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Better than the “Swedish Mozart”

Fact number one: Mozart was Mozart—there will never be another. Full stop. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of dubbing Mozart contemporaries, who were extant in countries outside Mozart’s Austro-Hungarian / German circle: the “Italian Mozart” (Luigi Boccherini), the “Black Mozart” (Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges), or the “Swedish Mozart” (Joseph Martin Kraus). Each has their own unique style, each stands on their own merits, and each deserves better.

Kraus (1756–1792) certainly does. Born in Germany, his early studies were in literature—he was also a published poet—and he learned music from members of the Mannheim court orchestra, which was at the time the finest band in all the land. He was invited to study music at the court of Swedish King Gustav III and received his big break when commissioned to write an opera set to a text by the King.

King Gustav must have been pleased because Kraus was awarded the post of deputy music director and never looked back. King Gustav also sent him on a tour of Europe to observe operatic trends, which was when he came into contact with Haydn, Gluck, Salieri, and others. In an interesting bit of trivia, he was at the masked ball—romanticized in Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera—when King Gustav III was assassinated.

Kraus composed and excelled in most genres, but dramatic music was his specialty. The theatric permeates his work—he was very much a student of Sturm und Drang. A superb lyricist who took bold harmonic steps (which is another reason why the Mozart sobriquet doesn’t quite fit), his polished elegance suggests Gluck, and a case could be made for his music looking ahead to Beethoven. He was a superb orchestrator and his symphonic music reveals a mastery of color and keen rhythmic sense.

“Swedish Mozart”? No. He was Joseph Martin Kraus, and his music is worth your attention.

You have a rare opportunity to hear Kraus’s music when the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performs his Olympie Overture on Thursday, December 7 at 8 PM.

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