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Kapellmeister (/kəˈpɛlmstər/ kə-PEL-my-stər, US also /kɑːˈ-/ kah-,[1][2] German: [kaˈpɛlˌmaɪstɐ] ), from German Kapelle (chapel) and Meister (master), literally "master of the chapel choir", designates the leader of an ensemble of musicians. Originally used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning and is today used for denoting the leader of a musical ensemble, often smaller ones used for TV, radio, and theatres.

Historical usage

In German-speaking countries during the approximate period 1500–1800, the word Kapellmeister often designated the director of music for a monarch or nobleman. For English speakers, it is this sense of the term that is most often encountered, since it appears frequently in biographical writing about composers who worked in German-speaking countries. During that period, in Italy, the position (Italian: maestro di capella) largely referred to directors of music assigned to cathedrals and sacred institutions rather than those under royal or aristocratic patronage.

A Kapellmeister position was a senior one and involved supervision of other musicians. Johann Sebastian Bach worked from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Joseph Haydn worked for many years as Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, a high-ranking noble family of the Habsburg monarchy. George Frideric Handel served as Kapellmeister for George, Elector of Hanover (who eventually became King George I of Great Britain).

A Kapellmeister might also be the director of music for a church. Thus, Georg Reutter was the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, where his young choristers included both Joseph and Michael Haydn.

Becoming a Kapellmeister was a mark of success for professional musicians. For instance, Joseph Haydn once remarked that he was glad his father (a wheelwright) had lived long enough to see his son become a Kapellmeister.[3] The term also implied the possession of considerable musical skill. When the 18th-century actor and musician Joachim Daniel Preisler heard the famous soprano Aloysia Weber (Mozart's sister-in-law) perform in her home, he paid her the following compliment in his diary:

The well-known Mozardt is her brother-in-law and has taught her so well that she accompanies from a score and plays interludes like a Kapellmeister.[4]

By the end of the 18th century, many of the nobility had declined in their economic power relative to the newly prosperous middle class. Eventually, the maintenance of a Kapelle became too expensive for most nobles, which led to a decline in the number of Kapellmeister positions. A well-known instance occurred in 1790, when Prince Anton Esterházy succeeded his father Nikolaus and dismissed almost all of the latter's extensive musical establishment.[5] But Prince Anton was hardly alone in doing this; during this same period, "the steady decline in the number of orchestras supported by aristocratic families represented a ... change that affected all composers and their works."[6] This was a difficult time for musicians, who needed to find new ways to support themselves. For instance, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) never worked as a Kapellmeister but was supported by a somewhat unreliable combination of noble patronage, publication, and concert income.

The case of Mozart

Mozart never was a Kapellmeister in the sense given above. In 1787, he was given a paid position in the court of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II as Kammercompositeur (chamber composer), but authority in matters musical at the court was exercised primarily by Antonio Salieri. In reviews, diaries, and advertising, Mozart was commonly referred to as (Herr) Kapellmeister Mozart. It seems that Mozart's prestige, along with the fact that he frequently appeared in public directing other musicians, led to the use of "Kapellmeister" as a term of respect.[7]

In April 1791, Mozart applied to become the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral and was designated by the City Council to take over this job following the death of the then-ailing incumbent, Leopold Hofmann. This never took place, since Mozart died (December 1791) before Hofmann did (1793).[8]

Similar terms and equivalents

Variant spellings capellmeister and capelle, to refer to the orchestra or choir,[9] are sometimes encountered in English language works about composers who held the title.[10][11][12][13]

The word Hofkapellmeister specified that the Kapellmeister worked at a nobleman's court (Hof); a Konzertmeister held a somewhat less senior position.[14]

Equivalent positions existed in other European countries and were referred to with equivalent names. In Finnish kapellimestari is still the primary word used of conductors.

Composers who held the post of Kapellmeister

(listed chronologically by date of birth)

Contemporary usage

In contemporary German, the term "Kapellmeister" has become less common than Dirigent (conductor). When used today it designates the director or chief conductor of an orchestra or choir. It suggests involvement in orchestra or choir policy (for example, selecting repertoire, concert schedules, and guest conductors) as well as conducting. In military settings it refers to a bandmaster.[16] The music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra traditionally holds the old-fashioned title Gewandhauskapellmeister.[17][18] In other German opera houses, the term generally refers to a deputy conductor reporting to the Generalmusikdirektor (general music director, usually also the chief conductor). An opera company may have several Kapellmeister, ranked as Erste Kapellmeister (First...), Zweite Kapellmeister (Second...), etc.

The conductor Christian Thielemann has offered a nuanced account of the Dirigent/Kapellmeister distinction in contemporary usage. He suggests that "Kapellmeister" has unfairly acquired a sense of routine or failure to project glamour: "a Kapellmeister now describes a pale, meek figure beating time. A policeman on duty at the podium directing the musical traffic, no more." In fact, Thielemann, who is fully aware of the historical usage of the term, would himself prefer to be called a "Kapellmeister": "it implies such virtues as knowledge of a work, great ability, and dedication to the cause of music".[19]

The term "Kapellmeister Tradition" is commonly used to describe these qualities, as exemplified by such historically important conductors as Otto Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, and Erich Kleiber, in the sense that they have "paid their dues" on their way to international fame.[20]

See also


  1. ^ "Kapellmeister". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). HarperCollins. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  2. ^ "kapellmeister" (US) and "kapellmeister". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 10 March 2021.
  3. ^ Griesinger (1963), p. 16.
  4. ^ Deutsch (1965), p. 324. Preisler's assumption that Weber's skills came from Mozart's training is not specifically supported by modern scholarship.
  5. ^ Haydn himself was retained in an essentially honorary role, but was free to pursue independent plans, his journeys to England; for details see Anton I, Prince Esterházy.
  6. ^ Jones (2009), p. 324.
  7. ^ For extensive discussion of the use of "Kapellmeister" to describe Mozart, see Deutsch (1965), pp. 306–307
  8. ^ Deutsch (1965), pp. 393–395.
  9. ^ Galkin, Elliott W. (1988). A history of orchestral conducting: in theory and practice. Pendragon Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-918728-47-0.
  10. ^ Siblin, Eric (4 January 2011). The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. Grove Press. pp. 61, et seq. ISBN 978-0-8021-4524-6. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
  11. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton. pp. 24, et seq. ISBN 978-0-393-32256-9.
  12. ^ Terry, Charles Sanford (April 2003). Bach: A Biography. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 11, et seq. ISBN 978-0-7661-4677-8.
  13. ^ Jullien, Adolphe (1892). Richard Wagner: His Life and Works. J. B. Millet. pp. 67, et al.
  14. ^ Peter Terrell, ed. Collins German–English, English–German Dictionary. 2nd edition, pp. 356, 405.
  15. ^ Silke Dartlick (27 June 2013). "Richard Wagner's legacy in Dresden". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  16. ^ Peter Terrell, ed. Collins German–English, English–German Dictionary. 2nd edition, p. 380.
  17. ^ "History – The three Gewandhauses". Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  18. ^ "The Gewandhausorchester: from town band to institution of international renown". Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  19. ^ Thielemann (2015), pp. 102–105.
  20. ^ Martin Anderson (19 February 2010). "Otmar Suitner: Conductor who was the last surviving product of Germany's 'Kapellmeister' tradition". The Independent. Retrieved 11 June 2022.


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