1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dittersdorf, Karl Ditters von
DITTERSDORF, KARL DITTERS VON (1739-1799), Austrian composer and violinist, was born in Vienna on the 2nd of November 1739, his father’s name being Ditters. Having shown as a child marked talent for the violin, he was allowed to play in the orchestras of St Stephen’s and the Schottenkirche, where he attracted the attention of a notable patron of music, Prince Joseph Frederick of Hildburghausen (1702-1787), who is also remembered as a soldier for his disastrous leading of the forces of the Empire at Rossbach. The prince gave the boy, now eleven years old, a place in his private orchestra—the first of the kind established in Vienna,—and also saw to it that he received an excellent general education. The Seven Years’ War proved disastrous to both music and morals; and young Ditters, who had fallen into evil ways, fled from Hildburghausen, whither he had gone with the prince, to avoid the payment of his gambling debts. His patron generously forgave and recalled him, but soon afterwards gave up his orchestra at Vienna. Ditters now obtained a place in the Vienna opera; but he was not satisfied, and in 1761 eagerly accepted an invitation to accompany Gluck, whose acquaintance, as well as that of Haydn, he had made while in the service of the prince, on a professional journey to Italy. His success as a violinist on this occasion was equal to that of Gluck as composer; and on his return to Vienna he was recognized as the superior of Antonio Lolli, who as virtuoso had hitherto held the palm. In 1764 he was again associated with Gluck in the musical part of the ceremonies at Frankfort, attending the coronation of the archduke Joseph as King of the Romans. His next appointment was that of conductor of the orchestra of the bishop of Grosswardein, a Hungarian magnate, at Pressburg. He set up a private stage in the episcopal palace, and wrote for it his first “opera buffa,” Amore in musica. His first oratorio, Isacco figura del Redentore, was also written during this time; but the scandal of performances of light opera by the bishop’s company, even on fast days and during Advent, outweighed this pious effort; the empress Maria Theresa sharply called the worldly prelate to order; and he, in a huff, dismissed his orchestra (1769). After a short interlude, Ditters was again in the service of an ecclesiastical patron, count von Schafgotsch, prince bishop of Breslau, at his estate of Johannesberg in Silesia. Here he displayed so much skill as a sportsman, that the bishop procured for him the office of forester (Forstmeister) of the principality of Neisse. He had already, by the same influence, been made knight of the Golden Spur (1770). At Johannesberg Ditters also produced a comic opera, Il Viaggiatore americano, and an oratorio, Davide. The title rôle of the latter was taken by a pretty Italian singer, Signora Nicolini, whom Ditters married. In 1773 he was ennobled as Karl von Dittersdorf, and at the same time was appointed administrator (Amtshauptmann) of Freyenwaldau, an office which he performed by deputy. In the same year his oratorio Ester was produced in Vienna. During the War of Bavarian Succession the prince bishop’s orchestra was dissolved, and Dittersdorf employed himself in his office at Freyenwaldau; but after the peace of Tetschen (1779) he again became conductor of the reconstituted orchestra. From this time forward his output was enormous. In 1780 ten months sufficed for the production of his Giobbe (Job) and four operas, three of which were successful; and besides these he wrote a large number of “characterized symphonies,” founded on the Metamorphoses of Ovid. He was now at the height of his fame, and spent the fortune which it brought him in much luxury. But after a time his patron fell on evil days, the famous orchestra had to be reduced, and when the bishop died in 1795 his successor dismissed the composer with a small money gift. Poor and broken in health, he accepted the asylum offered to him by Ignaz Freiherr von Stillfried, on his estate near Neuhaus in Bohemia, where he spent what strength was left him in a feverish effort to make money by the composition of operas, symphonies and pianoforte pieces. He died on the 1st of October 1799, praying “God’s reward” for whoever should save his family from starvation. On his death-bed he dictated to his son his Lebensbeschreibung (autobiography).
Dittersdorf’s chief talent was for comic opera and instrumental music in the sonata forms. In both of these branches his work still shows signs of life, and it is of great historical interest, since he was not only an excellent musician and a friend of Haydn but also a thoroughly popular writer, with a lively enough musical wit and sense of effect to embody in an amusing and fairly artistic form exactly what the best popular intelligence of the times saw in the new artistic developments of Haydn. Thus, while in the amiable monotony and diffuseness of Boccherini we may trace Haydn as a force tending to disintegrate the polyphonic suite-forms of instrumental music, in Dittersdorf on the other hand we see the popular conception of the modern sonata and dramatic style. Yet, with all his popularity, the reality of his progressive outlook may be gauged from the fact that, though he was at least as famous a violinist as Boccherini was a violoncellist, there is in his string quartets no trace of that tendency to sacrifice the ensemble to an exhibition of his own playing which in Boccherini’s chamber music puts the violoncello into the same position as the first violin in the chamber music of Spohr. In Dittersdorf’s quartets (at least six of which are worthy of their survival at the present day) the first violin leads indeed, but not more than is inevitable in such unsophisticated music where the normal place for melody is at the top. The appearance of greater vitality in the texture of Boccherini’s quintets is produced merely by the fact that, his special instrument being the violoncello, his displays of brilliance inevitably occur in the inner parts. Six of Dittersdorf’s symphonies on the Metamorphoses of Ovid were republished in 1899, the centenary of his death. In them we have an amusing and sometimes charming illustration of the way in which at transitional periods music, as at the present day, is ready to make crutches of literature. The end of the representation of the conversion of the Lycian peasants into frogs is prophetically and ridiculously Wagnerian in its ingenious expansion of rhythm and eminently expert orchestration. Every external feature of Dittersdorf’s style seems admirably apt for success in German comic opera on a small scale; and an occasional experimental performance at the present day of his Doktor und Apotheker is not less his due than the survival of his best quartets.
See his Lebensbeschreibung, published at Leipzig, 1801 (English translation by A. D. Coleridge, 1896); an article in the Rivista musicale, vi. 727; and the article “Dittersdorf” in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.