Timeline: Baron Gottfried Von Swieten

Feb 1, 2016

Composers were not the only ones who shaped the course of music. Sometimes a librarian influences the future in ways that no one could ever imagine. Baron Gottfried van Swieten is a name that isn’t too familiar in the musical world today but his work, energy and encouragement touched a generation of composers.

Gottfried was originally from the Netherlands but at a young age his father moved the family to Vienna. His father was the doctor to the Empress Maria Theresia. Gottfried was trained as a diplomat and spent seven years as the Austrian ambassador in Berlin. He returned to Vienna in 1777 when he was appointed the Prefect of the Imperial Library. He held that position for the rest of his life.

Gottfried van Swieten was an amateur musician as well and even dabbled in composition. His works never really caught on but his love of music compelled him to patron many other composers including C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Swieten also had a taste for older music. During his time in Berlin he garnered quite a collection of Baroque works from J.S. Bach and Handel (among others) which he brought back with him to Vienna. He would hold informal salons on Sunday afternoons at the library and invited the greatest talent of Vienna to come and play from his collection. This included Mozart, who discovered the music of J.S. Bach for the first time at these meetings. A little over a decade later, a young Beethoven would frequent these gatherings and would stay well into the evening playing fugues and preludes for the enjoyment of the Baron.

This is an 1835 engraving of a scene outside the main entrance of the Imperial Library of Vienna, where Baron Gottfried von Swieten served as Prefect.
Credit US-PD

Swieten encouraged other aristocrats to patron the arts. He even founded a group called the “Associierte” which would hold private concerts of large works. It was for this group that Mozart arranged his version of Handel’s “Messiah”. Haydn’s oratorios, “Seven Last Words”, “The Creation” and “The Seasons” were promoted by this society as well.

Baron van Swieten’s influenced is felt in his preservation of the music of J.S. Bach and in the works that were dedicated to him. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach dedicated his third set of sonatas and Beethoven dedicated his first Symphony to Baron Gottfried van Swieten.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.