Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741−1801)


Johann Gottlieb Naumann, German composer born 17 April 1741 in Blasewitz near Dresden and died 23 October 1801 in Dresden, was, in his capacity as chief conductor of the royal court orchestra and composer, a dominant force on the city’s music scene at the end of the 18th century. As a successful opera composer, he was twice called to Sweden to reform the Royal Court Orchestra and to assist King Gustav III with his opera plans. He went on to create three operas for the Gustavian court opera, most notably Gustaf Wasa, the work that was long considered Sweden’s national opera.

Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741-1801)

Oilpainting by Friedrich Gotthard Naumann, the composer's brother, ca. 1780.

Studies in Italy, compositional debut and chief conductor in Dresden

Johann Gottlieb Naumann was the eldest son of crofter Johann Georg Naumann and Anna Rosina Ebert. Details of his childhood and youth are scant, but it is likely that he received his musical education at one of Dresden’s Latin schools. What we do know, however, is that his life changed dramatically in 1657 when the 16-year-old Naumann happened to meet the Swedish violinist and composer Anders Wesström, on leave from the Hovkapellet (the Swedish Royal Court Orchestra) to further advance his musical skills on the continent. During a period of study in Dresden, Wesström became acquainted with Naumann, and invited the musically gifted youth to accompany him on his onward study tour into Italy. After a sojourn in Hamburg and a brief stop-over in Venice, the pair arrived at their destination in the early summer of 1758. Here, in Padua, they had the opportunity to study for Giuseppe Tartini. Wesström returned in the autumn of 1760 − his education ‘complete’ according to Tartini’s own testimony − to Stockholm and his position at the Hovkapellet.

Naumann, however, remained in Italy for another decade, studying for the renowned opera composer Johann Adolph Hasse, who was currently residing in Venice, and for ‘Padre Martini’ in Bologna. Naumann debuted as a composer at the 1763 carnival with the premiere of his first opera Il tesoro insidiato at Venice’s Teatro San Samuele. Over the coming years, he enjoyed considerable success with a string of works − both opera seria and opera buffa − for the major Italian opera houses, and soon ranked amongst the leading exponents of Neapolitan opera. In 1764, he was summoned back to Dresden as a church composer at the Saxon court, where, after a few more trips to Italy, he was appointed chief conductor in 1776.

Naumann and the Gustavian opera

It was thus an extraordinarily knowledgeable and well-reputed composer who, through the agency of the Swedish ambassador in Dresden Count Fredrik Adolf von Löwenhjelm and his wife, arrived in Sweden in 1777 on the invitation of Gustav III to reform the Hovkapellet and assist the king with his opera plans. His first commissioned work was Amphion, an opera to a Swedish text by poet Gudmund Jöran Adlerbeth. The libretto, which deals with the antipathy between Greeks and barbarians, is an appeal for clemency, peace and reconciliation in the Masonic spirit. The premiere in January 1778 was held in honour of Gustav III’s birthday, and was thus preceded by an allegorical prologue in which ballet dancers, choirs and ‘King Bore’ brought forth their tributes to their king − the embodiment of the light. The music was greeted with riotous applause and justly earned the German composer the royal seal of approval.

After his success with Amphion, Naumann and Adlerbeth were commissioned to write another opera − Cora och Alonzo − based on Jean-François Marmontel’s enlightenment novel Les Incas, which had been dedicated by the author to the Swedish monarch. However, after only a year in Sweden, Naumann had to return to service in Dresden, where he completed the score of the Gustavian opera (1779). In the spring of 1782 he was recalled to Stockholm, where big things awaited him. The final touches were being put to the new opera house, and its official opening was to be marked by an extravagant production of Joseph Martin Kraus’s grandiose opera Aeneas i Carthago. But these plans were soon dashed when Caroline Müller, who was to sing Dido, suddenly departed Sweden just before the premiere. It was decided that Cora och Alonzo should be staged instead, and Naumann’s job was to rehearse his work and lead the grand performance at the opening ceremony on 30 September 1782.

During this second visit he also completed his greatest commission for the Swedish court − the opera Gustaf Wasa, which came about due to Gustav III’s passion for the history of his nation and the role for which he had been nurtured since early childhood: as the third Gustav on the Swedish throne. For him, it was only a short step to choose national themes for plays and operas, such as in the operas Gustaf Wasa and Gustav Adolf och Ebba Brahe. But here he was entering an untrod path. To be sure, lighter, folk comic operas were a new and popular genre around Europe at the end of the 1700s, but grand heroic operas in the vernacular, with themes taken from national history and mythology − such as Der Freischütz, Prince Igor, Boris Godunov and The Bartered Bride  belonged to the coming century.

The composition of Gustaf Wasa was without doubt the most demanding task that Naumann had ever had to face. With his roots in Neapolitan opera and the librettos of Metastasio, he found himself holding a completely new kind of text, with different dramatic and musical requirements − a ‘lyrical tragedy’ with no love interest, a choir and ensemble-opera lacking Italian opera’s focus on solo singing and the virtuoso aria. The libretto − court poet Johan Henrik Kellgren’s dramatic masterwork, which he based on detailed sketches by the King himself − was also extraordinarily literary.

So in Gustaf Wasa, Naumann − the German composer with an Italian tonal idiom − was expected to write a Swedish national opera. This is not to say, however, that there was any pressure on him to compose ‘Swedish’ music. In Stockholm, as on the continent, lively debates were astir on different stylistic ideals, about French tragédie lyrique versus Italian opera seria and about Gluck’s attempts to reconcile the two. The classically driven endeavours of Gluck to restore to music its ‘true purpose’ − to serve the drama − was fully in keeping with Gustav III’s own views on music drama. Consequently, Gluck’s reform operas were held aloft as beacons of inspiration for Gustavian opera composition − and this applied as much to Gustaf Wasa as to anything else. Naumann, who kept himself abreast of the debate, recognised the potency of unifying the French and Italian in this stile misto. ‘If the noble and grand in French opera is wedded to the melodious in the Italian, it will be the most beautiful union that this art can bring forth’, he writes in a latter to his brother (here freely translated). And he continues: ‘Gustaf Wasa shall be my masterpiece.’

Gustaf Wasa gave him ample opportunity to test out these ideas. It also had a radical effect on his tonal language, as evidenced by the much greater prominence given to ensembles and choirs than in any other work. His rich instrumental passages for orchestra − the largest the Naumann had ever used − and the grand ballet scenes are also clear expressions of his migration towards Gluck and French tragédie lyrique. The dramatic conception of the opera demands a musical flow with long musical developments in which ariosos become recitatives, ensembles and choruses with no demarcating ritornelli.

Naumann worked on Gustaf Wasa for over a year, and by the time he left Sweden in 1783 − never to return − it was ready to perform. But Gustav III had embarked on a long tour of Italy and France, and the opera was left on the shelf, where it remained until its premiere in 1786, a few days before the King’s birthday, whereupon it became an honourable tribute to the first as well as the third Gustav. Seldom has the reciprocity of stage and salon inherent to baroque opera been brought to such sharp focus as here; and when the chorus of the finale praise ‘Gustaf, the hero and son of Sweden’, it is also an obvious eulogy to his namesake and successor sitting in the auditorium.

The staging was grandiose with décor by the French architect Louis Jean Desprez and choreography by his fellow countryman, ballet master Louis Gallodier, and with the aged Italian court chief conductor Francesco Antonio Uttini at the podium. A German composer, a French stage designer, an Italian conductor and a French choreographer − Swedish national opera was undeniably very much an international creation. Oddly, Naumann, to his great despair, was not invited to conduct or even attend the premiere of his Gustaf Wasa, so he never had a chance to hear the opera that he considered his most important work.

As Gustav III had intended, Gustaf Wasa was soon ranked as Sweden’s national opera. With its splendour and national pathos, it was well suited for official ceremonies. In September 1790 − shortly after the signing of the Swedish-Russian peace accord − it was staged for visiting Russian dignitaries. When Gustav IV Adolf was dethroned in 1809 and the Gustavian era brought to a definitive end, the new age and the successor to the throne Jean Baptiste Bernadotte were greeted in November 1810 − ironically enough − with a gala performance of Gustaf Wasa, the most Gustavian of all operas. But there was, of course, an ulterior political motive here: to unite the French marshal with Swedish royal lineage.

Gustaf Wasa retained its status as national opera well into the 1800s and was a common feature of the repertoire. It remains the most performed of all Swedish serious operas, albeit far outdistanced by several comic operas, mainly the tragicomic Värmlänningarna (1846). In Germany, however, Naumann’s Meisterstück has never been performed. Here, Cora och Alonzo was his most popular opera, which with its gorgeous melodies and a libretto translated into German, quickly spread to the concert halls.

The three operas were Naumann’s great compositions for the Gustavian court. However, during his years in Sweden he also made many friends on the private and public music scenes, chief amongst them the patron, entrepreneur and musician Patrick Alströmer in whose home Naumann would entertain leading Gothenburg families with his performances on the peculiar instrument called the ‘harmonica’. Once back in Dresden, he purchased a glass harmonica for Alströmer, later dedicating to his Swedish friend and benefactor his Six Sonates pour L’Harmonica  the German court chief conductor’s final compositions for the country in the north.

Anna Ivarsdotter © 2015
Trans. Neil Betteridge


Andersson, Bertil/ Fritz, Martin/ Ling, Jan/ Ozolins, Berit: Ekonomi och musik i 1700-talets Göteborg, Göteborg: Göteborgs stadsmuseum, 2005.
Breitholtz, Lennart
: Studier i operan Gustaf Wasa, Uppsala, 1954.
Engländer, Richard
: Johann Gottlieb Naumann als Opernkomponist, diss. 1916, Leipzig, 1922.
−−−: '
Johann Gottlieb Naumanns instrumentalmusik', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 27, 1945.
[Ivarsdotter-]Johnson, Anna
: 'Stockholm in the Gustavian Era', in: Man & Music. The Classical Era, London 1989.
[Ivarsdotter-]Johnson, Anna
: 'The Hero and the People. On national symbols in Gustavian Opera', in: Gustavian Opera. An Interdisciplinary reader in Swedish Opera, Dance and Theatre 1771−1819, publication issued by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music no. 66, Stockholm, 1991.
[Ivarsdotter-]Johnson, Anna:
'Gustaf Wasa − verket och källorna', in: Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Gustaf Wasa, Monumenta Musicae Svecicae 12, Stockholm: Edition Reimers, 1991.
Ivarsdotter-Johnson, Anna
: 'Den gustavianska operan', in: Musiken i Sverige II, Stockholm: Fischer & Co, 1993.
Johann Gottlieb Naumann und die europäische Musikkultur des ausgehenden 18. Jahrhunderts: Tagungsband des Internationalen Symposiums in Dresden, 8.−10. Juni 2001, Dresden 2006.
Leux-Henschen, Irmgard
: Ett epigram till Kellgren som 'Herr Misarmonicus', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, 1968, pp. 135−138.
Lönnroth, Erik
: Den stora rollen. Kung Gustaf III spelad av honom själv, Stockholm: Norstedts, 1986.
Norlind, Tobias
: 'Naumanns verksamhet i Sverige', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 5, 1923.
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: Svenska operans födelse. Studier i gustaviansk musikdramatik, Stockholm: Atlantis, 1998.
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Västerås stadsbibliotek (avd. Stiftsbiblioteket), Uppsala Universitetsbibliotek, Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Kungliga biblioteket Stockholm, Stiftelsen för musikkulturens främjande Stockholm (Nydahlsamlingen), Sveriges Radios musikbibliotek, Riksarkivet Stockholm, Frimurarorden Stockholm, Strängnäs stifts- och landsbibliotek, Skara stifts- och landsbibliotek, Kalmar läns museum, Växjö stadsbibliotek (avd. Stiftsbiblioteket), Lunds Universitetsbibliotek

Summary list of works

Composed in Sweden: 3 operas (Amphion, Cora och Alonzo, Gustaf Wasa), 6 sonatas for glass harmonica.

Collected works

Works affiliated to Sweden.

Amphion. First performed in Stockholm 1778.
Cora och Alonzo. First performed in Stockholm 1782.
Gustaf Wasa. First performed in Stockholm 1786.

Other vocal music performed in Stockholm
Serenata da cantarsi per il felicissimo ritorno di Suae Maestà il Re di Suezia Li Juglio 1777.
Isacco, figura del Redentore, oratorium. Performed in Dresden 1772 and Stockholm 1778.
Anhang [composed in Sweden in 1777/78] till 40 Freymaurerlieder. Publ. Berlin 1782.

Instrumental music
Six Sonates pour L'Harmonica, qui peuvent servir aussi pour le Piano Forte dediés à Monsieur Le Baron Patrick d'Alströmer par Naumann. 2 vols, publ. Dresden 1786−92.

Detailed list of works exist in
Engländer, Richard, Johann Gottlieb Naumann als Opernkomponist, Leipzig, 1922.
Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 4, Stockholm: Sohlmans förlag, 1977. 
Musik in Geschichte und Gegenward, vol. 12, Kassel: Bärenreiter & Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004.

Works by Johann Gottlieb Naumann

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 3