By Sterling E. Murray

Many years ago, while searching for a dissertation topic, I came upon a volume of five symphonies by the Bohemian composer Antonio Rosetti (ca. 1750–92). I had never heard of Rosetti, and I was quite surprised at the high quality of these works. This discovery served as the topic of my dissertation (“The Symphonies of Anton Rosetti,” University of Michigan, 1972). But more than that, it initiated what was to be a lifetime of research devoted to this composer and his musical world.

The five symphonies that first introduced me to Rosetti’s music were edited by the German scholar Oskar Kaul (1885–1968) in Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Bayern in 1925 (slightly revised in 1968). As a supplement to his edition, Kaul included a thematic index of Rosetti’s instrumental music. Although this index was extremely helpful, I found it badly out of date. Many changes to archival sources had occurred as a result of the war, and several of the sources consulted by Kaul had since been lost or destroyed. Moreover, the index was restricted to Rosetti’s instrumental music. It was clear that a comprehensive study of Rosetti’s music could not be accomplished until all its sources had been identified. I spent the next twenty years combing European archives and libraries in search of compositions by Rosetti.

Tracking down his music was complicated by uncertainty concerning the composer’s proper name and identity. In his Neues historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler of 1812–14, Ernst Ludwig Gerber had erroneously identified our composer as Anton Rößler. His mistake, which carried with it the assumption that the composer had Italianized his birth name, continued to be recounted well into the twentieth century. This, in turn, resulted in additional confusion in separating Rosetti’s music from that of other composers sharing one or the other of his names. Research has finally corrected Gerber’s mistake, establishing without question that our composer “was never called Rößler, but rather Rosetti from birth” (Musikalische Korrespondenz, 9 May 1792, cols. 147–48). The fruit of my investigations resulted in a comprehensive thematic catalog of Rosetti’s music that was published in 1996 by Harmonie Park Press (The Music of Antonio Rosetti, ca. 1750‑1792: A Thematic Catalog).

Antonio Rosetti

Born sometime around 1750 in Litoměřice (Leitmeritz), Bohemia, Rosetti received his musical training from the Jesuits in Prague. He spent most of his career in Germany in the service of Kraft Ernst, Prince of Oettingen-Wallerstein (1748–1802). The prince, who was very fond of music, established at his small court in Wallerstein a Hofkapelle of talented performers and composers. Thanks to good fortune, the Wallerstein music collection, including much of Rosetti’s music and the documents pertinent to the functioning of the Hofkapelle, escaped the destruction of the war years. This material proved to be a gold mine for my research.

Although Rosetti is known nowadays primarily for his instrumental music—symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and wind partitas—he also composed a significant body of vocal music, most of which dates from his tenure toward the end of his life (1789–92) as Kapellmeister to Friedrich Franz I (1756–1837), Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Rosetti’s Passion oratorio Der sterbende Jesus was one of the few choral works he composed during his years in the service of Kraft Ernst. The manuscript was completed in 1785 in time for its first performance in Wallerstein during Easter. The publication of Rosetti’s oratorio the following year by Artaria in Vienna distinguishes it as Rosetti’s only ensemble vocal composition to appear in print during the composer’s lifetime.

My decision to undertake an edition of this work was based on a number of factors. Foremost, of course, was the realization that my score would be the first modern-day critical edition of this work. I was also aware that, although this piece was immensely popular in the composer’s lifetime—as evidenced by the more than fifty manuscript sources preserved today in archives throughout Europe[1]—it remains relatively unnoticed in today’s choral circles. But what ultimately drew me to this project was the opportunity it provided to witness Rosetti’s creativity and imagination in overcoming the practical challenges of an extended vocal composition.


Creating an edition of Der sterbende Jesus that would address the needs of both performers and scholars posed some problems. Since an autograph score has not survived, it was necessary to reconstruct the score from performance parts, a task not without special challenges. The Wallerstein part books used at the 1785 performance of Der sterbende Jesus were prepared by Franz Xaver Link, a court musician who frequently functioned as copyist for Rosetti. As I began to work with this source, I realized that Link’s parts had also been used for a later performance of this work in which cuts were made and individual parts altered, making it necessary to sort out which markings from the source parts should and should not be included in the modern-day score. Thanks to the appearance in some parts of red ink markings, this portion of the editing process moved rather smoothly.

Although Link’s handwriting fortunately was clear and readable, mistakes and discrepancies did occur. In addition to making obvious corrections, it was occasionally necessary to address more complicated conflicts of interpretation. In general, one problem in editing Rosetti’s music is his tendency to favor detailed dynamic and expressive markings. Although essential to the emotional effect of this music, such markings seldom were precisely indicated in all part books, providing a challenge to maintaining consistency while still recognizing stylistic diversity. Not infrequently, details of dynamics, phrasing, or articulation in one part (or group of parts) were clearly at odds with others, and to avoid inconsistency one interpretation had to be favored over the other.

The availability of capable singers posed a major obstacle for Rosetti in the composition of this work. The vocal resources of the Wallerstein Hofkapelle were meager in comparison to the exceptional quality of its instrumentalists, and for the most part singers were recruited from among members of the court orchestra or wives and sisters of instrumentalists, only one or two of whom had received any vocal training. Rosetti was tasked with the need to be creative in his deployment of the vocal resources available to him. He composed straightforward choral settings that favored homophonic textures, simple rhythms, narrow range limits, and—most importantly—instrumental doubling, but, in turn, drew attention away from the simplicity of the choral writing with particularly imaginative and colorful orchestration. Of the four soloists required by the libretto, only the husband-wife team of Georg and Monika (née Keckhut) Feldmayr, who sang the roles of John and Mary, were allotted major arias. Without question, Georg Feldmayr was the most talented and best trained vocalist at Wallerstein, and his single aria (“So steigt nach Ungewittern”) stands out as the showcase selection of the work. Driven by the limitations of most of his singers, Rosetti eschewed elaborate arias in favor of simpler pieces better suited to his singers’ abilities and made use of the orchestra to support voices in choruses and underscore the expressive narrative of recitatives. In many ways, Rosetti’s setting of Der sterbende Jesus affords us a brief glimpse into the practical world of an eighteenth-century court composer.

It is my hope that my edition of Der sterbende Jesus will not only encourage the performance of this poignant and beautiful oratorio but also add to the scholarly understanding of the breadth and diversity of Rosetti’s contribution to the music of the late eighteenth century.

Sterling E. MurraySterling E. Murray (Ph.D. University of Michigan, 1973) is Professor Emeritus of the Wells School of Music of West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Dr. Murray’s research has concentrated on the music of the late eighteenth century. He is the author of The Career of an Eighteenth-Century Kapellmeister: The Life and Music of Antonio Rosetti, 1750-1792 (University of Rochester Press, 2014) and The Music of Antonio Rosetti (Anton Rösler), ca. 1750–92: A Thematic Catalog (Harmonie Park Press, 1996). He has also contributed to The Symphonic Repertoire, vol. 1, The Eighteenth Century, ed. Mary Sue Morrow and Bathia Churgin (Indiana University Press, 2013) and has served as editor of Haydn and His Contemporaries (Steglein Press, 2011) and co-editor with Sonia Gerlach on a volume of symphonies for the complete works of Joseph Haydn (Haydn Institute of Cologne, forthcoming). His editions of Rosetti’s wind partitas and oratorio Der sterbende Jesus  have been published by A-R Editions. Dr. Murray is founding president of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Music (SECM) and a fellow of the John D. Rockefeller Library of Colonial Williamsburg, and he has served on the board of the Mozart Society of America. He has published widely in professional journals on various topics of eighteenth-century music on both sides of the Atlantic. At present, Dr. Murray is working on a study of music and musical theater in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia.

 [1] For details on these sources, see Sterling Murray, The Music of Antonio Rosetti (Anton Rösler), ca. 1750–92: A Thematic Catalog (Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 1996), 469–76.