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  • Josef Mysliveček, "Il Boemo": The Man and His Music
  • Bryan Proksch
Josef Mysliveček, "Il Boemo": The Man and His Music. By Daniel E. Freeman. (Detroit Monographs in Music, no. 54.) Sterling Heights, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 2009. [xvi, 425 p. ISBN 9780899901480. $37.50] Music examples, illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index.

For as much as has been written about Haydn, Mozart, and more recently even C. P. E. Bach, very little has been written about their lesser-known contemporaries. Pleyel, Dittersdorf, Vanhal—all of the so-called Kleinmeister—are known virtually in name only even among many specialists. The same is true for Josef Mysliveček (1737–1781), though Daniel E. Freeman provides a crucial resource towards increasing the visibility of an important opera composer in the present biography. Ironically, Mozart himself furnished the author with a reason to delve into Mysliveček's music: the two were friends for the better part of the 1770s and the two promoted each other's music. In fact Mozart's correspondence also provides the author with the single largest repository of information on Mysliveček. Even if this opera seria composer wrote "just the sort of musical numbers that [modern] admirers of operatic 'reform' find so objectionable" (p. 133), a knowledge of his life and works is of enormous value for coming to grips with the larger world of music ca. 1770.

Freeman's scholarly monograph provides a detailed and comprehensive look into the life and works of Mysliveček; it is also the first English-language study of the composer of significant length. The first half of the book serves as a typical life-and-works biography, including a 100-page biographical overview followed by a musical survey of equal length. Freeman rounds off his discussion with a section devoted to the relationship between Mozart and Mysliveček. The second half of the book serves as a catalog of Mysliveček's music and a documentary source of his life, including original-language quotations as well as translations.

The chief problem faced by Freeman in this biography is a scarcity of primary-source information. Always careful to note where he relies on substantiated information and where he can provide only his best guess, the author has assembled a coherent and plausible explanation of Mysliveček's life and works in an entirely readable fashion. At times he can only frame what we do not know about Mysliveček in a way that surely frustrated the author as much as it does the reader.

Freeman paints his subject as a man of contradictions. Born to a family of millers in Prague and working there as a freshly-minted master miller in 1760, Mysliveček inexplicably abandoned his trade to become a composer in his early twenties. Intent on writing serious opera, the Bohemian took composition lessons from an organist with no experience in the genre whatsoever and learned his craft by [End Page 784] composing instrumental music. The untested composer found a patron within a year of his first composition lesson and soon thereafter surfaced in Italy as an acclaimed master of opera seria. The underlying workings of this fascinating turn of events remain shrouded in mystery because so few documents have survived. It would seem that not even Mysliveček's fans knew him, as we read in a letter of 1776: "The grand opera to be given here should be very beautiful. The famous Bohemian composer Wickelseck (or whatever his name is) wrote the music" (p. 70).

In the extended section on Mysliveček and Mozart's relationship, Freeman makes a compelling case for the former's direct influence on the compositions of the latter, especially in the wake of Mozart's 1770–73 Italian travels. He provides a surprising number of convincing thematic borrowings, including a third-party annotation in the autograph of K. 74 indicating its resemblance to the overture of Mitridate a Sinope. Other Mozart works showing Mysliveček's influence include more mature works such as the Violin Concerto K. 218, the Piano Concerto K. 271, and the Piano Sonatas K. 309 and K. 311. Some but not all of these connections have...