The Man and His Works

Looking at the biography of Joseph Ignaz Schnabel "from the bird's eye view", at first glance one can get the impression that he was a provincial artist who did not change the course of the history of music, and his activity did not have a greater circle of influence. Only when summing up his concert, compositional and pedagogical activities does it show that his contribution to shaping the musical culture of Silesia in the first half of the 19th century was enormous. On the other hand, the total output sets Schnabel among the top three or four most outstanding figures in the history of Silesian music.

J. I. Schnabel - Litography
J. I. Schnabel - Litography

The First Years

He was born on 24 May 1767 in Nowogrodziec on the Kwisa River (then: Naumburg am Queis) in the building of the parish church rectory in the present Kościelna Street. His father, Joseph Victor (1743-1809) was a cantor in the Nowogrodziec parish church. His mother, Anna Maria née Girbig, came from a family of bakers. As it turned out later, Joseph Ignaz was the most outstanding representative of the Silesian musicians' family, which, apart from the father mentioned above, was co-created by brothers Michael (1775-1809) and August (1795-1863) and Michael's son Carl (1809-1881). Already at the age of six, little Joseph revealed an extraordinary musical talent. He was noticed by his beautiful voice. It was from his father that he received his first music lessons - in singing, violin and keyboard instruments. With time, the boy, so prepared, became a great helper, enriching with his musical skills the liturgy and services in the parish church of St. Peter and Paul. Several years of learning combined with comprehensive practice resulted in a solid workshop of young musician, who could successfully present himself not only in his hometown.

Education in Wrocław

At the age of thirteen, in 1779, the composer came to Wrocław for the first time. It was then that he began his education at the St. Matthew Junior High School and as a student he was admitted to the Catholic junior high school (soprano) at St. Vincent's Abbey. Ignaz Pachmann, the head of the choir at that time, accepted him into the school.

Due to chronic ear health problems, nineteen-year-old Schnabel was forced to return to his family home. However, based on his knowledge gained in Wrocław, he prepared himself for the profession of a music teacher.

We do not know many details about the years of his life that he spent in the Nowogrodziec region. One of the confirmed reports is the fact that he got married in the autumn of 1790. We know that at that time Joseph Ignaz was already a teacher and clerk in nearby Parzyce (German: Paritz). This period coincided with the intensive activity of the boys' choir and orchestra formed by students of the local school. Concerts of this ensemble are documented not only in Parzyce itself, but also in neighbouring towns and villages. It is likely that it was Schnabel who founded the orchestra, and certainly conducted it for eight years of his activity.

Comeback to Wrocław

On the recommendation of the choirmaster Johann Steiner, in March 1797, Schnabel was appointed an organist in the St. Clare's Church in Wrocław. He also returned to St. Vincent's Abbey – this time not as a student, but as an educated violinist. Already a year later, he became concertmaster in the orchestra of the Municipal Theatre (an institution considered to be the basis of the present-day Wrocław Opera House). It is worth mentioning here that he was opposed to employing young (only eighteen years old) Carl Maria von Weber as the director of this institution in 1804. As a sign of protest, he left the artistic group. However, establishing contacts with orchestra musicians and other artists resulted in his career in Wrocław gaining momentum. This gave Schnabel the opportunity to be featured not only on concert posters, but also in the press. This is how we know that he conducted the Wrocław premiere of Mozart's Requiem (in 1800) and Joseph Haydn's Creation of the World – performed under his baton every year, starting in 1801, for the next thirty years.

From 1803 he taught at the Catholic Teacher's Seminary in Wrocław, where future instructors of music classes acquired skills to make the local community more musical in the amateur movement.

The growing importance of Schnabel in the musical life of Wrocław was expressed in the fact that he was responsible for the musical aspects of the celebrations connected with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wrocław University. It was then that a solemn cantata by him, composed especially for this occasion, was performed. Unfortunately, the composition was lost.


Kapellmeister and Animator

On 1 April 1805 Joseph Ignaz Schnabel took over the function of the kapellmeister of the Wrocław cathedral, thus beginning a twenty-six-year period, extremely important for the musical culture of the diocese and the city.

At that time, the composer became practically a central figure in the musical life of Wrocław. In the years 1806-1810 he became involved in the activities of three concert societies of the city. He conducted the so-called subscription concerts on Thursdays (since 1806) and Mondays and Fridays (since 1810). During meetings with music, he made sure that works by Viennese classics, including L. v. Beethoven (then a contemporary composer!), were performed. It was under the baton of Schnabel that the first performances of Beethoven's symphonies in Wrocław took place. The Vienna master knew this well and in 1825, through Carl Gottlieb Freudenberg, sent Schnabel his cordial greetings.

The greatest virtuosos of their time, travelling through Wrocław, presented Schnabel their orchestral compositions to perform together. Among them was Louis Spohr, a German composer of early Romanticism and one of the most eminent violinists of the time. The virtuoso was so delighted with his musical collaboration with Schnabel that he dedicated his Jubilate Deo Offertory, jointly premiered in 1815, to him.

In 1812, at the invitation of the Prussian Ministry of Culture, he went to Berlin with Friedrich Wilhelm Berner to take part in rehearsals and concerts of Carl Friedrich Zelter, Berlin's composer, conductor and pedagogue. There, both musicians had the opportunity to get acquainted with the didactic method of the said artist and to take a closer look at the activities of the local Singing Academy (Singakademie). During the discussed stay, Schnabel conducted a concert with the orchestra and also a mass of his own authorship.

In November 1830, at one of the Monday concerts, Fryderyk Chopin gave a performance, at the request of Schnabel (and under his baton), performing the second and third movements of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. In a letter to his family dated 9 November of that year, Chopin described the event as such:

We found ourselves in a music society club here, where Schnabel, the Kapellmeister, asked me to be present at the rehearsal of a concert to be given in the evening. They give such concerts here three times a week. As usual, I found there a small orchestra, a piano and an amateur named Hellwig, gathered for rehearsal, preparing to play the first E flat major Concerto by Moscheles. Before Hellwig sat down to the instrument, Schnabel, who had not heard me for four years, asked me to try the piano. It was difficult to refuse, I sat down and played a few variations. Schnabel was extremely pleased, Mr. Hellwig chickened out, others started asking me to be heard in the evening. Especially Schnabel insisted so sincerely that I didn't dare to say no to the old man. He is a great friend of Mr. Elsner's; I told him that I would do it only for him, because I have not played for a few weeks, nor do I think of showing off in Wrocław. The Old Man told me that he knew all about it and that he wanted to ask me yesterday, when he saw me in the church, but he didn't dare.


Schnabel was also in charge of teaching and organising music lessons. Since 1803 he has been a lecturer at the Catholic Teachers' Seminar (Katholische Lehrerseminar). Together with Friedrich Wilhelm Berner, he organized from the very beginning and then from 1815 he led the Royal Academic Institute of Church Music (Königliches Akademische Institut für Kirchenmusik) at the present University of Wrocław. Thus, he was the musical director of this University. Preparations to run the institution began three years earlier. With the support of Carl Friedrich Zelter, an extremely important figure in the life of the Kingdom of Prussia, Schnabel developed a modern curriculum. Its main aim was to focus on the education of church musicians and the development of choral singing. Organists, cantors and conductors from all over Silesia, and later also from Greater Poland, were educated here.

Just as the whole University was a two-denominational institution (which was unique on a European scale), so too was the double profile of education at the Institute of Church Music. Berner took care of teaching in the spirit of Lutheran music, Schnabel – Catholic. This is a unique and exemplary case of tolerance and mutual respect for religious and cultural differences. What is more, the professional cooperation of Schnabel and Berner became the beginning of a long-lasting and close friendship.

Sixteen years of pedagogical activity of Joseph Ignaz at the University of Wrocław resulted in many wonderful graduates, including outstanding artists. This is one of the reasons why Schnabel was considered the founder of the Wrocław school of composition by successive generations.

In recognition of his pedagogical merits and high artistry in musical performance, the Council of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Wrocław honoured Schnabel with an honourable title of doctor honoris causa. This took place on 27 February 1823.


The title card of the cantata libretto for the centenary of Wrocław University
The title card of the cantata libretto for the centenary of Wrocław University


Schnabel's merits for the musical culture of Silesia are most fully emphasized through his religious work. In his compositions he refers to the models of Viennese classics (especially J. Haydn and L. v. Beethoven), with clear influences of L. Spohr's harmonics. Therefore, he remains on the borderline of mature classical style and early romantic style.

These works are not marked by excessive virtuosity, showpiece fragments, or particular momentum. Their beauty lies rather in captivating simplicity, moderate artistic means and skilfully designed form.

He is the composer of 17 Mass Ordinary, as well as many Mass Proper settings (the so-called proprium missae). He also wrote: 2 Requiem, 8 Vespers, 5 Te Deum, numerous hymns, Marian antiphonies, litanies and works for Corpus Christi and Holy Week. On the other hand, his few compositions are known from the circle of secular music. Among them are marches for wind orchestras, Clarinet Concerto (probably composed with his brother Michael in mind) and Quintet for guitar, two violins, viola and cello. All in all, he left a rich legacy of over 300 compositions.

Approximately one third of Schnabel's works were published in print, which was a measure of prestige at the time. Among the publishers of his works were such renowned publishing houses as Breitkopf and Leuckart.



Unfortunately, the family life of Joseph Ignaz Schnabel was not a happy one. He was widowed twice, and he made his own days at the side of his third wife. Of all the marriages he had 25 children in total, of which 21 (!) did not survive his father. Only three sons and one daughter reached adulthood. Joseph Jr. became a cantor in the church in Głogów (German: Glogau), August was the successor of his father in the Teachers' Seminary, Hedwiga after marriage settled in Kowary (German: Schmiedeberg). There is no confirmed information about the fate of the youngest son Leo.

Joseph Ignaz Schnabel died on 16 June 1831 in Wrocław, in a house at the present Cathedral Street 8. His farewell was a great and solemn ceremony. Schnabel's memory was commemorated in Wrocław with funeral masses in all the main churches. His pupils and students paid homage to the teacher. The moving funeral speech at the St. Michael's Cemetery was given by Father Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf Jr., the youngest son of another famous Silesian composer.

Georg Münzer, musicologist and researcher of Silesian musical culture from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote years later that Schnabel was a star in his time in the musical firmament of Wrocław. This statement most fully reflects the greatness of this incredibly talented, versatile and hard-working man.

Miłosz Kula



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