Amadeus, Part 2?
Opus Osm's Mary Matz looks at the colorful life of Czech composer Josef Mysliveček
This article originally appeared in Opus Osm, the free-of-charge, paperless daily magazine about Czech classical music, opera, and ballet, published in Prague for an international audience.
In case Academy Award-winning Czech director Miloš Forman should want to do a sequel to Amadeus, here's the perfect subject: Josef Mysliveček.
The life of this Czech composer would make a compelling biopic -- and he even knew Mozart, upon whom he had some considerable musical influence.
On his own merits, though, Mysliveček wrote roughly 85 symphonies, more than two dozen operas, plus concertos, chamber music, and some of the first string quintets.
Most of his musical triumphs took place in Italy, where he was known as Il Boemo, the Bohemian (supposedly because Italians couldn't pronounce his name — miss liv eh czech). His music is still often performed in Bohemia (and elsewhere) today.
If Mr. Forman wants intrigue, quirkiness, and drama for a screenplay, Mysliveček can deliver. To begin with, he wasn't a musician at all, but followed in his father's trade and became a master miller in 1761 after flunking out of Charles University.
He gave milling up for music, traveling to Venice in 1763 to continue studying, this time music. Finances were never a problem for Mysliveček (until the last three years of his life; he finally died alone and bankrupt). For most of his career, though, he was able to freelance as a teacher, composer, and musician.
In 1770 the well-established Mysliveček met Mozart and his father; they became good friends of the Bohemian, although when Mysliveček had his nose burned off by an inept surgeon trying to treat the composer's syphilis, Mysliveček told the young Mozart it was "bone cancer." Later a rift occurred when Mysliveček promised Mozart an operatic commission which didn't happen.
Historians have claimed that Mysliveček wrote six symphonies in six months, named after the first six months of the year. But no one has been able to prove that. They also claim that Italians called him the Little Hunter, the literal translation of his name. But they can't prove that, either. His first great operatic success came in 1767 with Il Bellerofonte in Naples, at that time the center of opera seria -- serious, tragic opera -- in Italy. They can prove that, but not the rumors that he was linked romantically with the singer Caterina Gabrielli -- or any other individual singer.
For the 15 years starting in 1765 he was the most prolific composer of serious opera in Europe. His downfall came with his first flop, the opera Armida, at La Scala in 1780. (Some historians link the disaster to interrupted performances when the aforementioned Gabrielli paused to give birth to an out-of-wedlock child.)
The next three years saw a succession of failures; Mysliveček fell into poverty and illness, and died in 1781.
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