You are here

Translating Ovid into Musical Pictures: The Metamorphosen Symphonies of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf

Rebecca Sears

Tulane University

     In the early 1780’s, the Austrian composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) composed a set of programmatic symphonies depicting Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Dittersdorf’s original plan called for a set of 15 symphonies, one representative of each book of Ovid’s poem; however, the constraints of publication and convention prevented him from fully achieving his ambitions. Of the 15 proposed symphonies, the first three were published immediately, numbers 4-6 survive in manuscript and, along with 1-3, in an 1899 (re)publication, three others have recently been discovered in piano 4-hand reductions (7, 8, and 13), three are lost (8, 10, and 11), and the last three (12, 14, and 15) were never written (Rice, passim; Will, 30-31). Although Dittersdorf’s Metamorphosen symphonies never acquired canonic status, their musical style and content has recently been given greater recognition, particularly in regard to Dittersdorf’s creative adaptation of the formal structures of the four-movement Classical symphony for programmatic ‘narrative.’

     Dittersdorf received a Jesuit education, and unlike the majority of 18th century musicians, was capable of reading and interpreting Ovid’s Latin text directly (Rice 455). He encourages the direct correlation of his music with Ovid’s text through quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses placed at the beginning of each movement. However, as Rice has pointed out, Dittersdorf’s “response to Ovid’s poem was visual – in the form of imaginary pictures – before it was musical” (456-457), evidenced by his initial plan to publish the symphonies with accompanying engravings. The resulting compositions form sets of four discrete musical pictures that collectively exemplify the narrative arc of Dittersdorf’s chosen episodes, even in the case of through-composed movements depicting action sequences, such as the last movement of the fifth symphony (Phinée avec ses amis changés en rochers). In this way, Dittersdorf replaces the impossible challenge of recreating Ovid’s complex narrative style in music with his own innovations in the style and form of the Classical symphony, which permit sound to function as image (or, at least, as the inspiration for imagination).

     In this paper, I will examine Dittersdorf’s compositional choices from the perspective of his reception and interpretation of Ovid’s text. In particular, I will focus on his sixth symphony (Les Paysans changés en grenouilles), which depicts Latona’s transformation of the Lycian peasants into frogs (Metamorphoses 6.313-381). Dittersdorf transforms this relatively minor episode, told by an unnamed narrator in response to Niobe’s punishment, into a musical interpretation of the themes of hubris and divine revenge that he likely viewed as representative of Ovid’s Book 6. Dittersdorf’s first movement creates a sound-picture of the pastoral scene and describes the Lycians’ debased characters (Sinfonie: Allegretto no troppo presto), then follow two movements depicting the verbal interaction of Latona and the peasants (Adagio ma non molto and Minuetto: Moderato – Alternativo), and the last movement plays with the tonal possibilities of their transformation (Finale: Adagio – Vivace, ma moderato). In conclusion, I will propose that Dittersdorf employs a strategy similar to Ovid’s own interpretive response to his epic predecessors (e.g., Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Aeneid), singling out specific lines for musical elaboration, which encourage, even require, performers, listeners, and readers to engage not only with his music, but also with Ovid’s Latin text. In this way, Dittersdorf’s narrative strategy in the Metamorphosen symphonies does not attempt to represent the text through music, but instead creates a sound-track for reading and interpreting Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Session/Panel Title

Translation and Reception

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy