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Pantaleon Hebenstreit

(1667 - 1750)

Pantaleon Hebenstreit in his day was primarily held in high esteem due to his performances on the 'pantaleon' an instrument of his own invention and a forerunner of the pianoforte. His success on the instrument attracted attention across Europe and resulted in many performances for royalty and his final appointment to serve the Dresden court of Augustus the Strong.

Born in Eisleben in 1667 we first hear of Hebenstreit in Leipzig where he earned a living playing violin and teaching dancing and keyboard instruments. He fled Leipzig due to the threat of arrest for debts and entered the service of a pastor in Merseburg as a tutor to his children. It was here in 1697 that he invented and produced with the assistance of the pastor a dulcimer like instrument with double strings of metal and gut. This instrument played its part in the early development of the fortepiano, as acknowledged by C.G Schröter, the instrument maker. Indeed a courtier travelling through the village was so impressed with the possibilities of the instrument and Hebenstreits performance that he arranged for a demonstration at the Dresden court.

Hebenstreit returned to Leipzig where he was apparently able to repay his debts and Johann Kuhnau reported in Mattheson's Critica Musica that Hebenstreit acted as a maitre de danse and emphasized the technical difficulty and skill of Hebenstreit's performances. In 1698 he was appointed by Duke Johann Georg of Weissenfels as dancing master. In 1705 Hebenstreit visited Paris and created a sensation! Louis XIV was so impressed he ordered the instrument to be called the 'pantaleon'. Hebenstreit was the impetus to The Abbe de Chateauneuf's Dialogue sur la musique des anciens a Monsieur***.

In 1706 Hebenstreit entered the service of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Eisenach as dancing master to his children. Georg Philipp Telemann who was engaged as director in 1708 praised Hebenstreit's work, mastery of the French style and his virtuosity on the pantaleon and violin (which he rated above his own) However it was Telemann's promotion in 1709 that prompted Hebenstreit to leave and he embarked on a concert tour to enhance his reputation.

On 11th May 1714 he entered the service of Augustus the Strong as chamber musician and pantaleonist and received for a musician an unusually high salary of 1200 thalers. Additionally he received 200 thalers for the upkeep of his instrument. In 1727 he took out a royal writ against Gottfried Silbermann for building a large number of pantaleons not commissioned by the inventor. By 1729 he was placed in charge of music for the Protestant court church. The musical provision for which was minimal, including cantor, vice cantor, organist and six choir boys. In 1733 due to his failing eyesight he retired from pantaleon performance. By 1734 he was made director of Protestant church music and in 1740 was a privy counsellor. Both these positions should be regarded as a provision for an elderly, long serving musician.

Despite Telemann's opinion Hebenstreit was not a notable composer, possibly due to his pantaleon performances being improvisatory in nature. Hebenstreit composed ten orchestrals suites with French overtures which were lost in the Allied bombing of 1944 and La chasse for 9 instruments which is found in Fasch's inventory in Zerbst.

Burney during his visit to Dresden in 1772 describes visiting M. Binders house to see the pantaleon.

"…it is nine feet long and had when in order 186 strings of catgut. The tone was produced by two baguettes, or sticks like the dulcimer; it must have been extremely difficult to the performer, but seems capable of great effects. The strings were now almost all broken, the present elector will not be at the charge of furnishing new ones, though it ever been thought a court instrument in former reigns, and was kept in order at the expense of the prince."

~ Copyright © 1996-2000, David Charlton. If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!

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