“The famous and just about the most distinguished violinist in the whole of Europe.” Johann Sebastien Muller (1660), chancery-clerk at the Weimar court, describes Schmelzer after visiting the imperial court in Vienna.
“Among the most attractive aspects of Schmelzer’s music for me are the rich melodies, arias and cantelinas, all of them velvet smooth, marvelously gentle, intoxicated by their own existence and constantly on the verge of tears or laughter;… But they also express the sufferings of the soul like no other music, inviting us to melancholy contemplation and confessions of love.” Hélène Schmitt, baroque violinist (Paris, 2007)
As his works, and also contemporary documents show, Schmelzer developed a new playing technique, marked by extraordinary fluency in the higher positions, a completely new, experimental use of scordatura (abnormal tuning, used to obtain special chordal effects and changes of tonal quality), great virtuosity in the passagework, and flowing melodies and lyrical cantelinas. The latter features especially require a very refined bowing technique, which was described at the time as ‘hard to learn and easy to unlearn’. So concerned were two of Schmelzer’s pupils to preserve this technique that they refused to play the ballet music that Schmelzer wrote in the style of Lully, requiring very short bowing strokes, for fear of compromising the technique they had taken such pains to acquire. Schmelzer’s elegant playing technique went hand in hand with extraordinary inventiveness, the often quite breathtaking effects that are worked into his compositions are not there just for the sake of it: they are an organic part of the music and they open up broad expressive possibilities. (Peter Wollny, 2007)
Schmelzer’s Sonatae unarum fidium were the first solo sonatas to be published by a non-Italian, and were followed by two other notable collections, the Duodena selectarum sonatarum (1659) and the Sacro-profanus concentus musicus (1662) (after which Nikolaus Harnoncourt named his revolutionary ensemble in 1953).
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer von Ehrenruef (c. 1620/23 – 1680)
Schmelzer was born in the early 1620’s in Scheibbs, a small town in Lower Austria. Not much is known about his youth, but it is likely that he was first engaged in the imperial court as a boy treble, and probably was trained there by the famous Italian violinist Antonio Bertali. In 1643 a document identifies Schmelzer as an instrumentalist – instrumentalis musicus – and ‘cornetist’ at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna. In 1649 he was engaged as a violinist in the court chapel of Emperor Ferdinand III. Then, when Leopold I came to the throne in 1658, Schmelzer was identified as director of instrumental music in the retinue attending the new emperor in Frankfurt am Main at his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Schmelzer raised the sonata genre (still recent in German-speaking countries) to a new level of excellence in both playing technique and composition. At court, his main duty, however, was the provision of ballet music for the court entertainments, which included operas, spoken dramas, pantomimes, pageants and other spectacles. He also was a composer of church music and of operas. In 1671 he was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister, in 1673 ennobled by Leopold I, and in 1679, became the first non-Italian to hold the post of Kapellmeister. That same year he followed the court to Prague, where it had moved to avoid the plague epidemic, but was stricken and then died of the disease