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Benda, Georg (1722-1795)

Georg Benda

born: 30 June 1722
died: 6 November 1795
country: Bohemia

Though any musical encyclopedia will tell you that Jiří Antonín Benda (later Germanized to Georg Anton Benda) is more highly regarded by posterity for his operas than his keyboard music, there is no doubting that he, along with most notably C P E Bach and Johann Stamitz, was responsible for the musical bridge between the Baroque and Classical periods of music. No doubt either that Benda’s absence from many reference books reflects neither his importance in that narrative nor his reputation during his lifetime.

Benda was a composer, violinist and Kapellmeister born on 30 June 1722 in the picturesque town of Benátky nad Jizerou, then in Bohemia but now in the central Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, twenty-two miles north-east of Prague. In that year, J S Bach and Handel were thirty-seven, Vivaldi was forty-four, Albinoni fifty-one and Couperin fifty-four.

He was the fourth of the six children of Jan (Hans) Jiří Benda, a weaver and itinerant musician, and Dorota Brixi, daughter of a village cantor and a member of the Skalsko branch of a distinguished family of Czech musicians. Five of their six children became musicians, all working in Germany. Their eldest son František (Franz, 1709-1786), composer of at least 162 violin sonatas and eighteen violin concertos, became concertmaster to Frederick the Great, and was a friend and colleague of C P E Bach in Potsdam (Franz’s own sons Friedrich and Karl both became composers). Their second son Jan (Johann, 1713-1752), the least eminent among the siblings, ended up as a court chamber musician in Berlin. Next in line was his brother Viktor, the only non-musician (he was a weaver), followed by our man Georg Anton, the most distinguished of the six. Josef (Joseph, 1724-1804), a violinist, was concertmaster to Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, while the brothers’ only sister, Anna (1726-1780), was rated by a contemporary authority as ‘one of the best singers of her time’. She became a Kammersängerin (chamber singer) in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha, and married the court violinist and composer Dismas Hataš.

Georg was a pupil at a school in Kosmonosy run by Piarists (a Roman Catholic order devoted to the education of the poor), and later at a Jesuit college in Jičín. In 1742 he moved with the rest of his family to join his brother Franz in Potsdam, where he became a violinist in the court orchestra, also gaining some renown as an accomplished clavier player and oboist. In 1750 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the music-loving Duke Friedrich III of Saxe-Gotha, composing solely church and instrumental music due to the local clergy’s ban on any form of musical theatre. For the birthday of the Duke’s wife in 1765, however, the clergy relented, prompting Benda to write his first opera, Xindo riconosciuto, and leading to his being granted a stipend by the Duke to study the form in Italy.

Several of the works he wrote subsequently achieved great popularity—most notably Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea, each described as a ‘duodrama’, a kind of melodrama for two performers. Indeed, having heard both pieces, Mozart wrote with some enthusiasm to his father in November 1778, extolling Benda’s achievements: ‘The piece I saw was Benda’s Medea. He has composed another one, Ariadne auf Naxos, and both are really excellent. You know that of all the Lutheran Kapellmeisters, Benda has always been my favourite, and I like those two works of his so much that I carry them about with me.’ (Mozart contemplated writing a duodrama himself—Semiramis—but never did.) They are works in which spoken dialogue is accompanied by the orchestra, as in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Benda is credited with inventing the melodrama genre, despite Rousseau’s Pygmalion of 1770 having a claim to the contrary.

At any rate, an early edition of Grove’s Dictionary ends its entry on the Benda family by referring to Georg as one who ‘by his melodrama and operettas has obtained a lasting position in musical history’. And thus the whirligig of time …

The Duchess having died in 1767 and the Duke five years later, Benda resigned his post as Kapellmeister in 1777. After two years in Hamburg, Paris and other cities, he returned to Gotha in 1779, living out his retirement first in nearby Georgenthal, then Ohrdruf, and finally Köstritz, where he died in 1795.

So much for biography. Apart from his stage works (operas, Singspiele, melodramas and a children’s operetta), Georg Benda’s compositions include a quantity of church music and vocal compositions, sixteen keyboard sonatas and sonatinas, a flute sonata, some thirty symphonies, ten harpsichord concertos and eleven violin concertos. What distinguishes his works are their dramatic and often rapidly alternating moods, a characteristic trait of the North German school of composition (‘Affekt’) and best illustrated by the better-known works of C P E Bach.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2021


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