chapter  13
Ignaz Holzbauer and the Origins of German Opera in Vienna
WithLawrence Bennett
Pages 28

Ignaz Holzbauer (1711–1783) is best known for his singspiel Günther von Schwarzburg (1777), a work that deeply impressed Mozart during his sojourn in Mannheim. A much earlier German opera by Holzbauer, however, has gone virtually unnoticed. In the summer or autumn of 1741 the composer’s full-length, three-act teutsche Opera entitled Hypermnestra was performed at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. Following the death of Emperor Charles VI and the accession of Maria Theresia, the Kärntnertortheater Intendant Joseph Selliers commissioned a German-language opera, selecting Holzbauer, who had recently returned to Vienna from Moravia, to compose the music and the court printer Johann Leopold van Ghelen to write the libretto.

Although it is widely known that Holzbauer composed several operas in Italian before 1741, Hypermnestra appears to be the earliest opera by the composer for which a score survives. The music provides ample evidence of a mature composer in full command of opera seria style. Although Holzbauer had not yet found a satisfactory solution to the problem of narrative recitative, the opera nevertheless illustrates many of the virtues found in Günthervon Schwarzburg: outstanding accompanied recitatives, a great variety in the treatment of da capo aria form and a rich array of orchestral colours.

Apart from the music, Hypermnestra is remarkable for historical reasons. It reveals that the composer had received a commission to compose an opera in the German language long before Günther von Schwarzburg. On the basis of current research it appears to hold the distinction of being one of the earliest, if not the first, full-length German opera produced in Vienna. Maria Theresia soon re-established the dominance of French and Italian styles. Nevertheless, Hypermnestra is an early example of an idea that would gradually gain acceptance and blossom during the reign of Joseph II.