Voices from the 18th Century: Benda, Quantz, and ‘Costanza e Fortezza’

14

September
2010

For the coronation of Emperor Charles VI and his wife as King and Queen of Bohemia, a new opera was composed to mark the event. Performed in Prague on August 28, 1723, composer Johann Joseph Fux (pictured above) wrote Costanza e Fortezza (“Constancy and Fortitude”). The opera, a Festa teatrale in three acts, was by many accounts a spectacular production that incorporated a huge choir and orchestra, as well as an impressive line-up of soloists.

By coincidence, two well-known 18th-century composers happened to be in Prague for the performance and later included descriptions of what they saw and heard in their respective autobiographies. Both we quite impressed.

Franz Benda, Potsdam, April 18, 1763


“In that very year Emperor Charles VI had come to Prague for his coronation. In his honor an open-air performance of the wonderful opera Costanza e Fortezza by Johann Josef Fux took place, with hundred singers and 200 instrumentalists. I was part of the chorus which was often employed…

Among the excellent singers who had parts in this opera, the contralto [Gaetano Orsini] was my favorite. It was of great advantage to me that I observed this singer very attentively and in a certain way it influenced my future musical studies. Since I sang alto, I knew all of Ursini’s parts by heart… When the opera was over I received—as all other musicians—12 florins. Now I was able to buy a sword which I desired for a long time.” (Translation: Paul Nettl)

Johann Joachim Quantz, Potsdam, August, 1754

“…in July, 1723, I traveled in the company of the famous lutenist Weiss, and Herr Graun, who is now the Royal Prussian Kapellmeister, to Prague, to hear the great and splendid opera which was being performed at the coronation of Emperor Charles VI. It was performed outdoors and included 100 singers and 200 instrumentalists. This opera was Costanza e Fortezza. The composer was the Imperial Oberkapellmeister, famous old Fux.

It was composed more in a sacred than a theatrical style… Because of the many performers, the Imperial Kapellmeister, Caldara, had to conduct. Old Fux, who was stricken with gout and had to be carried, by order of the emperor, from Vienna to Prague in a sedan-chair, had the pleasure of listening to this unusually splendid performance of his work, sitting near the emperor…

Not a single principal or concertizing singer was mediocre, all were good. The female singers were the two Ambreville sisters, Italians… The male singers were the famous Gaetano Orsini, Domenico, Giovanni Carestini, Pietro Gassati, a great actor, and Braun, a German…

The chorus consisted of students and of members of church choirs from the city. Because of the multitude of people present, admittance to the opera was denied to many people, even those of rank, and thus my two comrades and I applied for a place in the orchestra. Weiss played the theorbe, Graun the violoncello, and I the oboe, as ripienists.” (Translation: Paul Nettl)

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