In most music history books he’s a shadowy figure at best. By all accounts, Baron Gottfried van Swieten was a mass of contradictions. Pompous in his dealings with musicians, acutely, even comically aware of his own minor aristocratic status, he could also be generous and loyal. He may have looked down his nose at Haydn and Mozart, but for their work he had nothing but respect. And without him, key works by them, and by Beethoven, would have sounded quite different. Which means that their influence on the later development of western classical music would have been very different too.
Although his own efforts at composing were unimpressive, van Swieten’s recognition of the talents of others was unusually insightful. Apart from the three Viennese Titans, he also singled out Gluck and C.P.E. Bach. More importantly, he developed a very untypical passion for J.S. Bach and Handel, whose music had been largely forgotten by the late 1700s. He paid for performances of their works, and encouraged Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to play them, study them and imitate their contrapuntal skills. The results can be heard in the thrilling fugal ending of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, the colossal Grosse Fuge by Beethoven and the muscular polyphonic choruses of Haydn’s Creation, for which van Swieten also compiled the libretto. He felt he was offering these great composers ‘food for the spirit and for the heart’, and such masterpieces proved him right.
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