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"Kapellmeister" (German: [kaˈpɛl.ˌmaɪstɐ])[1] is a German word designating a person in charge of music-making. The word is a compound, consisting of the roots Kapelle (“choir”, “orchestra”, or originally, “chapel”) and Meister (“master”). Thus, the word was originally used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel. However, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning in response to changes in the musical profession.

Historical usage[edit]

In German-speaking countries during the approximate period 1500–1800, the word Kapellmeister often designated the director of music for a monarch or nobleman. For English speakers, it is this sense of the term that is most often encountered, since it appears frequently in biographical writing about composers who worked in German-speaking countries.

A Kapellmeister position was a senior one and involved supervision of other musicians. Johann Sebastian Bach worked from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Joseph Haydn worked for many years as Kapellmeister for the Eszterházy family, a high-ranking noble family of the Austrian Empire. George Frideric Handel served as Kapellmeister for George, Elector of Hanover (who eventually became George I of Great Britain).

A Kapellmeister might also be the director of music for a church. Thus, Georg Reutter was the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where his young choristers included both Joseph and Michael Haydn.

Becoming a Kapellmeister was a mark of success for professional musicians of this time. For instance, Joseph Haydn once remarked that he was glad his father (a wheelwright) had lived long enough to see his son become a Kapellmeister.[2]

By the end of the 18th century, many of the nobility had declined in their economic power relative to the newly prosperous middle class. Eventually, the maintenance of a Kapelle became too expensive for most nobles, which lead to a decline in the number of Kapellmeister positions. A well-known instance occurred in 1790, when Prince Anton Esterházy succeeded his father and dismissed almost all of the latter's extensive musical establishment.[3] But as Jones (2009) points out, Esterházy was hardly alone in doing this; during this same period, "the steady decline in the number of orchestras supported by aristocratic families represented a ... change that affected all composers and their works."[4] This was a difficult time for musicians, who needed to find new ways to support themselves. For instance, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) never worked as a Kapellmeister, but was supported by a somewhat unreliable combination of noble patronage, publication, and concert income.

The case of Mozart[edit]

Mozart never was a Kapellmeister in the sense given above. In 1787, he was given a paid position in the court of the Austrian Emperor, as Kammercompositeur ("chamber composer"), but authority in matters musical at the court was exercised primarily by Antonio Salieri. However, in reviews, diaries, and advertising, Mozart was commonly referred to as "(Herr) Kapellmeister Mozart". It seems that Mozart's prestige, along with the fact that he frequently appeared in public directing other musicians, led to the use of "Kapellmeister" as a term of respect.[5]

In April 1791, Mozart did apply to become the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and was in fact designated by the City Council to take over this job following the death of the then-ailing incumbent, Leopold Hofmann. However, this never took place, since Mozart died (December 1791) before Hofmann did (1793).[6]

Contemporary usage[edit]

In contemporary German, the term “Kapellmeister” has become less common in favor of the term Dirigent (“conductor”). When used today, however, it designates the director or chief conductor of an orchestra or choir. It suggests involvement in orchestra or choir policy (for example, selecting repertoire, concert schedules, choosing guest conductors and so on) as well as conducting. In military settings it refers to a bandmaster.[7] The music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra traditionally holds the old-fashioned title Gewandhauskapellmeister.[8][9] In other German opera houses, the term generally refers to a deputy conductor reporting to the Generalmusikdirektor (General Music Director, usually also the chief conductor). An opera company may have several Kapellmeisters, ranked as Erste Kapellmeister, Zweite Kapellmeister, etc.

Similar terms and equivalents[edit]

Variant spellings capellmeister and capelle, to refer to the orchestra or choir,[10] are sometimes encountered in English language works about composers who held the title.[11][12][13][14]

The word Hofkapellmeister specified that the Kapellmeister worked at a nobleman's court (Hof); a Konzertmeister held a somewhat less senior position.[15]

Equivalent positions existed in other European countries and were referred to with equivalent names, as follows: maestro di cappella (Italian), maître de chapelle (French), chapel master (English), капельме́йстер (Russian), kapellmästare (Swedish), kapelmeester (Dutch), kapellimestari (Finnish), mestre de capela (Portuguese), and maestro de capilla (Spanish).

Composers who held the post of Kapellmeister[edit]

(listed chronologically by date of birth)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The pronunciation given is the German one; an English speaker would be likely to render the word as [kəˈpɛlˌmaɪstər].
  2. ^ Griesinger 1810, 16
  3. ^ Haydn himself was retained in an essentially honorary role, but was free to pursue independent plans, his journeys to England; for details see Anton Esterházy.
  4. ^ Jones (2009:324)
  5. ^ For extensive discussion of the use of "Kapellmeister" to describe Mozart, see Deutsch 1965, 306-307.
  6. ^ Deutsch 1965, 393-395
  7. ^ Peter Terrell, ed. Collins German-English English-German dictionary. 2nd edition, pp.380.
  8. ^ "Riccardo Chailly". Gewandhausorchester. 2005. Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  9. ^ "Aus der Geschichte des Gewandhausorchesters". Gewandhausorchester. 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  10. ^ Galkin, Elliott W. (1988). A history of orchestral conducting: in theory and practice. Pendragon Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-918728-47-0. 
  11. ^ Siblin, Eric (4 January 2011). The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. Grove Press. pp. 61, et seq. ISBN 978-0-8021-4524-6. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  12. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 24, et seq. ISBN 978-0-393-32256-9. 
  13. ^ Terry, Charles Sanford (April 2003). Bach: A Biography. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 11, et seq. ISBN 978-0-7661-4677-8. 
  14. ^ Jullien, Adolphe (1892). Richard Wagner: his life and works. J.B. Millet company. pp. 67, et. al. 
  15. ^ Peter Terrell, ed. Collins German-English English-German dictionary. 2nd edition, pp.356, 405.


  • Jones, David Wyn (2009) "Reception," in David Wyn Jones, ed., Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. English translation by Eric Blom, Peter Branscombe, and Jeremy Noble. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965.
  • Griesinger, Georg August (1810) Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. English translation by Vernon Gotwals, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits, Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press.

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