The composer and keyboard super-virtuoso Johann Gottfried Müthel (1728-1788) was one of the brightest stars in the Germanic musical culture that dominated in what is now Latvia prior to the mid-19th century. Müthel was an exemplary representative of the emotional or sentimental style (empfindsamer Stil) of the mid-1700s. This style, frequently associated with the Sturm und Drang movement in its musical manifestation, was the reaction of some German composers to the mechanical expression of emotion in the affected Baroque; between the Baroque and Classicism, empfindsamer Stil is characterized by changes in tone and a striving for genuine feeling without artifice. Müthel’s compositions are suffused with the essence of a style he made his own, dazzling in their unexpected harmonies, sharp contrasts between the loud and the subdued, nearly impossible virtuosity and total unpredictability.

Born in a musical family in Mölln, in Schleswig-Holstein, he studied in Luebeck and Leipzig, where he became one of the last students of Johann Sebastian Bach. He settled in Riga in 1753 after agreeing to lead the house ensemble of Otto Hermann, Baron von Vietinghof, a renowned Baltic German philanthropist and politician in imperial Russia. Müthel was the organist at Saint Peter’s in Riga to the end of his life. He lived a comfortable but rather lonely life, known for wearing red coats, conducting concerts only in winter because snow silenced the sounds of carriage wheels, and collecting vests embroidered with golden thread, night-caps and silk stockings. His virtuosity astounded the public of the time.

Müthel was not prolific, but his every work bears his personality. Sonatas, duets, polonaises and several concertos survive. Some of his work was published and performed in the great musical centers of Europe in his lifetime.

Johann Gottfried Müthel’s life and works are the local focus of pre-classicism for researchers and musicians in Latvia. His works are slowly becoming more known to audiences, too, with rediscovered pieces being performed. The sculptor Kārlis Alainis unveiled a plaque to Müthel at Saint Peter’s, at the instigation of young Latvians in Switzerland.

Orests Silabriedis

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