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Johann Schobert

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Biography

Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, Paris was the leading cultural center of Europe, and, in contrast with its long and storied history of cultural autonomy and resistance to foreign influence in the arts, now served as a melting pot for artists and ideas from across Europe. Particularly in instrumental music, composers from German-speaking territories wielded great influence. Johann Schobert was one such immigrant musician who joined the court of the prominent patron Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti, as a harpsichordist, in 1760 or 1761. Very little about Schobert's life before he appeared in Paris as a young keyboard virtuoso is known; his birth date is estimated to be some time before 1740, and his place of birth is uncertain, but believed to be somewhere in Silesia, then mostly under Prussian control. Once under the Prince of Conti's protection, he was able to get his music published, mostly at his own expense. Schobert played in Parisian salons, engaged students, and, to promote his publications, arranged for subscription concerts, all indicating a degree of independence from his patron. His one foray into the opéra comique genre, with La garde-chasse et le braconnier in 1765, was a failure with audiences. His instrumental music, however, was much admired by his contemporaries. He won the lifelong esteem of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was influenced by Schobert's compositions in his youth, and continued teaching his pupils the composer's music in his maturity. Schobert's career was cut short, in 1767, when he and most of his family died from eating poisonous mushrooms. Schobert's music was innovative in its stylistic and formal features. A proto-Romantic, his music -- stormy, introverted, and filled with extremes of expressive contrast -- exemplified the Sturm und Drang aesthetics that would mature in the 1770s, after his death. His works exhibit a stylistic kinship with the dynamic orchestral music coming out of Mannheim at the time, though he composed almost exclusively for the keyboard, in solo and chamber contexts. Schobert solicited a symphonic fullness of texture from his instrument. Though his music displays qualities far removed from the miniaturist aesthetics of the French keyboard tradition, he occasionally incorporated typically French embellishments and dances into his compositions. Schobert developed the expressive potential of keyboard music with ad libitum instruments, a type of work that was starting to gain traction in France in the 1760s. The ad libitum keyboard sonata, in which the accompanying instruments were optional, changed the role of the keyboard in chamber music from accompanying basso continuo instrument to full-fledged protagonist, paving the way for a classical chamber music idiom.
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