Charlatan or Visionary? Abbé Vogler and His Theory of Organ Design

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Pope Pius vi made him a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur,1 yet, as Vice Kapellmeister in Mannheim, the orchestra hated him. His students Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer adored him, but Mozart called him a fool and a musical jester. Robert Browning praised him with a flattering poem in the form of a soliloquy, but the celebrated composer and organist Johann Rinck found the gentleman's organs unplayable because of their poor design.

The subject of praise and derision, Georg Joseph Vogler was born in Würzburg in 1749. His father, Jared, was a violin maker and his son's first music teacher.2 The boy first studied at a Jesuit school, and later enrolled in Würzburg University at the age of 14. As early as the age of ten, his musical talent, especially at the keyboard, was extraordinary and later in life he would tour Europe as a virtuoso organist.

By his early 20s, his political skills were equally developed and would serve him well as he climbed the social ladder to fame. In 1771, he went to Mannheim and composed a ballet for the Elector Karl Theodor, who expressed his pleasure with the young man's talents by sending him to Bologna to study counterpoint with Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784). Vogler found the old teacher's methods too conservative, and within six weeks departed for Padua to study theology. While there, he also took composition lessons with Padre Francesco Antonio Vallotti (1697-1780). After spending five month's study with Vallotti, he set off to Rome where he was ordained a priest in 1773. His political skills gained him membership in the Academy of Arcadia3 and an appointment as chamberlain to the Pope.4

In 1775, Vogler returned to Mannheim where he established a music school. There he also published his radical ideas of theory and composition, Tonschule, Tonwissenschaft und Tonsezkunst, in 1776. This text, along with his failure to produce the high-quality school he promised, set off protests from his peers, who called him a charlatan. During this time in Mannheim, Vogler also wrote several other books on music theory as well as masses, ballets, chamber works, and organ preludes. His theory of harmony was based on acoustics, and he argued that dissonances of the seventh, ninth, and eleventh could be introduced anywhere in the scale without modulation.5

It was in Mannheim that he ran afoul of Mozart, who visited the court in 1777 and wrote to his father on November 4, "Deputy-Kapellmeister Vogler, who had composed the Mass which was performed the other day, is a dreary musical jester, an exceedingly conceited, and rather incompetent fellow. The whole orchestra dislikes him."6 The young Mozart wrote to his father again on the 15th, with further details of Vogler's background and music.

[The Elector Theodor] asked Padre Vallotti about [Vogler] . . . and he also asked Padre Martini, who informed him: "Altezza, è buono; ma a poco a poco, quando sarà un poco più vecchio, più sodo, si farà, ma bisogna che si cangi molto."7 [Vogler] produced a Miserere, which . . . simply cannot be listened to, for it sounds all wrong. Hearing that his composition was not receiving much praise, Vogler went to the Elector and complained that the orchestra was playing it badly on purpose. In a word, he was so clever at pulling strings (he had had more than one naughty little affair with women, who were useful to him) that he was appointed Deputy-Kapellmeister. But he is a fool, who imagines that he is the very pitch of perfection. The whole orchestra, from A to ? detest him. His book is more useful for teaching arithmetic than for teaching composition.8

Again, on November 20, Mozart expressed his disgust even more forcefully.

I went to the service, brand new music composed by Vogler. I have never in my life heard such stuff. In many places the parts do not harmonize. He modulates in such a violent way as to make you think that he is resolved to drag you with him by the scruff of the neck. …