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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blind Writer Makes Beautiful Music

18th century engraving of Pfeffel, artist unknown.
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel, aka Amédee or Théophile (French translations of the German name "Gottlieb" or "God love"), was a French-German writer and translator from the Alsace region of France.  His texts were used as librettos for works by Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, among others.

Pfeffel from the 1841 edition of Poetlishe Versuche, Volume 10.
Image courtesy of Google Books.

Born to the mayor of the town of Colmar, his father died when he was two and he was raised by his twelve-year-old brother.  In the interest of becoming a diplomat Pfeffel went to the University of Halle in 1751.  Two years later he developed an eye problem and went to Dresden seeking treatment.  His sight continued to deteriorate, and despite an operation in 1758 he became completely blind.  But that seemed to do little to deter him.  In 1759 he married and had thirteen children, seven of which lived.  He had established himself as a writer and translator.

Copy of an original statue in the Unterlinten Museum by
André Friedrich in 1859.  This one is on the Grand Rue in Colmar.
Image courtesy of flickr.

In 1773 he opened a military academy for aristocratic Protestants.  Protestants were not allowed at the military academy of Paris, so this was a much needed facility and did well.  Pfeffel became a citizen of Biel/Bienne in Switzerland and an honorary member of the city council in 1783, attesting to his capabilities and reputation.

Image of Pfeffel courtesy this site.

After the French Revolution he lost the military academy and his fortune.  He found work translating, with the educational board of Colmar, and with the publisher Tubingen-Cotta.  Even after Napoleon I granted him an annual pension in 1806 he continued writing, including many articles for the magazine Flora.  He died in 1809.

Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1875.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

But composers seemed to have been drawn to his work.  Franz Schubert made a lief of his text Der Vatermöder.  The Czech composer Leopold Kozeluch put music to his cantata for the blind Austrian singer Maria Theresia von Paradis, who learned piano from Kozeluch and singing and composition from Antonio Salieri. Ludwig van Beethoven, prior to his deafness, put Pfeffel's poem Der Freie Mann to music in 1794 or 1795.

Ludwig van Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis by
Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.  Image courtesy of www.Beethoven-Haus-Bonn.de.

Joseph Haydn turned Pfeffel's Philemone und Baucis:  Ein Schauspiel in Versen von einem Aufzuge, a one-act play in verse, into a Singspiel for a marionette theater in 1773.  (Singspiel means literally "songplay" in German, and is a music drama now considered a genre of opera.)  Haydn called it Philemon und Baucis oder Jupiter's Reise auf die Erde (Philemon and Baucis or Jupiter's Travels to the Earth).

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Ludwig Guttenrunn, circa 1770.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The occasion for Haydn's composition was the 1773 visit to Esterháza to see Empress Maria Theresa and her retinue of important personages.  He revised it as an opera for human actors in 1776, adding a final section praising the imperial Habsburg family.

Pfeffel dictating to his daughter, circa 1800.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite what could have been a very undermining disability for a writer, Pfeffel went on to lead a productive life.  He has a rather extensive bibliography, and was friends with many well-known people of the time, including Voltaire.  Makes writer's block seem like a petty excuse!


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