Johann Wilhelm Hertel

Johann Wilhelm Hertel


• 1727 1789


Hertel was a composer, violinist, and keyboard player who spent most of his life employed by the court of Schwerin in Germany. He was also an erudite writer who left behind theoretical treatises on music and translations of contemporary French and Italian essays on aesthetics and opera. He wrote an autobiographical account of his career valuable for the insight it provides into the musical and cultural life of northern Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Born in Eisenach in 1727, Hertel represented the third generation of a family of musicians; his father, Johann Christian Hertel, was a viola da gamba virtuoso and composer who frequently traveled throughout Germany and Holland as a performer. After studying with Johann Heinrich Heil, who was one of Johann Sebastian Bach's pupils, Hertel, then 12 years old, joined his father on concert tours as a harpsichord player. In 1742-1743, Hertel took lessons on the violin with Zerbst court konzertmeister Carl Höckh. At his father's behest, Hertel was to pursue a legal career in Leipzig upon completion of his studies with Höckh. However, during a visit to Berlin, Hertel met Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose music produced such an effect on the young composer that he resolved to pursue a career in music.

In 1744, Hertel joined his father at the court of Duke Adolph Frederick III in Mecklenburg-Strelitz as violinist and harpsichordist. He was granted a leave of absence by his patron in 1747 to further his music education at the opulent court of Frederick the Great; there he studied composition with Carl Heinrich Graun, the violin with Franz Benda, and the keyboard with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In 1754 Hertel became court composer in Schwerin. The start of the Seven Years' War three years later, in which Schwerin was involved, suspended musical activities at the court. During this time Hertel published both literary and musical works, served in 1759-1760 as music director at the principal church in the city of Stralsund, and composed an occasional cantata on a text by Pietro Metastasio, Il vero omaggio, for the marriage of Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to the new King of England, Charles III. In 1762, Hertel resumed his position at the Schwerin court upon the departure of Prussian troops from the region. After the court was relocated to Ludwigslust in 1767, Hertel's primary responsibility was to compose and conduct the music to be performed at the twice weekly sacred music concerts.

The famous eighteenth century music lexicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber characterized Hertel as one of the "most tasteful composers" active in the latter half of the century. A prolific composer, Hertel was notable in his day especially for his sacred works, and for his concertos for keyboard and for violin. On the latter instrument, he was considered to be one of the most accomplished proponents of the violin school of Franz Benda. Composing as he did during a time of transition before the full flowering of the Classical style, Hertel's works exemplified many aspects of Empfindsamkeit, a specifically north-German conception of the galant aesthetic.