Friday, 6 January 2017


It’s time for another installment of “From Obscurity into Light” – one in a series of featured profiles on composers of merit otherwise unknown to the casual listener (and sometimes even to the seasoned admirer).

Benedikt Schack (center)
Today’s composer of note is 18th century Czech composer, actor and tenor Benedikt Schack (pictured above-center).

Troupe leader Emanuel Schikaneder performs
as Papageno in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
Schikaneder would be instrumental in
Schack's composing/performing
career by introducing the tenor to
Mozart in 1786.
Born February 7 in 1758 Bohemia, this Classical era musician began honing in on his musical acuity first as a chorister for a cathedral in Prague at 15, followed by a lengthy period of vocal study under Haydn-trained singing coach (and tenor) Carl Friberth. Receiving lessons from Friberth – and inadvertently learning techniques passed down to the maestro from one of the most renowned and respected composers in Europe (in Herr Haydn) certainly paid off well for young Schack. By the time Benedikt reached 28, he had not only served a brief stint as Kapellmeister to Prince Heinrich von Schönaich-Carolath of Silesia, he would also join Europe’s most famous traveling theatrical troupe headed by the baritone, composer and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder (the very same Schikaneder who would pen the libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute – arguably one of Mozart’s most famous works). 

It would be through joining the iconic troupe as composer and vocalist in 1786 that Schack would meet and befriend Herr Mozart – who, along with sister Nannerl and father Leopold had become friendly with Schikaneder six years earlier, during the latter’s extended stay in Salzburg. The Mozart family were reportedly so enamored with the troupe’s productions, it is said they almost “never missed [their] shows,” and took it upon themselves to make the acquaintance of it’s leader by inviting Emanuel to a round of Bölzlschiessen (dart shooting). It would be through Schikaneder that Mozart would become introduced to Schack, whose vocal abilities were as much lauded as were his capabilities as a composer - especially by the Senior Mozart, Leopold, who raved over Benedikt's technique in a now famous letter to daughter Maria Anna (Nannerl), who would make his acquaintance later, alongside Wolfgang.

By all appearances, young Schack’s friendship with Herr Mozart superseded even that of the maestro's kinship with Schikaneder. Mozart was said to have routinely requested the company of Benedikt for his daily “strolls” – according to an 1811 account by the Bavarian historian Felix Joseph Lipowsky the king of opera may even have penned sections of music for his new friend whilst Schack readied himself for the excursions:
“Mozart often came to Schack to fetch him for a stroll; while Schack dressed he would sit at the writing desk and compose here and there a piece in Schack's operas. Thus several passages in Schack's operas derive from Mozart's own hand and genius.”
So close were two musical comrades that Constanze, Herr Mozart’s spouse, would pen a letter to Schack toward the end of his life in December of 1826. In the very personal exchange, the widow Mozart (now Nissen through her second marriage to the Danish diplomat Georg Nikolaus von Nissen) recalls the undeniable bond shared between the two friends:
“I could think of absolutely no one who knew him better or to whom he was more devoted than you...”
Schack would befriend
Herr Mozart
- a later collaborator -
in 1786.
The dynamic duo had collaborated not only on parchment but also on stage: in 1790, it would be for the singspiel Der Stein der Weisen ("The Philosopher's Stone"), a troupe-collective opera with libretto by Schikaneder and with each member of the group composing their own sections for the work, and with Herr Mozart contributing his own sections as honored guest. Der Stein... proved to be a success during Mozart’s lifetime – it would, however be overshadowed by the ravishing success of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) which would hold its première one year later at Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden (on September 30, 1791, just two months prior to Wolfgang’s death).

As with Der Stein der Weisen, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would also feature Schack and the Schikaneder troupe, with group leader Schikaneder penning the libretto for the work (and appearing onstage as the character Papageno), and with member Johann Baptist Henneberg as conductor, and with Franz Xavier Gerl and Schack as stage performers (as Sarastro and Tamino).

Schack, who retired from the stage 1813 after experiencing a decline in his vocal ability, would survive on a pension until his death on December 10 1826. An obituary published anonymously at the time of Schack's passing places the composer at Mozart's bedside on the "very eve" of his death. It reads:
“On the very eve of his death, Mozart had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed, and himself (it was two o'clock in the afternoon) sang the alto part; Schack, the family friend, sang the soprano line, as he had always previously done, Hofer, Mozart's brother-in-law, took the tenor, Gerl, later a bass singer at the Mannheim Theater, the bass. They were at the first bars of the Lacrimosa when Mozart began to weep bitterly, laid the score on one side, and eleven hours later, at one o'clock in the morning (of 5 December 1791, as is well known), departed this life.”

Listen below to the stunning aria “Welch fremde Stimme hörte ich?” (What Strange Voice Do I Hear?") from Der Stein der Weisen performed by the Boston Baroque under Martin Pearlman. This particular aria/section was composed by Herr Schack (it also happens to be among my personal list of top tenor arias!) *Aria begins (and is queued) at 32:16 mins:

More from this series:

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