September 1940
volume LVIII
number 9
page 637, 648

Johann Caspar Mertz

By George C. Krick

JOHANN KASPAR MERTZ, the renowned guitar virtuoso and composer was born in Pressburg, Hungary, August 17,1806 and died in Vienna, October 14, 1856. He was the son of very poor parents and during childhood received some elementary instruction on the guitar and the flute; and, in order to be of financial assistance to the family budget, he had already begun to give lessons on these instruments by the time he was twelve years of age.

Teaching and perfecting his technic on the guitar, which had become his favorite instrument, now occupied all of his waking hours, and in this uneventful manner he passed his young life. When thirty-four years of age he was fired with the ambition to enlarge his sphere of operations and removed to Vienna, where he established himself as a teacher of guitar, and not long after his arrival in the beautiful city on the banks of the Danube he appeared as guitar soloist at a concert given in the Court Theatre under the patronage of Empress Carolina Augusta.

His success was instantaneous, his performances being applauded to the echo, and for his brilliant achievements Mertz was appointed Court guitarist to the Empress. During the next two years we find him making extended concert tours through Moravia, Poland and Russia, one of his recitals taking place in the Russian fortress Modlin, where he played before the court under the patronage of the Grand Duke Urusoff. Other concerts followed in Stettin, Dresden, Berlin, Breslau,Chemnitz, Leipzig and Prague.

At one of these concerts he met for the first time the young lady destined to become his wife, Miss Josephine Plantin, a professional pianist who happened to appear on same same program with Mertz. This accidental meeting upon the concert stage led to a friendship that resulted in their undertaking a joint concert tour; which proved a great artistic and financial success; and they were married in Prague, December 14, 1842. Some months later the newlyweds returned to Vienna where fortune smiled upon them and they were busily engaged in imparting instruction on their instruments to members of the royal family and the elite of society. Celebrated pupils of Mertz were Johann Dubez who obtained European fame as a guitar virtuoso and the Duchess Ledochofska who possessed rare musical ability and was regarded as a virtuoso on the mandolin.

In addition to being the foremost guitarist of this period, Mertz was also a talented performer on the flute, violoncello and mandolin, and composed music for these instruments.

A Temporary Retirement

A serious illness now interrupted his successful career in Vienna and for almost two years he was unable to appear in public. When he returned to the concert platform, in the spring of 1848, the public appreciation of the artist was made manifest by the enthusiasm and excitement displayed by an audience that filled the hall to its utmost capacity, while many clamoring for admission had to be turned away. The last period of his career saw Mertz repeating his successes of former years, but the strenous life he was leading began to take its toll and on October 14, 1858, he died in Vienna a month after returning from a short concert tour. No portrait of this artist was ever made, and one of his last compositions, written a short time before his death, was his Op. 65, perhaps the greatest of the original works Mertz wrote for the guitar.

In the early part of 1856 a Russian nobleman, M. Makaroff, residing in Brussels offered two prizes for the best compositions written for guitar, this offer being made to stimulate writers and players of the instrument. Thirty-one competitors submitted sixty-four compositions to the judges, who were musicians of European repute: Leonard the violinist, Servais and Demunck, violoncellists, and several others connected with the Brussels Conservatoire of Music. The jury under the presidency of M. Makaroff awarded the first prize of $200.00 to J. K. Mertz of Vienna, for his Op. 65 - Fantasie Hongroise, Fantasie Original and Le Gondolier. Mertz did not hear this good news, for he passed away a short time previous to the publication of the result. The second prize was awarded to Napoleon Coste, the French guitarist, for his Grande Serenade.

As a performer and writer for guitar, Mertz is ranked amongst the most illustrious; his original compositions, transcriptions and operatic arrangements are gems of beauty. He was a musician of exceptional attainments, and a poetic and sublime writer for his instrument. He was a great inventor, not only as regards the technical treatment of the guitar but also as regards his compositions for the instrument, and whatever Mertz wrote showed his exquisite refinement. A vulgar melody or a commonplace harmony seems to have been impossible to his very nature.

In his concerts Mertz used a ten stringed guitar, that is, with four free swinging bass strings added to the regular six stringed instrument. Frequently his wife appeared with him on concert programs, playing piano accompaniments to his guitar.

Numerous Compositions

Mertz was a prolific composer, although the majority of his works consist of transcriptions and arrangements of classical compositions for guitar solo, guitar duo, or guitar and piano.

His early compositions, Op. 1 to 7, are of a light character—Hungarian dances, nocturnes, polonaises. Under the title of "Opera Revue, Op. 8", Mertz wrote thirty-three classic transcriptions for guitar solo of favorite operas, these arrangements being vastly superior to anything of the kind published previously or at a later date. In these numbers, each one of them consisting of ten or more pages, Mertz has employed all the resources of the instrument; and their performance requires technic of the highest order. They should be in the library of every serious minded guitarist.

"Barden Klaenge, Op. 13" is a group of thirteen tone pictures, purest gems of melody, of medium difficulty, but well worth while. Altogether there were more than one hundred published opus numbers, and many more remained in manuscript. These manuscripts stayed in the possession of Mertz's widow, who survived her husband many years; but some time before her death on August 5th, 1903, the International Guitar Society raised by subscription a sufficient sum to purchase them, and they are preserved in the society's library in Munich.

For unaccountable reasons the present day guitar virtuosos have neglected the music of Mertz; which is a pity, as there are many of his compositions and arrangements that would delight an appreciative audience. Here are the titles of a few, in addition to those already mentioned, that would grace any concert program: from Op. 8, "Ernani", "La Favorita", "Rigoletto", "The Barber of Seville", and "The Merry Wives of Windsor"; from Op. 13, Capriccio, "Fingal's Cave", and Tarantelle.