Who was Johann Joseph Fux?
Johann Joseph Fux
Composer of three Habsburg emperors
In the year of our Lord 1660, in the hamlet of Hirtenfeld, a few kilometres east of the provincial capital city of Graz, a son and heir was born to farmer Andreas Fux and baptised Johann Joseph. There is no official record of his birth. When, however, the same Johann Joseph died at the resplendent imperial court in far-off Vienna on 13th February 1741, the death certificate gave his age as 81 – a biblical age for the day, but quite normal for the Hirtenfelder Fuxes. At the end of his long life, Fux held one of the most illustrious positions in music that Europe had to offer, that of kapellmeister (musical director) at the imperial court.
A fairy-tale career spans these two extremes, from his beginnings amid the pastures of Hirtenfeld to where he ended up, in the palaces and court chapels of three Habsburg rulers. Much of that story will remain forever shrouded in mystery. Yet we cannot help but feel that even the farmer’s son must have had a musical calling. As Fux himself says in his legendary textbook on composition “Gradus ad Parnassum”: “At an age when I was not yet in full possession of my faculty of reason, I was smitten by a strange urge: all my endeavours were devoted to music, and even now I still crave to learn; I am driven, as though without my willing it; day and night my ears seem to echo with sweet sounds, which dispels all doubt from my mind that I might have missed my calling.”
This must be what it takes if one wishes to become a composer. But if, as a farmer’s son, one wishes to seek one’s fortune at one of Europe’s most prominent courts, it must take quite a bit more than that. As a boy, Fux must have been lucky enough to come upon a good teacher and a farsighted priest in the parish of St. Marein. And he must have been quite exceptionally talented. In 1680 we find him studying at the Jesuit University in Graz, with free board at the Ferdinandeum in exchange for services to church music at the court chapel, now Graz Cathedral. In 1683 Fux was ready to move on. He went to study Law at the Jesuit University in Ingolstadt and at the same time took up the position of organist in St. Moritz – a classic case of a working student, as we would say today. At some point around 1688 he left Ingolstadt and we lose sight of him for several years.
Did he study in Italy, land of music? Was he in France? His mastery of the musical styles of these countries suggests he may well have been there. But perhaps he got to know all he needed to know in Vienna, where the Italians had long been leading the way. In any case, when Fux’s name next crops up in records, he is a man who has made it to the top. On 5th June 1696, at the age of 36, he married Clara Juliana Schnitzenbaum, daughter of a high-up court official in Vienna. In the normal run of things, this would have been an absolutely impossible match for a farmer’s son from Hirtenfeld. At this point he was organist at the Schottenstift in Vienna, and therefore already very close to his Emperors.
And it was around this time that he was discovered by Leopold I. Leopold I – like his sons Joseph and Karl – was a ruler who was obsessed with music and was himself a gifted composer. The story goes that he had to resort to a ruse to get Fux into the royal household. The Italians at court who dominated in matters of music had no intention of having a Styrian as a competitor, so when the Emperor presented them with a mass by Fux, he claimed it was the latest thing from Italy. Full of praise for the new work, they fell into the trap: Fux was appointed Leopold’s court composer in April 1698 and in 1705 he also became kapellmeister for the miraculous icon Maria Pötsch in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The same year, Fux began a new career: the young, dynamic Joseph I succeeded his father on the imperial throne and commissioned Fux, among others, to write a number of Italian operas. The first of these, which is extant, is “Julo Ascanio, Re d’Alba“. When Joseph quite unexpectedly died in 1711, his brother Karl succeeded to the throne. He too greatly admired Fux’s operas but his oratorios and sacred music even more. Most of all, he appreciated Fux as a kindhearted and prudent organiser. It was under Karl that the Styrian Fux first became deputy kapellmeister and then, in 1715, court kapellmeister. An 18th-century musician could rise no higher.
Now 55 years old, Fux could put all the skills he had acquired in the course of his life to good use. The fact that he had studied Law helped him to direct a great Viennese institution competently: the Imperial Court Music comprised 140 persons, and their interests sometimes had to be defended against intrigues at court. Fux’s cultivated Latin and his strict and systematic approach make a classic of his textbook on composition “Gradus ad Parnassum“ – the steps up to Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses – which provided a basis for learning for generations of musicians right up to the 19th century and beyond. And with his vast musical experience, he created magnificent works of all genres for his Emperor, from prestigious operatic spectacles to pieces composed for the enjoyment of their Majesties in the privacy of their chambers.
Fux therefore left us a monumental oeuvre of works (which, incidentally, is to this day by no means wholly accessible). Much of this was written while Fux was struggling with poor health; he suffered badly from gout, which put him out of action for months on end. In 1723, when Fux had written a magnificent opera for the Emperor for a celebration in Prague, the legendary “Costanza e fortezza“, which brought half of Europe to Bohemia, Karl VI had his kapellmeister transported from Vienna to Prague by sedan, because the pain caused by travelling by carriage would have been intolerable. It was a sign of the great esteem in which Fux was held, a privilege that few musicians would have experienced.
The kapellmeister also maintained ties to his home in Hirtenfeld. Having no children of his own, he brought first Maria and later Matthäus, his brother’s oldest daughter and youngest son, to Vienna and gave them an education. Following the death of this Maria Fuxin in the year of our Lord 1773 (having never married, she had acted as housekeeper to the ageing kapellmeister), the many members of the Fux family in Hirtenfeld were delighted when an unexpected and generous sum of money came their way from the capital. Every last one of them confirmed that they had received the inheritance, not with a signature, but by making a cross.