Dittersdorf, Carl Ditters von [Ditters, Carl]
Born to Paul Ditters, costumier at the imperial court and theatre in Vienna, and his wife Anna (née Vandelin), Ditters enjoyed the benefits of a Jesuit school education, private tutoring and, from the age of seven, violin lessons. About 1750 he began studies with the violinist J.P. Ziegler, and before long he was accepted into the orchestra of the Schottenkirche. Soon afterwards he was recruited as a Kammerknabe by Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, whose Kapelle was one of the best in Vienna; from 1 March 1751 he played in the orchestra, performed menial duties, and was instructed in music and other subjects. With the violinist Trani he learnt Italian works and was groomed as a soloist, while Giuseppe Bonno taught him Fuxian counterpoint and composition. By the late 1750s Ditters had earned a reputation as a composer of instrumental music and had begun to receive commissions for symphonies and concertos.
When the prince left Vienna in 1761 to assume the regency in Hildburghausen, he found employment for most of his musicians with Count Giacomo Durazzo, imperial theatre director. Durazzo employed Ditters until 1764 as a soloist and orchestral musician at the Burgtheater and at court. Ditters, by now a recognized virtuoso and composer, played his own violin concertos in more than 20 solo appearances at Burgtheater concerts, where his symphonies and wind concertos were also performed. Accompanying Gluck to Italy in 1763, he gave well-received performances, and in 1764 he was commissioned to write the mass for the Frankfurt coronation of Archduke Joseph (later Emperor Joseph II) as King of the Romans. That year his contract expired, and during difficult negotiations with Count Wenzel Sporck, Durazzo's successor, Ditters accepted the post of Kapellmeister to Adam Patachich, Bishop of Grosswardein (now Oradea, Romania), in succession to Michael Haydn. After recruiting other musicians, he arrived in Grosswardein in April 1765. His duties included the preparation of concerts, sacred music and, after a small theatre was built at his recommendation, operas and other theatre pieces.
The rich musical life there came to an abrupt end in 1769 when Patachich, denounced at the imperial court for alleged excesses, dismissed most of his performers. Ditters, though asked to stay, found a new position with Count Philipp Gotthard von Schaffgotsch, Prince-Bishop of Breslau (now Wroc?aw), who lived in exile in the castle of Johannisberg (Jánský Vrch), near Jauernig (Javorník). Planning a concert tour, he initially agreed to stay only from 1 November 1769 to 31 May 1770, but Schaffgotsch persuaded him to remain. Early in 1770, Ditters learnt that he had been named Knight of the Golden Spur through Schaffgotsch's initiatives, and later that year he abandoned his travel plans when Schaffgotsch, unable to afford a Kapellmeister, secured for him lifetime employment as Forstmeister of the principality of Neisse (Nysa) and the reversion of the post of Amtshauptmann of Freiwaldau (Jeseník), which would require his ennoblement. As de facto Kapellmeister at Johannisberg, Ditters undertook to improve the orchestra and to recruit singers. Schaffgotsch, in accordance with his proposal, had a small theatre completed in 1771 in a tower adjoining the castle, for which Ditters wrote a series of Italian operas. On 3 March 1772 Ditters married Nicolina Trink, a Hungarian soprano at the court who had formerly sung at Grosswardein. The next year, on 5 June, Empress Maria Theresa granted him a patent of nobility, by which he acquired the additional surname ‘von Dittersdorf’. In December he conducted two performances in Vienna of his oratorio Esther, commissioned for the Tonkünstler-Societät by the imperial Kapellmeister, F.L. Gassmann. He later claimed in his autobiography that he was offered Gassmann's post when Gassmann died early in 1774 but refused it because his earnings were higher at Johannisberg.
Concerts and theatre productions continued at Johannisberg until Schaffgotsch closed the theatre in 1776; later that year Dittersdorf offered several operas for sale to Prince Esterházy. During the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9), Schaffgotsch dismissed his performers and fled to Brünn (Brno), leaving Dittersdorf to fulfil his administrative duties at Freiwaldau. The musical establishment was later reconstituted, but the theatre never reopened, and in 1785 Joseph II transferred administrative control of the bishopric to Baron A.V. von Kaschnitz, who drastically curtailed incomes and activities at Johannisberg.
Meanwhile, new opportunities beckoned in Vienna. On an extended sojourn there, 1786–7, Dittersdorf conducted a well-received performance of his new oratorio Giob for the benefit of the Tonkünstler-Societät. He also enjoyed financial success with his 12 symphonies based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and profited from the triumphant première of his German comic opera Der Apotheker und der Doktor, which led to three further stage commissions.
Apparently reluctant to resume work at Johannisberg, Dittersdorf sent a petition for employment to a long-standing supporter, Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, on 24 November 1786, but this was rejected. He returned to Johannisberg early in 1787 to find that the highly paid performers had been replaced by amateurs; yet he managed to establish a self-supporting theatre on the outskirts of Jauernig. He was officially dismissed from his post as Amtshauptmann by an order dated 17 July 1788 but other documents indicate that he continued to serve until 1795. Meanwhile the Prussian king invited Dittersdorf to Berlin after hearing performances of his works in Breslau in the autumn of 1788; around this time Dittersdorf began to suffer from gout. His visit in 1789 saw performances of new symphonies, a staging of the now-famous Apotheker, and a lucrative performance of Giob for Dittersdorf's own benefit, but no offer of employment.
When Emperor Leopold II came to power in 1790, circumstances at Johannisberg improved, enabling Schaffgotsch to grant Dittersdorf two new administrative positions; but in 1794 the composer's enemies at Johannisberg reportedly persuaded Schaffgotsch to ban him from the castle and revoke these posts, and when Schaffgotsch died in January 1795 Dittersdorf received only a meagre pension. Despite poor health, Dittersdorf in his last five years composed numerous works, including symphonies, many keyboard pieces and a Missa solemnis in C dedicated to Schaffgotsch's successor (1797). He also wrote stage works for the new theatre of Duke Friedrich August von Braunschweig-Oels at Oels (Ole?nica). In May 1797, ill and impoverished, he accepted lodgings at Baron Ignaz von Stillfried's castle of Roth Lhota (?ervená Lhota) in Bohemia, and he spent his final months at Neuhof, another castle owned by Stillfried. Two days before his death he finished dictating his autobiography to one of his sons.
Dittersdorf's works span nearly the entire development of the Viennese Classical style and include substantial contributions to most of the popular genres of his day. Accessible and engaging, they appealed to contemporary tastes, and many were widely disseminated. The authenticity of many works attributed to him has, however, as yet been impossible to verify, and the available data must be regarded as provisional. This is especially true in the case of the symphonies (see Grave, 1977).
As Dittersdorf noted in his autobiography, his theatrical experience at Grosswardein laid the foundation for his later operatic successes, and the surviving comic operas that he wrote for Johannisberg amply demonstrate his adeptness with current opera buffa style. The acclaim that greeted his first German comic opera for Vienna, Der Apotheker und der Doktor (1786), propelled him to fame, but his late German works for Oels earned him scarcely more than local recognition. Collectively, Dittersdorf's German operas feature striking tonal contrasts, orchestral effects and a range of styles that includes both florid Italian melody and the simplicity of traditional German song. They are important for their decisive role in enriching the hitherto humble genre of Singspiel with elements of opera buffa; especially significant are the extended finales, whose multi-sectional designs, involving numerous changes of key, metre and tempo, furnished a prototype for the German operas of contemporaries and successors.
Of the masses attributed to Dittersdorf, only relatively few have been studied (see MacIntyre). These incorporate traditional elements, such as long fugues and vocal coloratura, but favour progressive traits, with some structures resembling sonata form. The orchestration features obbligato writing, such as the elaborate violin and bassoon solos in the Benedictus of the Mass in C k327. If, as is believed, this is the coronation mass of 1764 for Archduke Joseph, then Dittersdorf himself was the violin soloist. Contemporary articles praising Dittersdorf’s masses may have been written by the composer himself (see Heartz, pp.443–6).
Dittersdorf's symphonies span virtually his entire career, and his changing approach to the genre mirrors recognized patterns of evolution in 18th-century Viennese instrumental music. Apart from a group of early three-movement works, almost all are in four movements. While the earliest symphonies have small proportions, nervous energy and modest instrumentation, the later ones tend towards more extended structures, simpler themes, richer harmony and more elaborate orchestration. Most of the opening allegro movements exhibit sonata form procedures, whereas the binary forms common in the early slow movements and the various forms in the early finales give way in many later works to rondo designs. In one remarkable late finale, in the Symphony in A gA-11/A-16, k119, designated ‘recapitulante’, the rondo principle serves as a framework for recalling themes from earlier movements.
Of approximately 43 concertos likely to be authentic, 18 are for violin. Most of these probably date from Dittersdorf's performances at Burgtheater concerts in the early 1760s, whereas many of the others were probably composed for musicians at Grosswardein. Superficially similar to the violin concertos of Joseph Haydn, Dittersdorf's concertos are almost all in major keys and in three movements, with the middle movement in the subdominant or dominant. Their fast movements each have four tuttis and three solo sections with recapitulation, while the middle movements mostly exhibit a binary plan of three tuttis and two solos. Rondo form is rare but appears in the finale of the A major harpsichord concerto la32 of 1779.
Dittersdorf's chamber music reflects a wide variety of contemporary genres, forms and instrumentations, and includes compositions in two, three, four and five movements (the last with two minuets) and also various suite-like designs. The string quartets and quintets favour a three-movement scheme, and more than half have a minuet as the middle movement. In a letter written to the publisher Artaria in 1788, Dittersdorf claims to have spent more than a year on his quartets k191–6, which he says, with his characteristic lack of inhibition, surpass those of Pleyel and Haydn. These works feature varied textures, subtle dynamics, and melodies suited to dialogue; they resemble Haydn's in their use of long pedals, motivic constructions and sudden but well-timed shifts to remote keys.
In Dittersdorf's famous interview with Joseph II, recounted in the autobiography, his music is likened to ‘an ample and finely served meal. The dishes are all savoury, and one can take a good helping of each without risking indigestion’. Alas, though appealing, his music proved vulnerable to audiences' fickle taste, and few works were destined for enduring favour, however enthusiastic their initial reception.