Joseph Schmitt “The Dutch Haydn”

This article written by Simon Murphy was originally published as liner notes to the New Dutch Academy’s world premiere recording of symphonic and chamber works by Joseph Schmitt released in 2006.

A fascinating new 18th century musical personality has emerged: Joseph Schmitt.

Joseph Schmitt The Dutch Haydn Opening Concert Felix Meritis Amsterdam  

Never heard of him? That’s because until relatively recently many of his works were still being wrongly ascribed to Haydn.

This world premiere recording documents one of the most exciting discoveries in classical music in recent times. Displaying Schmitt working in both the symphonic and chamber mediums this disc presents a musical portrait of this multifaceted 18th century German-Dutch master composer. In bringing alive his music the disc aims to profile Schmitt’s rich, cosmopolitan musical language and to illustrate how he creates his own personal language out of the myriad of international musical influences, musical styles and musical dialects presented to him by the creative whirlwind that was the 18th century European enlightenment.

Joseph Schmitt (Gernsheim, Germany 1734 – Amsterdam, the Netherlands 1791)

As a composer, performer, conductor, teacher, theorist and publisher as well as the founding director, conductor and artist in residence of the first purpose-built concert hall in the Netherlands (“Felix Meritis” in Amsterdam), Joseph Schmitt is the most important musical figure in the Dutch music culture of the later 18th century. Schmitt was also a happening international cultural personality on the world stage of the 18th century. His music was published and performed all over Europe. He rubbed shoulders with the international musical and cultural elite of the time – what one might call the artistic jet set of the 18th century. In terms of the flow of creativity, aesthetics, cultural influences and the exchange of ideas in the 18th century, Schmitt represents an astounding set of historical cultural connections, which link him to composers such as Abel, the Bach Sons, Haydn, Mozart and the Mannheim masters.

Schmitt: The Early Years at Kloster Eberbach

Joseph Schmitt was a musical priest at the beautiful Cistercian Cloister at Eberbach in the idyllic setting of the Rheingau area of Germany. Schmitt’s duties included organising, composing, rehearsing, performing and conducting the music at the cloister. It was during this most fruitful period in Eberbach that Schmitt composed the bulk of his church music and a great deal of his instrumental music.

Alongside Schmitt’s music written at Eberbach, we at the NDA can also recommend one of the other fine products from the cloister – the wine, which is still made there today. My personal favourite is the Kloster Eberbach (Extra Trocken) Riesling Sekt. Like the music of Schmitt, it offers a magnificently sparkling, stylish, refreshing and inspiring experience – elegant and effervescent, with beautiful poise, length and balance.

Joseph Schmitt was one of the star students of Carl Friedrich Abel (b. Köthen 1723 – d. London 1787). Schmitt’s musical style is clearly influenced by his teacher and he shares the same Abelesque sense of musical clarity and beautiful instrumentation that Abel was to hand on to another of his famous students, the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Schmitt’s compositions, like Abel’s own works from the late 1750’s onwards, display a deep Mannheim influence and he clearly revels in employing many of the sorts of exciting figurations made famous by the likes of Mannheimers J. Stamitz and Richter.

Whilst Schmitt’s compositional style certainly has traits of the Mannheimers and of Haydn, Schmitt is above all an extremely cosmopolitan composer. He revels in using elements of all of the musical styles and dialects of the time to create his own personal musical language and his own music. His style is one which is therefore rich, expressive and full of variety and surprise. The musical influences from which Schmitt forms his language range from the delicate Viennese sound palate of early Haydn to the energy, drive and balance of the Mannheimers to the sparkling galant refinement of his teacher Abel, to the raw empfindsamkeit of the sons of Bach such as CPE and WF Bach. This last element was probably gained from Schmitt’s connection with Abel who himself grew up with the sons of the Bach family.

The quality of Schmitt’s compositions and his own performing abilities were highly praised by the leading music critics of the 18th century, including Burney and Cramer. After his grand musical tour through Europe, Burney indeed writes how bitterly he regretted not having the opportunity of meeting the famous Schmitt during his trip. In particular, Schmitt’s invention, musical creativity, the beauty of his instrumentation and his stunning slow movements greatly impressed his contemporaries.

Schmitt’s teacher Abel had already established contact with the Amsterdam music publisher Jean Julien Hummel in the late 1750’s and subsequently Hummel published a huge amount of music by Abel throughout the 1750’s, 1760’s and 1770’s. Abel was no doubt responsible for connecting Schmitt with Hummel, and already in the mid-1760’s Hummel was publishing Schmitt’s early works, including most of the chamber and orchestral music featured on this disc.

Schmitt in the Netherlands

After centuries of effective creativity in the areas of music, wine and illuminated manuscripts, the cloister at Eberbach in the 1760’s slowly started to wind down and Schmitt looked to relocate. It was in around 1771 that he arrived in Amsterdam.

In looking for a new place to live and work, Amsterdam must have seemed like a very attractive option for Schmitt with its thriving international music publishing, trading and distribution scene as well as its exciting performance scene. Schmitt had already established connections in Amsterdam with colleagues, had made a name for himself there through his the publications of his works, and had a strong working relationship with his Amsterdam publisher, J.J. Hummel. Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, Schmitt established his own publishing house, issuing immediately his first symphonic work both written and published in Amsterdam - the beautiful symphony in G (1771/72). His publishing company was a pioneering one, issuing works by many different new composers. Through the publications of his firm, Schmitt was responsible for introducing northern Europe to the symphonic music of his fellow Abel student – Mozart. Many of the Nordic premieres of Mozart’s works were through Schmitt’s publications. Schmitt’s own works were also immensely popular in Scandinavia, which is perhaps a reason why the historical library collections there hold the bulk of his extant compositions.

Schmitt was a formidably multitalented musician and it is his all-round ability that was probably his greatest gift to Dutch musical culture. He made a massive and long lasting contribution to Dutch musical life and history as a composer, performer, teacher, organiser, publisher and as the founding music director and conductor in the first-purpose built concert hall in the Netherlands, the “Felix Meritis”. Schmitt was already involved in the musical activities of the “Felix Meritis” society in the 1770’s and was also involved in the planning and building of the concert hall itself in the 1780’s.

The “Felix Meritis” building, which opened its doors in on 31 October 1788 with a concert conducted by Schmitt, is still standing today. The building offers a fascinating insight into the Dutch enlightened spirit of the time, with rooms dedicated to each of the departments of the multi-disciplinary “Felix Meritis” society. The activities of the society included drawing, painting, scientific experiments and analysis as well as philosophic and literary explorations. The concert hall itself has a particularly fine acoustic – beautifully warm yet clear and personable. It was the main concert hall in Amsterdam right through until the end of the 19th century when it hosted the Dutch debuts of visiting star performers such as the likes of Clara Schumann and Brahms.

Today, the “Felix Meritis” remains a remarkable symbol of the visionary ideals, energy and accomplishments of the Dutch enlightenment of the 18th century, even though the building itself (Keizersgracht 324) is currently in a scandalous state of neglect and disrepair.

Schmitt now

Recent musicological work has not only helped uncover Schmitt as a composer but has also shown that many of Schmitt’s works have been wrongly attributed to Joseph Haydn (hence Schmitt’s nickname of “The Dutch Haydn”). This cataloguing aberration might speak volumes about the esteem in which some of Schmitt’s works have been held, but has of course done nothing for the name and fame of Schmitt in music history books or his name’s appearance on concert programmes. Once having been one of the most important figures in the international Dutch music scene in the later 18th century Schmitt has suffered virtual anonymity for two centuries. We are therefore most proud with this recording to make a start in restoring Schmitt’s name to the stature it deserves and are thrilled to be able to bring his music to life in order that it may again surprise and delight audiences with its freshness and beauty.

The Affects

According to mid-18th century sources, the keys being explored and communicated by Schmitt in the works on this album represent the following affects: B flat major – masculine energy, cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspiration for a better world, D major – grandeur and magnificence, noisy, warlike, victory, triumph, G major – pleasing, rustic, idyllic, lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, E minor – pensive, grieved and sad, lament without grumbling, sighs accompanied by a few tears, innocent declarations of love, naïve, womanly, E flat major – beautiful, majestic and honest, noble and ardent, key of devotion.

The Recording

This disc presents works from Schmitt’s early period at the Eberbach Cloister up to his arrival in the Netherlands, represented here by a performance of his first Dutch work, the symphony in G, composed just after his arrival in the Netherlands in 1771, the very first work which he published himself in Amsterdam, announcing his arrival and launching his newly established publishing house.

The programme on this disc strives to give a musical portrait of the multifaceted nature of Schmitt as a composer, through providing glimpses of him in different musical settings and mediums – namely symphonic and chamber – and all together displaying his enjoyment of stylistic variety. The idea of the programme therefore is to begin with Schmitt in the symphonic setting for a performance of three of his classic early symphonies. Then the programme moves from the concert hall into the more intimate atmosphere of a salon, say of an 18th century Amsterdam canal house for a refreshing selection of his early chamber music, before moving back into the concert hall for a rendition of his rousing 1769 Symphony in E flat “The Hurdy Gurdy”.

The recording celebrates Schmitt’s wonderful contribution to the symphonic and chamber repertoire as much as it hopes to profile Schmitt’s other gifts to posterity, through highlighting his work as a performer, composer, teacher and publisher. Through this disc we hope to raise awareness of Schmitt as an inspiring and interesting international musical figure, of his important place in Dutch musical classicism and in general of his fascinating role in German, Dutch and international musical history and cultural heritage.

This disc bears the first fruits of the labours of the New Dutch Academy’s long term research project “Dutch Music and Society in the 18th Century” which over the past years has scoured libraries, museums and archives for music of Schmitt and his talented Dutch contemporaries. The project aims to shed new light on the richness of the Dutch musical scene in the 18th century through research looking for interesting connections between composers, flow of styles and searching for unknown repertoire in libraries across Europe, putting all this in context and then bringing this new music to life in performance.

It is therefore with great pride that we present Joseph Schmitt’s early symphonic and chamber works to you for the first time on disc. After listening to his music, we hope you will join us in thinking just how strange it is that his music has been largely absent from the concert repertoire for more than 200 years. We hope that you will derive much enjoyment from discovering the music of this wonderful composer with us and we wish you much listening pleasure as we share our performance of the early symphonies and chamber works of Joseph Schmitt with you.

Simon Murphy, The Hague, March 2006


Listen to the NDA's Schmitt CD


Scholarly Acknowledgements

The NDA would like to thank The Library of the Stockholm Music Academy (S Skma) for their kind assistance in providing copies of the original prints of Schmitt’s works held in the library’s collection which have been used for this recording. The NDA also wishes to express its gratitude to the (late) Dutch Professor Dr Albert Dunning for his pioneering biographical research on Joseph Schmitt and the inspiration it has given us in making this recording.

Cover Art

“The Opening Ceremony of the Felix Meritis building on 31 October 1788” by Adriaan de Lelie, c. 1800. Collection of the Amsterdam Historic Museum.


The NDA would like to thank the following organisations for their contributions in making this recording possible: PentaTone Classics, Polyhymnia, AVRO Klassiek/Dutch Radio 4, VSB Fonds, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Kunstenaars en Co, W.J.O. de Vries Fonds/KAS Bank, M.A.O.C. Gravin Van Bylandt Stichting, Von Brucken Fock Fonds, Deutsche Botschaft Den Haag, Stiftung Kloster Eberbach, the Organisatie Oude Muziek Utrecht and the Parish of the Oud-Katholieke Kerk of The Hague.