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In nineteenth-century Warsaw, Józef Stefani – alongside Stanisław Moniuszko – was one of the most important figures in musical life. His father, Jan, who composed the incredibly popular opera Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale [The supposed miracle, or Cracovians and highlanders], no doubt made an inestimable contribution to the development of his son’s artistic talent. Józef ’s elder siblings were also musically gifted and performed at the theatre, so the young Józef would have felt right at home there. But it was not just favourable social factors that influenced the composer’s career, as evidenced by Stefani’s biography.
Born in 1800, Józef was singing in the choir of the National Theatre in Warsaw at the age of 13. A year later, he joined the orchestra, where he played, in turn, timpani, double bass, viola and violin. He gained his general education at the Piarist college in Warsaw, and he also took violin, piano and singing lessons. In 1821 he became one of the first pupils of Józef Elsner at the Institute of Music and Declamation. During his studies at that school, he began publishing his works and made his debut as a composer on the Warsaw stage. His comprehensive musical education enabled him to become conductor of ballet shows at the National Theatre in 1827.
Stefani played a significant part in propagating music among youngsters. Throughout his life, he taught on a professional footing at the Institute of Music and Declamation and the School of Singing attached to the Grand Theatre, and also for amateurs at the Warsaw Lyceum and two secondary schools in the city. In addition, he led amateur and church choirs and wrote exercises and works adapted to different levels of performance.
Stefani’s compositional oeuvre reflects his wide-ranging musical activities. As already mentioned, he conducted ballet shows at the National Theatre; hence he wrote ballets and pieces inserted into the works of other composers. His ballets included Apollo i Midas [Apollo and Midas], Esmeralda, Giselle, Korsarz [The corsair], Robert i Bertrand, czyli dwaj złodzieje [Robert and Bertrand, or two thieves] and Wesele w Ojcowie [A wedding at Ojców]. He also wrote many operas, operettas and melodramas (e.g. Lekcja botaniki [A lesson in botany], Dawne czasy [Old times], Piorun [Lightning] and Trwoga wieczorna [Evening fears]). Stefani was also known for his numerous sacred works. He composed at least 19 masses and multiple settings of such texts as Veni Creator, Te Deum laudamus, Salve Regina and Stabat Mater. A considerable part of his output was addressed to youngsters, pupils and amateur performers. Hence we find in lists of his works such items as 8 dwuśpiewów dla poczynających naukę śpiewu [8 two-part songs for beginners], Początkową szkołę na fortepian [An elementary course in piano] and Fraszki muzyczne napisane na fortepiano dla dzieci nie znających jeszcze klucza basowego [Musical trifles written for piano for children not yet familiar with the bass clef]. Stefani wrote numerous salon pieces. He was particularly esteemed for his dances for piano, with mazurs especially to the fore. Yet he also composed chamber works, such as songs and a string quartet.
In 1858 Stefani gave up his conducting work at the National Theatre and retired. In 1861, however, he became an inspector at the Institute of Music, newly created under the initiative of Apolinary Kątski. Three years later, his golden jubilee as a composer was celebrated in Warsaw, in recognition of his services to music; a commemorative medal designed by Jan Salomon Minheimer was minted and the local press wrote at length about the composer’s contributions to musical life. Despite his retirement, Stefani continued to compose almost until his death. In 1872 his opera Trwoga wieczorna [Evening fears] was staged. He died on 19 April 1876 in Warsaw and was buried in the local Powązki Cemetery.
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