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Mattheson, Johann

(b Hamburg, 28 Sept 1681; d Hamburg, 17 April

1764). German composer, critic, music
journalist, lexicographer and theorist.
1. Life.
2. Music.
3. Writings.
Mattheson, Johann
1. Life.
Mattheson was the third and only surviving son of Johann
Mattheson, a Hamburg tax collector, and Margaretha
Höling of Rendsburg (Holstein). Details of Mattheson’s life
come largely from his autobiography published in
the Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte. His education was
exceptionally broad, perhaps because his parents hoped he
would gain a position in Hamburg society. At the
Johanneum he received a substantial background in the
liberal arts, including musical instruction from Kantor
Joachim Gerstenbüttel. He also had private instruction in
dancing, drawing, arithmetic, riding, fencing, and English,
French and Italian. At six he began private music lessons,
studying the keyboard and composition for four years with
J.N. Hanff (later organist at Schleswig Cathedral), taking
singing lessons from a local musician named Woldag and
instruction on the gamba, violin, flute, oboe and lute. At
nine Mattheson was a child prodigy, performing on the
organ and singing in Hamburg churches. His voice was of
such quality that Gerhard Schott, manager of the Hamburg
opera, invited him to join the company, and he sang in J.W.
Franck’s opera Aeneas. In addition to performing and his
studies at the Johanneum, Mattheson was sent for
instruction in law. However, he realized that the opera was
in itself a ‘musical university’ and decided not to pursue
formal education after completing the Johanneum
curriculum in 1693. He became a page at the Hamburg
court of Graf von Güldenlöw, ‘Vice-König’ of Norway and
brother of Christian V, King of Denmark. His unusual talent
attracted the court circle and he was frequently asked to
play and sing. The experience left him with an indelible
impression of the glamour and brilliance of Hamburg’s
aristocratic society, and, he remarked, he wept bitterly
when his father broke the employment agreement and
forced him to leave court.
Having previously sung mainly in the chorus and in minor
roles, Mattheson made his solo début in female roles when
the opera company visited Kiel in 1696. By the following
year his voice had changed, and he began to take tenor
roles in which he had considerable success up to 1705.
Mattheson led an exceedingly rich musical life in these 15
years with the Hamburg opera; he sang and conducted
rehearsals under such composers as J.G. Conradi, J.S.
Kusser and Reinhard Keiser. He testified to learning the
new, Italian manner of singing from Kusser. In 1699 he
wrote and had performed his first opera, Die Plejades.
Mattheson met Handel in 1703, and a mutually beneficial
friendship developed over the next three years: Mattheson
said that he influenced the growth of Handel’s musical
style, particularly by teaching him how to compose in the
dramatic style; he also probably obtained for Handel a
position in the opera orchestra as second violinist and
harpsichordist. In 1704 Mattheson’s Cleopatra was
performed with the composer in the role of Antonius.
Handel conducted the performance from the harpsichord
while Mattheson was on the stage. However, after
Antonius’s suicide in the middle of the third act, Mattheson
returned to the orchestra, intending to take his place at the
keyboard, but Handel refused to yield. An argument
between the two young musicians led to the duel described
by Mattheson in his Ehren-Pforte; according to him,
Handel’s life was spared by a large button on his coat that
Mattheson struck with his sword. Apparently, however, the
two were soon reconciled, and Mattheson sang the leading
roles in Handel’s Almira and Nero at Hamburg in 1705, the
final year of Mattheson’s career with the theatre.
During his professional career Mattheson not only
performed in some 65 new operas but wrote several of his
own. He became a virtuoso organist and found time to
become involved in numerous social and musical activities,
including teaching. In 1703 he was invited (as was Handel)
to apply for the position of organist to succeed Dietrich
Buxtehude at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Mattheson and
Handel travelled together to Lübeck for the auditions,
‘making numerous double fugues in the carriage’. They
both turned down the position. Mattheson also declined
invitations to other important positions as organist, including
one at the Pfarrkirche in Haarlem and, as successor to the
distinguished J.A. Reincken, at the Catharinenkirche in
In 1704 Mattheson became a tutor of Cyrill Wich, son of the
English ambassador to Hamburg, Sir John Wich. This
position was the turning point in his career, offering him
employment with social status and a considerable salary.
He proved himself so capable that in January 1706 he was
made secretary to Sir John Wich, a position he retained for
most of his life, continuing with the same responsibilities
when Wich’s son was appointed his father’s successor in
1715. Mattheson’s duties greatly exceeded routine
secretarial obligations. He became indispensable to the
ambassador’s office, frequently travelling as Wich’s official
representative on important diplomatic missions. He
immersed himself in the study of the English language,
English law, politics and economics; and he became an
expert in the intricate details of trade between England and
In 1709 Mattheson married Catharina Jennings (d 8 Feb
1753), daughter of an English minister. In 1715 he became
music director of Hamburg Cathedral, a post of particular
importance, for which he composed many works, including
more than two dozen oratorios. He was forced to resign this
position in 1728, primarily as the result of increasing
deafness; he was completely deaf by 1735. In 1719
Mattheson was appointed Kapellmeister to the court of the
Duke of Holstein. During the extraordinarily productive
years between 1715 and 1740 he wrote not only numerous
important scores and treatises but also many translations
from English of books, pamphlets and articles, primarily
connected with his duties as secretary to the English
ambassador. He also translated several English histories,
novels and philosophical works, and produced a steady
flow of articles for journals published in Hamburg (Cannon
gives a valuable bibliography).
In 1741 Mattheson received the title of Legation Secretary
to the Duke of Holstein, and in 1744 was promoted to
‘Legations-Rat’. After the death of his wife, he decided to
donate the bulk of a considerable fortune, some 44,000
marks, to the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg for the rebuilding
of the great organ destroyed by fire. He requested that in
return he and his wife be buried in the church. On 25 April
1764 he was buried in the crypt of that church following
services at which Telemann conducted Das fröhliche
Sterbelied, womit der nunmehro wolseelige Legations-Rath,
Herr Johann Mattheson, ihm selbst, harmonisch und
poetisch, im 83sten Jahre seines Alters, zu Grabe
gesungen, which Mattheson had composed for his own
Mattheson, Johann
2. Music.
Johann Mattheson was the most important contemporary
writer on the music of the German Baroque. He
documented in unparalleled detail the musical world of
those critical years in the 18th century when musical styles
and values changed radically in the transition from the
Baroque to the Classical period. However, it has been
previously impossible to assess much of Mattheson's
music, particularly his operas and some two dozen
oratorios. These were assumed to be lost in the destruction
of the Hamburg Stadtbibliothek in World War II. Most of that
music, however, had not been destroyed and in 1998 was
returned to Hamburg from Armenia. Scholars will now be
able to evaluate this music more fully than previously, and
they will be able to integrate Mattheson's compositional
achievements into the history of music in Hamburg during
the early 18th century. Mattheson was a deeply devout man
and committed himself energetically in word and music to
preserving and strengthening music in the Protestant
church; his oratorios formed the heart of his musical
achievement. As shown in Das Lied des Lammes, his
sacred music fully embraces operatic style; nevertheless, in
its melodic simplicity, its dramatic, homophonic choruses,
striking emphasis on Protestant chorales and sensitivity to
the rhetorical values of the text, his oratorio has a popular
appeal and an important position in the development of the
The opera Cleopatra, though an early work, is evidence of
the composer’s talent and individual style. While the opera
is famous mainly for its connection with the Mattheson–
Handel duel, its real significance lies in the supporting
musical evidence it contributes to Mattheson’s theoretical
doctrines, codified several years later. Former opinions that
Mattheson as a composer was insignificant and that he
imitated the style of his favourite contemporary, Reinhard
Keiser, can be disproved by this opera. He is clearly
distinguishable from Keiser, particularly in his melodic
writing: his melodies are usually smoother, more conjunct in
motion and therefore less angular than Keiser’s; he
achieved a melodic and at the same time an expressive
simplicity, taking more care than Keiser in maintaining
poetic metres and usually avoiding long melismatic
passages characteristic of Keiser’s arias. There is a striking
emphasis on folklike songs, often strophic in form. The folk
element was a tradition of earlier Hamburg opera, and
Mattheson employed it to special advantage in comic
scenes (see Buelow, 1970). Mattheson was Hamburg’s first
native musical genius, and this is of the utmost importance
when considering the substance and validity of his
aesthetic and musical theories and critical judgments. He
wrote about music from the vantage point of enormous
practical experience and professional expertise.
Mattheson, Johann
3. Writings.
It is immediately clear that Mattheson’s writings on music
cannot be adequately summarized. In more than a dozen
major volumes and a number of smaller publications, he
discussed almost every aspect of the music of his day. In
most instances he spoke as the rational man of the
Enlightenment, a musician who believed in the progress of
his art and did not hesitate to codify and rationalize all
aspects of music. Mattheson honoured the musical past,
but in general he found little in that past to preserve for the
future and was often unsympathetic towards German
writers and musicians steeped in the traditional musical
values of the 17th century.
Mattheson’s first musical book, Das neu-eröffnete
Orchestre (1713), proposes to show ‘the galant man how
he can achieve a complete idea of the majesty and merit of
the noble art of music’, and undertakes a thorough
discussion of basic questions of musical instruction. This
instruction, however, is viewed from the present, not the
past, and little time is lost in restating old rules of theory
and practice. Mattheson quickly overturned the favourite
theoretical concepts of the past, proclaiming, for example,
that the interval of the 4th must be both consonant and
dissonant, depending on the musical context and judgment
of the ear. He attacked the old system of solmization and
the church modes. Equally important are his explanations
of the major and minor scales according to their affective
connotations. Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre is rich in factual
detail, such as definitions of the secular forms of music and
the national musical styles. He pleaded for German
musicians to achieve prominence in their own country,
where Italian musicians ‘make all the money and return
home’. Reinhard Keiser served as the model of the great
German musician; he was the ‘premier homme du monde’,
to be emulated by all German musicians (see Cannon). As
such, Mattheson championed the dramatic musical style in
music, and this early work presents many of the ideas
about theatrical music that will subsequently be expanded
and refined.
In 1722 Mattheson began publication of Critica musica, the
first German music periodical. It appeared in 24 numbers
during 1722–5 and was later collected into two volumes.
Each number includes news about recent musical events,
new books and musical personalities from various
European cities. Critica musica is one of Mattheson’s most
valuable works. Among its major contributions is the
publication in German, with extensive annotations, of Abbé
Raguenet’s Parallèle des italiens et des françois, en ce qui
regarde la musique et les opéras (Paris, 1702), and the
reply to Raguenet by Le Cerf de la Viéville, Comparaison
de la musique italienne et de la musique françoise (Paris,
1704–6). Other sections are devoted to continuing polemics
regarding solmization, the writing of canons, a discussion of
the 1704 Passion formerly attributed to Handel, and
important material involving contemporary theories of
melody. Not the least interesting are lengthy quotations
from the correspondence between Mattheson and many
leading musicians of his day, including Handel, Fux,
Telemann, Kuhnau, Heinichen, J.P. Krieger and Johann
Der musicalische Patriot (1728) continues Mattheson’s
defence of the theatrical style in church music. There is
also an important description of the Hamburg opera
together with a detailed inventory by year of all the operas
and composers included in the repertory of the Hamburg
opera house from its founding to its closing. The work
concludes with a lengthy theoretical and philosophical
discussion of the true meaning and purpose of a good
opera theatre, and attempts to show that the collapse of the
Hamburg opera was a result of the deteriorating taste of the
opera public.
Among Mattheson’s numerous books, the most important
is Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), an encyclopedia
of knowledge that Mattheson believed should belong to the
training of every Kapellmeister, i.e. music director in a
church, municipal or court musical establishment. He brings
together a vast array of facts as well as his most complete
statement of several major theoretical concepts. These
include the systematizing of the doctrines of rhetoric as
they become the basis of composition. Since for Mattheson
melody was the basis of all composition, he proposed a
complete theory of good melodic writing. A lengthy
discussion of emotion in music leads to his famous
statement: ‘Everything [in music] that occurs without
praiseworthy Affections, is nothing, does nothing, is worth
nothing’. Every aspect of music is viewed in relationship to
the Affections, and this section of Der vollkommene
Capellmeister is in fact the only attempt found in Baroque
literature to arrive at a true ‘doctrine’ of the Affections (see
Lenneberg for an English translation of the relevant
portions). The treatise concludes with an elaborate
examination of consonance and dissonance and the
principles of contrapuntal practice. No brief description,
however, can convey the breadth and depth of knowledge
in this treatise. The author of Der vollkommene
Capellmeister was someone of enormous learning in
musical literature; but he was not simply a codifier of facts,
and much of this work’s value lies in the originality of the
presentation and the author’s reflections on the most
important aspects of the musical thought of his time.
Among the other valuable works by Mattheson, one must
cite the Grosse General-Bass-Schule (1731), an expanded
version of the earlier Exemplarische Organisten-
Probe (1719). These books give organists valuable
assistance in learning how to improvise from a given bass,
an ability vital to the daily musical responsibilities of
organists at this period. The 48 examples, with Mattheson’s
extensive comments on their realization, are particularly
important. The Kleine General-Bass-Schule (1735) takes
up the other aspect of improvisation, the realization of a
thoroughbass part, but (in distinction to the earlier two
works) in the role of an accompanist, not as soloist.
Finally, among Mattheson’s works none is of more lasting
value and originality than his Grundlage einer Ehren-
Pforte (1740), a lexicon giving biographical details of 149 of
the best musicians known to Mattheson from the past as
well as the present (fig.2). It has proved valuable to every
subsequent lexicographer and music historian. Mattheson
carried on a prodigious correspondence with many of his
most important contemporaries, and their responses often
supplied the factual information for their entries. In a large
number of cases Mattheson received complete
autobiographies, including those from J.P. Krieger, Kuhnau,
Mizler, Printz, Scheibe, Telemann and J.G. Walther.
Mattheson’s books are written in a difficult, exceedingly
prolix style requiring considerable expertise in the German
language. Very little from these texts is available in English
and the definitive study of his treatises remains to be
written. For the student of German Baroque music,
however, they are a source of inestimable value, musical
documents of unique importance to the history of 18th-
century music in Germany.