Wednesday 13 November 2019

Leopold who? The forgotten composer of Viennese music

Similar paths: Koželuch succeeded Mozart as Vienna court composer
Similar paths: Koželuch succeeded Mozart as Vienna court composer

George Hamilton

If you were to come across a description of a late 18th-century musician as "an admirable young composer of Vienna" whose productions are "in general excellent, abounding with solidity, good taste, correct harmony", you'd imagine the critic had Mozart in mind. But you would be very much mistaken.

Charles Burney, whose General History of Music was the benchmark in the English language when it was published in 1789, was thinking of somebody else entirely - somebody you've probably never heard of.

I hadn't either, until I found myself listening to one of his keyboard concertos on the radio the other day, and trying to figure out who exactly might have written it.

Leopold Koželuch, that's who. He was a composer-pianist, and it turns out he was every bit as big as Wolfgang Amadeus in his day.

While Burney was singing his praises in London, in Leipzig a German dictionary of musicians was dubbing Koželuch "the most popular living composer among young and old alike, and that with absolute justification".

Koželuch was born in what is now the Czech Republic, and came to Vienna to further his career.

He made quite an impact, being much sought after as a teacher. He was a popular performer, too.

And he played a part, however indirectly, in the development of one of the most significant collaborations in contemporary opera.

In his memoir Reminiscences, the Irish tenor Michael Kelly recalls meeting Mozart for the first time at one of Koželuch's concerts. That's an indication in itself of just how much of a draw Koželuch must have been.

Mozart and Kelly would become firm friends, playing billiards together and swapping musical ideas.

Mozart thought very highly of Kelly, and cast him in two different roles in the premiere of his Marriage of Figaro in 1786.

The paths of Koželuch and Mozart clearly led in similar directions. When Mozart left Salzburg for Vienna, Koželuch was offered his old job. He turned it down, and Joseph Haydn's younger brother Michael was appointed instead.

Following Mozart's death in 1791, it was Koželuch who succeeded him as Vienna's court composer.

So where did it all go wrong for the Bohemian musician? Mind you, he wasn't the only one to disappear from view.

Obviously, the competition was intense. The elder Haydn was a huge presence. There was Beethoven. Not to mention Mozart himself. Schubert struggled to get a look in. He took to song-writing to make ends meet. It was only after his early demise that his talents as a symphonist were finally recognised.

It may have been Mozart's early passing, just short of his 36th birthday. It may simply have been his prolific output which meant there was a Mozart piece for virtually every occasion and every taste.

Posterity can be cruel. You've only to think back across the recent past to come up with names from the field of popular music who have vanished without trace.

Koželuch had fallen into that category. But a compilation released last year by the English pianist and conductor Howard Shelley - "a rescuer of lost musical souls", as Gramophone magazine put it - has played an important part in returning him to the mainstream.

The CD (Hyperion CDA68154), which teams Shelley with the London Mozart Players in performances of three of Koželuch's 22 concertos, showcases the elegance and good humour of the music.

More humour than the Financial Times mustered when describing Koželuch as "Mozart with the genius switch turned off", though the paper did concede that Shelley and the orchestra made a persuasive case for the music.

With the second sentiment, I wholeheartedly concur. Welcome back, Leopold Koželuch. Well worth a listen.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday

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