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Kapellmeister (, also ,German: [ka'p?l?ma?st?]) is a German word designating a person in charge of music-making. The word is a compound, consisting of the roots Kapelle ("choir", "orchestra", or originally, "chapel") and Meister ("master"). The word was originally used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel. However, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning in response to changes in the musical profession.
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.
Becoming a Kapellmeister was a mark of success for professional musicians of this time. 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. 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.
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. But as Jones (2009) points out, 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." 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, as Kammercompositeur ("chamber composer"), but authority in matters musical at the court was exercised primarily by Antonio Salieri. However, 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.
In April 1791, Mozart did apply to become the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and was in fact designated by the City Council to take over this job following the death of the then-ailing incumbent, Leopold Hofmann. However, this never took place, since Mozart died (December 1791) before Hofmann did (1793).
Similar terms and equivalents
Variant spellings capellmeister and capelle, to refer to the orchestra or choir, are sometimes encountered in English language works about composers who held the title.
The word Hofkapellmeister specified that the Kapellmeister worked at a nobleman's court (Hof); a Konzertmeister held a somewhat less senior position.
Equivalent positions existed in other European countries and were referred to with equivalent names, as follows: Italian: maestro di cappella, Spanish: maestro de capilla, Finnish: kapellimestari, French: maître de chapelle, Dutch: kapelmeester, Polish: kapelmistrz, Portuguese: mestre de capela, Catalan: mestre de capella, Russian: , and Swedish: kapellmästare. In Finnish kapellimestari is still the primary word used of conductors.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had two Kapellmeister positions: first, from (probably) 1757 to 1761 for Count Morzin, then from 1761 on for the Eszterházy family. (He was Vice-Kapellmeister from 1761 to 1766.)
In contemporary German, the term "Kapellmeister" has become less common in favor of the term Dirigent ("conductor"). When used today, however, 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, choosing guest conductors and so on) as well as conducting. In military settings it refers to a bandmaster. The music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra traditionally holds the old-fashioned title Gewandhauskapellmeister. 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 Kapellmeisters, 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 glamor: "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".
Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Jones, David Wyn (2009) "Reception," in David Wyn Jones, ed., Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. English translation by Eric Blom, Peter Branscombe, and Jeremy Noble. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965.
Griesinger, Georg August (1810) Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. English translation by Vernon Gotwals, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits, Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press.
Thielemann, Christian (2016) My Life with Wagner: Fairies, Rings, and Redemption: Exploring Opera's Most Enigmatic Composer. Pegasus Books. Extract quoted is readable on line at Google Books: .