Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) is remembered less for his music than for his famous textbook on counterpoint, the Gradus ad Parnassum, Yet his music is well worth remembering for its own sake; it was not for nothing that the Emperor Leopold I made Fux his court-composer and music-director.
But to begin at the beginning; Fux was born of peasant stock at Hirtenfeld in Eastern Styria, Austria, about 1660. Little is known of his youth, except that he became a student at Graz University when he was about twenty. Again he disappears into obscurity, perhaps to study in Italy. When next heard of, he is the organist of the famous Scottish Church in Vienna, and on the highroad to imperial preferment. In 1696 he got married, and two years later was appointed Court Composer by the Emperor, an appointment usually reserved for Italian musicians. The Emperor evidently realized that Fux was a man of exceptional talent, to give him precedence over the all-conquering Italians.
Further high appointments were in store; in 1701 Fux became Capellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and ten years later, in 1711, Music Director at the Imperial Court itself - the highest musical position in Europe. Fux filled the post with distinction, composing and directing many operas and oratorios, as well as dozens of smaller pieces. His most famous stage work was the festival opera Costanza e Fortezza, performed in the most sumptuous and spectacular manner in Prague Castle in 1723 when the Emperor Charles VI was crowned King of Bohemia.
In 1725 Fux published his famous Gradus ad Parnassum, a textbook from which most of the composers of the next generation learnt their counterpoint - indeed Bach himself had a copy in his library. Some six years after the publication of the Gradus, Fux's wife died, and from then on he seems to have devoted himself more to sacred music. He himself died in 1741, at the age of 81.
As a secular composer, he was soon neglected, but his sacred works continued to be performed for many years, and his book maintained its hold over several generations of composers. Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, Mozart's cataloguer, became interested in Fux, and produced a biography and catalogue of works. This reawakened interest to some extent in the old court composer, and eventually some of his works were reprinted in the Austrian Denkmaler series; Fux began to emerge from the shadows as a fine composer in his own right, and not a mere pedagogue. He was indeed the greatest master of the Austrian Baroque, in music.