How Maria Theresia von Paradis overcame the odds after losing her eyesight to become a musician and composer in 1700’s Vienna. And how her lost works haven’t stopped her from being found again.
Mozart. Haydn. Those are probably at the top of your list of famous Viennese composers. Maria Theresia von Paradis? Probably not. However, it’s time people discover what she overcame to become a musician and composer. As if being a woman composer wasn’t difficult enough, she was also blind.
Born in 1759, Paradis was named for the Empress Maria Theresa. She lost her eyesight sometime between the age of 2 and 5. Her sight improved temporarily while she was under the care of the famous Franz Anton Mesmer (yes, the doctor who inspired the word mesmerize), but once she was removed from his care, her blindness returned permanently.
Her loss of eyesight didn’t hold her back, however. She received a broad education in the musical arts from a variety of piano and singing instructors and learned composition from Antonio Salieri. By the age of 16, she was already performing as a singer and pianist in Viennese salons and concerts. She even commissioned works to perform from Salieri, Haydn, and Mozart. Many believe the Mozart piano concerto was probably No. 18, K. 456 (although this is disputed) while the Haydn composition appears to have been lost. The Salieri work was an organ concerto and is now missing its second movement.
Paradis set out in 1783 on an extended tour towards Paris and London and performed in a variety of places including Germany and Switzerland. She was well-received in Paris performing a total of 14 times to excellent reviews and acclaim. While there, she also helped establish the first school for the blind. She finally made it to London in late 1784 where she performed for a few months at the home of the Prince of Wales who was a cellist. She returned to Vienna in 1786.
It was during her tour of Europe that Paradis began composing. She used a composition board that was invented by librettist Johann Riedinger. She started with solo piano works as well as pieces for voice. After she returned to Vienna, she spent a lot more time composing, writing five operas ans three cantatas between 1789 and 1797. It was during this time she wrote Der Schulkandidat – the Overture from which we will be performing.
After the failure of her opera Rinaldo und Alcina in 1797, Paradis shifted her focus to teaching and founded her own music school in Vienna in 1808. She taught singing, piano, and theory to young girls up until her death in 1824.
Unfortunately, most of her manuscripts have been lost including part of Act 2 and all of Act 3 of Der Schulkandidat. The Overture is one exception thanks to Hidemi Matsushita who transcribed it from the original manuscript in 1992 (on the work’s 200th anniversary).
When Parker Symphony music director, René Knetsch, who worked under Matsushita for a time, needed pieces for the PSO’s Works by Women concert, he immediately thought of the Overture from Der Schulkandidat and found it for the orchestra.
On Friday February 14, 2020, you can discover this “not lost” work by Maria Theresia von Paradis and other works by women composers.