction of airs, duets, choruses, etc., and was considered by the orthodox an impious and sacrilegious innovation. Matheson supported this 'adapted dramatic' style, as it was called, both as a composer and as a pamphleteer; and even ventured on a further innovation, by introducing female singers into church.

In 1719 he received from the Duke of Holstein the title of Court- Capellmeister. In 1728 he was attacked with deafness, which obliged hirn to resign his post at the cathedral. Thenceforward he occupied himself chiefly with writing, and died at an advanced age in 1764 [App. p.715 "April 17"]. He is said to have resolved to publish a work for every year of his life, and this aim he more than accomplished, for when he died at 83, his printed works amounted to 88, besides a still larger number of completed MSS.

None of his compositions have survived. With all his cleverness and knowledge he had no real genius; his vocal music was overburdened with declamatory passages—a fault easily explained by his own experience on the stage, but one which is often detrimental and must have been very incongruous in church music. He composed 24 oratorios and cantatas; 8 operas; sonatas for flute and violin; suites for clavier; arias; pièces de circonstance for weddings, funerals, etc. A 'Passions-Cantate' to words by Brockes deserves attention, not for its intrinsic value, but because the poem was set by nearly all the great composers of the day, including Reiser and Matheson, Telemann and Handel.

His books are of far greater value than his compositions. In these, notwithstanding a peculiar self-satisfied loquacity, he shows himself a ready and skilful champion for earnestness and dignity in art, for progress, and for solidity of attainment in the practical part of music. In both branches, theoretical and practical, he attacked and demolished much that was antiquated, furnishing at the same time a great deal that was new and instructive, and bequeathing to posterity a mine of historical material. He also found time for much other literary work, especially translations (chiefly from English works on politics and jurisprudence), and even translated a small treatise on tobacco. This extraordinary versatility, and his untiring industry, go far to redeem the vanity which animated his character and actions, and continually shows itself in his writings. His autobiography in the 'Ehrenpforte' contains an amusingly egotistical description of his manifold labours. His more important books are scarce, and much valued, especially the historical ones, which are the standard sources of information on the state of music at that period, especially in Hamburg. These are 'Das neu eröffnete Orchester' (1713), followed by 'Das beschützte' and 'Das forschende Orchester '(1717 and 1721); 'Der musikalische Patriot' (1728); and the 'Grundlage einer Ehrenpforte' (1740), a collection of biographies of contemporary musicians. The two last are the most important. His theoretical works are the 'Exemplarische Organisten Probe' (1719),republished in 1731 as the 'Grosse Generalbassschule; [App. p.715 "'Critica Musica' (1722)"] the 'Kleine Generalbassschule' (1735); the 'Kern melodischer Wissenschaft' (1737); and finally the 'Vollkommene Capellmeister' (1739), perhaps his most valuable work. As a controversial writer he was wanting in temper; his 'Ephorus Göttingensis' (1727), directed against Professor Joachim Meyer of Gottingen on the Church-cantata question, is the only work of that class we need specify.

[ A. M. ]