Josef Mysliveček

For the asteroid, see 53159 Mysliveček.
Posthumous portrait of Josef Mysliveček by Jan Vilímek based on a contemporary engraving

Josef Mysliveček (9 March 1737 4 February 1781) was a Czech composer who contributed to the formation of late eighteenth-century classicism in music. Mysliveček provided his younger friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with significant compositional models in the genres of symphony, Italian serious opera, and violin concerto; both Wolfgang and his father Leopold Mozart considered him an intimate friend from the time of their first meetings in Bologna in 1770 until he betrayed their trust over the promise of an operatic commission for Wolfgang to be arranged with the management of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. He was close to the Mozart family, and there are frequent references to him in the Mozart correspondence.


The house of Mysliveček's parents on Melantrichova Street in Prague, where the composer spent much of his childhood and early adulthood. A bust of the composer can be seen on the lower left above a commemorative plaque.

Mysliveček was born in Prague, one of twin sons of a prosperous mill owner, and studied philosophy at Charles-Ferdinand University before following in the footsteps of his father.[1] No documentation exists to support claims that he was actually born in Horní Šárka, a rural district to the north and west of Prague in the early eighteenth century. He achieved the rank of master miller in 1761, but gave up the family profession in order to pursue musical studies. In Prague, he studied composition with Franz Habermann and Josef Seger in the early 1760s. His ambitions led him to travel to Venice in 1763 to study with Giovanni Pescetti. His travel to Italy was subsidized in part from family wealth, in part from the Bohemian nobleman Vincenz von Waldstein. In Italy he became known as Il Boemo ("the Bohemian") and also Venatorini ("the little hunter"), a literal translation of his name. Reports that he was known as Il divino Boemo ("the Divine Bohemian") during his lifetime are false.[2] The nickname originated from the title of a romanetto about the composer by Jakub Arbes that was first published in 1884. He was made a member of the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna in 1771. Mysliveček prized freedom of movement and was never employed directly by any noble, prelate, or ruler, unlike most of his contemporaries. He earned his living through teaching, performing, and composing music, and frequently received gratuities from wealthy admirers. Financially irresponsible throughout his life, he died destitute in Rome in 1781. He is buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, where a memorial placed by latter-day Czech admirers can be seen. No trace has ever been found of a memorial in marble supposedly erected shortly after his death by James Hugh Smith Barry, a wealthy English student of Mysliveček who paid for his funeral expenses.

After his arrival in Italy in 1763, Mysliveček never left the country except for a visit to Prague in 1767–68, a short visit to Vienna in 1773, and an extended stay in Munich between December 1776 and April 1778. His return to Prague led to the production of several of his operas. He was invited to Munich by the musical establishment of the Elector Maximilian III Joseph to compose an opera for the carnival season of 1777 (Ezio).

Mysliveček's first opera, Semiramide, was performed at Bergamo in 1766 (there is no evidence that a putative production at Parma of an opera titled Medea ever took place). His Il Bellerofonte was a great success in Naples after its first performance at the Teatro San Carlo on 20 January 1767, and it led to a number of commissions from Italian theaters. Ever after, his productions would almost always feature first-rate singers in the leading roles. Almost all of his operas were successful until a disastrous production of Armida that took place at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan for the carnival season of 1780. One of the many honors that came to him for his talents as a composer of opera was a commission to provide the music for the opening of a new opera theater in Pavia in 1773 (his first setting of Metastasio's libretto Demetrio).[3]

Other than a reputation for promiscuity recorded in the Mozart correspondence, nothing is known of Mysliveček's love life. The composer never married, and no names of lovers are recorded. There is no documentation to support reports of romantic liaisons with the singers Caterina Gabrielli and Lucrezia Aguiari; no mention of love affairs with these singers pre-dates the publication of the fifth edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954).

Relationship with Mozart

A portrait of Mozart, aged 14, in Verona, 1770, by Saverio dalla Rosa (1745–1821)

In 1770 Mysliveček met the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Bologna.[4] He was close to the Mozart family until 1778, when contacts were broken off after he failed to make good on a promise to arrange an opera commission for Mozart at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.[5] Earlier, the Mozarts found his dynamic personality irresistible. In a letter to his father Leopold written from Munich on 11 October 1777, Mozart described his character as "full of fire, spirit and life."

Similarities in his musical style with the earlier works of Mozart have often been noted. Additionally, Mozart used musical motives drawn from various Mysliveček compositions to help fashion opera arias, symphonic movements, keyboard sonatas, and concertos. He also made an arrangement of Mysliveček's aria "Il caro mio bene" (from the opera Armida of 1780). The old text was replaced with the new text "Ridente la calma", KV 152 (210a), in a scoring for soprano with piano accompaniment.

According to the same letter of Wolfgang Mozart written from Munich on 11 October 1777, an incompetent surgeon burned off Mysliveček's nose while trying to treat a mysterious illness.[6] A letter of Leopold Mozart to his son of 1 October 1777 refers to the illness as something shameful for which Mysliveček was deserving of social ostracism. Mysliveček's reputation for sexual promiscuity, Leopold's insinuations, and the reference to facial disfigurement in Wolfgang's letter hint unmistakenly at the symptoms of tertiary syphilis. Mysliveček's explanation for his condition to Wolfgang--bone cancer caused by a carriage accident—is on the face of it preposterous. The concern Mozart revealed to his father at this time for Mysliveček's sufferings was very touching. In the entire Mozart correspondence, no individual outside the Mozart family was ever the cause for so much outpouring of emotion as what is found in Wolfgang's letter of 11 October 1777.


Bust on the Mysliveček house in Prague.

In all, he wrote twenty-six opere serie, including the aforementioned Il Bellerofonte. Nearly all were successful at their first performances until the disaster of Armida at La Scala during carnival of 1780. Some of the irregularities that doomed this production were not Mysliveček's fault, however, for example the interruption of performances caused by the lying-in of the prima donna Caterina Gabrielli, who gave birth, out of wedlock, in the middle of the run, at the age of 49.[7]

During the period of his activity as a composer of operas (1766–1780), Mysliveček succeeded in having more new opere serie brought into production than any other composer in Europe. It is noteworthy that in this same period more of his works were performed at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the most prestigious venue in Italy at that time for productions of serious opera, than those of any other composer. Nonetheless his contributions to Italian operatic culture of the 1760s and 1770s have been almost universally ignored by opera historians.

Mysliveček and Gluck were the first Czechs to become famous as operatic composers, but their output exhibits few, if any, Czech characteristics. Mysliveček's operas were very much rooted in a style of Italian opera seria that prized above all the vocal artistry to be found in elaborate arias.

Among his other pieces were oratorios, symphonies, concertos, and chamber music, including some of the earliest known string quintets composed with two violas. His Op. 2 string quintets were almost certainly the earliest string quintets with two violas ever published. Additionally, he was a pioneer in the composition of music for wind ensemble, the outstanding examples of which are his three wind octets. It may be fair to say that his greatest composition is the oratorio Isacco figura del Redentore, first performed in Florence in 1776. His violin concertos are perhaps the finest composed between the generation of Vivaldi and the Mozart violin concertos of 1775.

He was also one of the most gifted and most prolific composers of eighteenth-century symphonies, although his contributions to this genre have been ignored by musicologists in western Europe and North America almost as completely as his operas have been. Nearly all of Mysliveček's symphonies are cast in three movements without a minuet, following Italian traditions that originated in opera overtures. His opera overtures are also cast in three movements and were frequently performed as independent instrumental pieces. In the 1770s, he was the finest symphonist resident in Italy, and the esteem he enjoyed is reflected in the issuance of a set of symphonies (originally opera overtures) published by Ranieri del Vivo in Florence that was the first anthology of symphonies ever printed in Italy.

Mysliveček's compositions evoke a gracious, diatonic style typical of Italian classicism in music. His best works are characterized by melodic inventiveness, logical continuity, and a certain emotional intensity that may be attributable to his dynamic personality.


Instrumental works

Mysliveček's instrumental music includes divertimenti, sonatas, symphonies, etc.[8] Lost and questionable works have been omitted from this works' list, however they are inventoried fully in Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, which also provides a complete list of recordings and early and modern editions of the composer's music. The listings here do not report all manuscript and printed sources, rather key eighteenth-century sources and catalogs that offer clues to chronology.

Works for solo keyboard

Violin sonatas

Sonatas for two cellos

Sonata for violin, cello, and bass

Duets for two flutes

Trios for flute, violin, and cello

String trios

Trio for violin, cello, and string bass

String quartets

String quintets

Wind quintets

Wind octets

Oboe quintets

Miscellaneous work for wind instruments



Thurn und Taxis Hofbibliothek in Regensburg



See List of Operas by Mysliveček.

Miscellaneous secular dramatic works


Other vocal works

Secular cantatas


Sacred works



A documentary film about the genesis of the 2013 Prague production of Mysliveček's opera L'Olimpiade, produced by Mimesis Film and directed by Petr Václav, was released in 2015 under the title Zpověď zapomenutého (Confession of the Vanished). It was a winner of the Trilobit Beroun award of 2016. A full-length biopic devoted to Josef Mysliveček is scheduled to be produced by Jan Macola of Mimesis Film with a planned release date of 2017.[9]


  1. A comprehensive treatment of Mysliveček's life and works is found in Daniel E. Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, "Il Boemo" (Sterling Heights, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 2009).
  2. See Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, pp. 3 & 100.
  3. A collection of essays centered around the Pavia performance of Mysliveček's Demetrio of 1773 is found in Mariateresa Dellaborra, ed., "Il ciel non soffre inganni": Attorno al Demetrio di Mysliveček, "Il Boemo" (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2011).
  4. Mysliveček was first mentioned by Leopold Mozart in his Reisenotizen (travel notes) from 24–29 March 1770, after which he appears in 28 surviving letters written by members of the Mozart family. These are translated in Emily Anderson, ed., The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985). Anderson's translations of the Mozart correspondence were first published in 1938. She recognized the importance of Mysliveček's association with the Mozart family from her work as a translator and took care to include his portrait among the illustrations prepared for the edition. A complete appraisal of Mysliveček's personal and musical connections with the Mozart family is provided in Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, pp. 22555.
  5. New insights into Mysliveček's rapport with the Mozart family during their trips to Italy are presented in Giuseppe Rausa, "Mysliveček e Mozart: stranieri in Italia," in Il ciel non soffre inganni: Attorno al Demetrio di Mysliveček, 'Il Boemo', edited by Mariateresa Dellaborra (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2011), 45-82.
  6. The letter of 11 October 1777 that confirms Mysliveček's facial disfigurement is translated in Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 302-6, and is discussed in Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, 75-79.
  7. This incident is documented in issues of the Florentine newspaper Gazzetta universale published during the run of Armida (see Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, pp. 8990).
  8. A. Evans and R. Dearling, Josef Mysliveček (1737–1781): a Thematic Catalogue of his Instrumental and Orchestral Works, Musikwissenschaftliche Schriften XXXV (Munich & Salzburg: Katzbichler, 1999) is the only published thematic catalog of Mysliveček's works. Freeman, Josef Mysliveček, contains new works' lists with corrections to the Evans/Dearling catalog, which contains many mistakes and omissions.
  9. These plans are outlined in an article in the Prague Monitor of 30 July 2013 and the Mimesis Film website.

See also


External links

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