AskDefine | Define kapellmeister

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A leader or conductor of a musical group such as an orchestra.

Extensive Definition

Kapellmeister () is a German word designating a person in charge of music-making. The word is a compound, consisting of the roots Kapelle (choir; orchestra) and Meister (master). Kapelle in turn comes from the Latin word for "chapel", which was typically the center of musical activity during the Middle Ages. Thus, originally, the word was used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel. However, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning in response to changes in the musical profession.
The word Hofkapellmeister specified that the Kapellmeister worked in a nobleman's court (Hof); a Konzertmeister held a somewhat less senior position.

Historical usage

In German-speaking countries during the approximate period 1500-1800, the word Kapellmeister often designated the director of music for a monarch or nobleman. This was a senior position and involved supervision of other musicians. Johann Sebastian Bach worked from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Joseph Haydn worked for many years as Kapellmeister for the Eszterházy family, a high-ranking noble family of the Austrian Empire. George Frideric Handel also served as Kapellmeister for George, Elector of Hanover (who eventually became George I of Great Britain).
A Kapellmeister might also be the director of music for a church. Thus, Georg Reutter was the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where his young choristers included both Joseph and Michael Haydn.
Becoming a Kapellmeister was a mark of success for professional musicians of this time. For instance, Joseph Haydn once remarked that he was glad his father (a wheelwright) had lived long enough to see his son a Kapellmeister. As society evolved and the prestige of the nobility declined, composers came to value their freedom more highly, and being a Kapellmeister became less prestigious. For example, Beethoven never worked as a Kapellmeister, instead pursuing a career as a freelance musician.
For English speakers, it is this historical sense of the term that is most often encountered, since it appears frequently in biographical writing about composers who worked in German-speaking countries.
The equivalent terms for Kapellmeister in other European languages are maestro di cappella (Italian), maître de chapelle (French), chapel master (English), mestre de capela (Portuguese), and maestro de capilla (Spanish).

The case of Mozart

Mozart never was a Kapellmeister in the sense given above. In 1787 he was given a paid position in the court of the Austrian Emperor, as Kammercompositeur ("chamber composer"), but authority in matters musical at the court was exercised primarily by Antonio Salieri. However, in reviews, diaries, and advertising Mozart was commonly referred to as "(Herr) Kapellmeister Mozart". It seems that Mozart's prestige, along with the fact that he frequently appeared in public directing other musicians, led to the use of "Kapellmeister" as a term of respect.
In April 1791, Mozart did apply to become the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and was in fact designated by the City Council to take over this job following the death of the then-ailing incumbent, Leopold Hofmann. However, this never took place, since Mozart died (December 1791) before Hofmann did (1793).

Contemporary usage

In contemporary German, "Kapellmeister" designates the director or conductor of an orchestra or choir. When used today, it suggests involvement in orchestra or choir policy (for example, selecting repertoire, concert schedules, choosing guest conductors and so on) as well as conducting. In military settings it refers to a bandmaster. The music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra traditionally holds the old-fashioned title Gewandhauskapellmeister.

Classical composers who worked in Kapellmeister positions

(ordered chronologically by date of birth)



  • Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. English translation by Eric Blom, Peter Branscombe, and Jeremy Noble. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965.
  • Griesinger, Georg August (1810) Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel. English translation by Vernon Gotwals, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits, Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press.
kapellmeister in Bulgarian: Капелмайстор
kapellmeister in Catalan: Mestre de capella
kapellmeister in German: Kapellmeister
kapellmeister in Spanish: Maestro de capilla
kapellmeister in Persian: کاپل‌مایستر
kapellmeister in French: Maître de chapelle
kapellmeister in Italian: Maestro di cappella
kapellmeister in Latvian: Kapelmeistars
kapellmeister in Hungarian: Kapellmeister
kapellmeister in Dutch: Kapelmeester
kapellmeister in Japanese: 楽長
kapellmeister in Norwegian: Kapellmester
kapellmeister in Polish: Kapelmistrz
kapellmeister in Portuguese: Kapellmeister
kapellmeister in Russian: Капельмейстер
kapellmeister in Simple English: Kapellmeister
kapellmeister in Swedish: Kapellmästare
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