The Habsburg emperors are renowned for their musicality and for a love of music that acted as a catalyst for the growing importance of Vienna as a musical centre in Europe. Of the entire range of musical emperors, Leopold I (1640-1705) stands out as being the most talented composer, a skilful instrumentalist and a great patron of courtly musical life.

Leopold was not meant to become successor to the throne; as second-born he was rather supposed to embark on a clerical career.  He therefore enjoyed a broad humanistic and Jesuit education, could speak at least four languages, and was known for his skill in Italian poetry. His heart, however, was for music: apart from being able to play several instruments such as violin, recorder and harpsichord, he was trained in composition.  One of his contemporaries writes: “His strongest inclination is for music. He understands it. He himself is a really good composer and he revels in music in church, at table and in his chamber almost all day long. It is said that he is never tired of this enjoyment. He spends his rare free hours composing.

In 1654, aged only 14, he became heir when his brother unexpectedly died. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1658. During his reign he strongly promoted musical life, especially musical theatre to which he was particularly attached. Whereas between 1630 und 1657 the number of dramatic music performances added up to 16, between 1658 and 1675 there were no less than 400. These took the form of, for example, operas, secular carnival dramas, oratories and sepolcri during Lent, performances on the occasion of birthdays or name days. A visitor of the city describes the vibrant Viennese musical life in Leopold’s time as follows: „not an evening passes without us hearing a serenade in the street outside our window.

As a patron of the arts Leopold I extended and reorganised the imperial chapel. In 1696 he established the position of court composer. The number of musicians increased, and since they were predominantly recruited from Italy, this strengthened Italian influence on musical style.

Leopold not only relied on his musicians, but also was involved in establishing the musical the repertoire at his court. Apart from contributing to compositions he had commissioned from his composers, he also composed a considerable amount of his own works. These compositions include a wide range of musical genres and include liturgical and secular works: as operas, oratories, sepolcri (a genre of sacred dramatic music related to the oratorio), incidental music, madrigals, sonatas, dances, canzonettas, masses, antiphons, motets, hymns, etc. Of these, the requiem for his first wife Margaret Theresa of Spain (1651-1673) and the three lections for the funeral of his second wife Claudia Felicitas of Austria (1653-1676) are particularly noteworthy. The latter continued to be performed between 1705 and 1740 on the anniversary of Leopold’s death and are still recorded and performed today.  The image shows the title page of the “Tres lectiones” with the dates of the yearly performances added.

Examples of  Leopold’s first compositional activities have been handed down to us thanks to a collection of liturgical, secular instrumental and vocal compositions compiled by Wolfgang Ebner (1612–1665), who was most likely his teacher. The image shows the beginning of a marian antiphon sung during Eastertide and containing a remark concerning the performance of the work in Leopold’s handwriting: “Mense Maio 1655. Accompagnamento di viole del Antonio Bertali” (Bertali was composer and violinist at the Viennese court).

Considering the amount of political problems during his reign (e.g. Great Plague of Vienna in 1679, siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire in 1683, expansionism of Louis XIV of France) the cultural growth at the court during Leopold’s lifetime is even more remarkable.

For music history and research, it is highly significant that during Leopold’s reign a systematic documentation of musical activities and musical life at the Viennese court was initiated; for example we still have his private collection of music scores, the so-called “Bedroom Library”, all of them wrapped in white parchment and stored in the Austrian National Library. The images below show the front and back cover of a volume of Leopold’s collection; the front side bears Leopold’s portrait, the back side the double-headed eagle, representing royalty and empire.

Thus Leopold I not only laid the foundations for the rise of Vienna as musical centre in Europe, but also for the subsequent research into this history.

Find more material about Leopold I in Europeana and discover his collection online at the Austrian National Library.

by Ute Sondergeld