No one and nothing in this world floats in the void, nor exists without context. And it is context that holds a mirror up to individuals or phenomena. It reveals their significance or insignificance to us, weighing them in the light of their time and our perception of the past.
The life of the Valtice native Johann Matthias Sperger, whose Concerto b minor no. 3 for double bass and orchestra will be performed at this year’s Lednice-Valtice Music Festival in a new Czech premiere, was framed by two dates. The year 1750, when Antonio Salieri was also born, and when King Louis XV, graced the public with access to paintings from his collection, as if he had anticipated the Great French Revolution. However, this did not prevent the events leading up to the rise of Napoleon… When Sperger died in 1812, as did Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of Mozart’s Magic Flute and the founder of the Theater an der Wien, the world was already moving towards new challenges. Colonies to be carved up among the great powers while Bonaparte facing defeat in Russia. A fact that even Goethe and Beethoven could not fail to notice from a distance during their meeting in Teplice.
However, Johann Matthias Sperger – the eternal wanderer with the double bass on his back – could only form an approximate idea of the so-called great history of his era. Just a few people can form a complete picture of the present. If it appears fragmented even to us having information from all over the planet, how could a wandering and lonely musician at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been able to do so? From the age of seventeen, when he left Valtice for Vienna, until his death in northern Germany forty-five years later, Johann Matthias Sperger lived his “little history”. Difficult yet unique.
For a long time, he wandered from place to place. His sort of permanent stops were in Bratislava, in the town of Kohfidisch on the present-day border of Austria and Hungary, and then, towards the end of his life, in Ludwigslust in northern Germany. Meanwhile, when he was not composing, he was moving from place to place. Driven by the desire to exercise his talents as a double bassist and composer, but also to provide for his family, he tried to be engaged in Berlin or during his concert tours in Italy. At the mercy of figures temporarily powerful because wealthy, whose names have long since fallen into oblivion. However, Johann Matthias Sperger’s oeuvre has survived, at least in part, to this day.
He was not the only one who tried to compose for a relatively young instrument which was not even stable in the number of strings. Classicism brought Viennese tuning to the development of the double bass. Compositions with a solo part for this instrument, which is already a difficult instrument in terms of size and weight, began to appear. Its unique sound, however, prompted composers such as Joseph Haydn, perhaps the first composer with a double bass solo in 1763, or “our” Karl Ditters of Dittersdorf or Johann Baptist Wanhal. They were followed by Italians Giuseppe Antonio Capezzi and Domenico Dragonelli. The playful Mozart created a concert aria Pa questa bella mano for male bass and the only accompanying instrument, double bass.
Johann Matthias Sperger had to be extremely industrious because of the necessity to delight his patrons with new and new compositions. In addition to a number of symphonies and other works, he wrote eighteen concertos for double bass and orchestra. He exuded a desire to rehabilitate the instrument in a solo capacity. Usually, after all, “the bass claims the music”, or is primarily intended as an accompanying instrument, in charge of rhythm in the orchestra and providing the basis, the “grunt”, for the music. Sperger defied the established model and has already entered musical history.
Even today, the instrument remains unforgotten. Writer and playwright Patrick Süskind became famous in the early 1980s with his first theatrical work “The Double Bass”, which was adapted from his book into a successful stage play. It was performed more than 500 times in the 1984–1985 season alone! Johann Matthias Sperger is mentioned in this play, but in a rather slightly negative way, because Süskind is said to have judged his compositions to be unduly demanding.
More lasting – and in the world of classical music more significant – value is both the founding of the society that bears Sperger’s name and its most important achievement. We are talking about the International Double Bass Competition, which has been held in even-numbered years since the beginning of this century. Last year it reached its 11th year and attracted over eighty entries from all over the world. The final rounds took place in Rostock in early April 2022, with the overall winner being the young Spanish double bassist David Santos Luque. In addition to his laurels, he took home a handsome prize of eight and a half thousand euros, which – if nothing else – could and should be an incentive for our adepts of solo double bass playing to enter the Sperger Competition.
Perhaps every wanderer dream of returning home one day. To the place he knows it intimately, where he played as a kid. For the second time in the last four years, this festival pays tribute to the native of Valtice. And if Sperger is watching us from somewhere, which cannot be denied, he will rejoice on Sunday 24 September 2023. In the Valtice Castle Theatre, Indi Stivín will be performing on his double bass from 5 p.m., accompanied by the Barocco sempre giovane. I am looking forward to meeting you there already at 1 p.m. for “H-talk”. Understand the music, but even more the life of Johann Matthias Sperger.
PhDr. Jiří Vejvoda, Czech radio and television writer, journalist, and presenter