These days, Franz Danzi is too quickly categorized as a 'little' rather than 'great' master. But in his day, his companions considered him to be one of the leading composers in the country. He was born on June 15, 1763.
The initiated, when they hear the name Franz Danzi, will likely think of the composer's quintets for wind instruments. But few music lovers will probably know that he also composed six masterly symphonies and that his German operas became models for Carl Maria von Weber, thereby making him a pioneer of romantic opera.
Franz Danzi was born in Mannheim as the son of a solo cellist and member of Mannheim's Hofkapelle (Court Orchestra). At the time, Mannheim was considered a paradise for musical artists. Leopold Mozart wrote that Mannheim had established a reputation throughout Germany and Europe. Music journalist Charles Burney was also amazed by Mannheim's artists, writing in his "Diary of a Musical Journey" that, "There are truly more soloists and good composers in this orchestra than likely any other in Europe. It's an army of generals - equally skilled at designing a plan of attack as participating in it."
Danzi was born into that "musical army" on June 15, 1763. Quickly recognizing the compositional talents of his son, Danzi's father sent him to the famous composition instructor Abbe Vogler to study. In 1777, Danzi met then 21-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was seeking employment and had come to Mannheim to visit the famous Mannheimer Hofkapelle. One year later, 15-year-old Franz Danzi was appointed cellist with the Hofkapelle. Two years later, in 1780, he celebrated his first premieres: On January 30, an overture he composed accompanied the play "Cleopatra," performed at Mannheim's National Theater. His first opera - entitled "Azakia" - debuted shortly thereafter, as did his stage music for German playwright Friedrich Schiller's drama, "Räuber" ("The Robbers").
Romantic vision of opera
Following his tenure as Kapellmeister at Munich's Hofoper (Court Opera), Franz Danzi became Kapellmeister at the Königliches Hoftheater (Royal Theater) in Stuttgart and Kapellmeister of the Badische Hofkapelle in Karlsruhe in 1812. In was during this time that the composer realized his greatest musical dramas, which anticipated the development of romantic opera. He aimed to diverge from the musical comedy or light opera that was popular in Germany at the time, and dreamt of complex opera on a grand scale.
One of Danzi's stomping grounds: the Royal Theater in Schwetzingen
Danzi had met Carl Maria von Weber, who was 13 years his junior, back in Stuttgart. Their friendship deepened thanks to a shared passion for Mozart's operas - a mutual interest that prompted countless talks about the aesthetics of opera and the development of a new form of musical drama. Danzi, already well-versed in the genre, supported his younger colleague in his questions about composition and dramaturgy. And Weber often asked Danzi to send him his latest musical scores so that he could learn from them.
Franz Danzi's operatic visions turned into reality when his work "Der Berggeist oder Schicksal und Treue" ("Mountain Spirit of Fate and Fidelity") debuted on April 19, 1813, at Karlruhe's Opera House. It tells the story of Rübezahl, the Spirit of the Sudeten Mountains, who was condemned to 100 years of solitude and left to haunt the mountains due to his treacherous deeds.
Danzi's friend, composer Carl Maria von Weber
Danzi specifically called the work a "romantic opera" - a reference to how the composer lent his original instrumentation to a cast of fairy tale-like characters, including spirits and mermaids. It wasn't until 2012 that German conductor Frieder Bernius unearthed the opera and performed it for the second time ever. For him, "Berggeist" points the way into the future - composed eight years before Weber's "Freitschütz" ("The Marksman"), it's like the work of an older brother.
From a deep sleep
There are surely more gems for the stage among Danzi's operas, but until now, they have only been collecting dust in libraries. In celebration of the 250th anniversary of Danzi's birth, perhaps other committed musicians like Frieder Bernius will wake works such as "Mitternachtsstunde" ("Midnight Hour") or the opera "Iphigenie in Aulis" from their deep sleep.
Carl Maria von Weber called for the same some 200 years ago, urging opera companies to stage more of Franz Danzi's works: "His reputation as one of our most important composers means only that one need mention his name. We can only hope that his major works, such as 'Iphigenia,' can help offset the deficit in original German operas."