Like many eighteenth-century composers, Michl came from a family of musicians. His father, Johann Anton Leonhard Michl (1716–1781), was choirmaster and organist in Neumarkt, and other members of his extended family included the composers Johann Joseph Ildefons Michl and his brother Ferdinand and Ferdinand’s son, the cellist and singer, Melchior Virgil Michl. Joseph was educated at the electoral Gymnasium and Lyceum in Munich and by the age of twenty he was already working professionally as a double-bassist at the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich. He undertook further studies in Freising with Placidus von Camerloher, the court Kapellmeister, whose elder brother, Johann Anton Camerloher, was court composer in Munich.
Michl’s abilities were quickly recognized and by 1771 at the latest he was named as composer to the electoral chamber. Michl achieved great success with his opera buffa Il barone di Torre (1772) and in 1774 the elector paid for him to visit Italy to study the latest musical developments there and presumably to put the final polish on his already impressive technique. If Michl’s career seemed set at this point he was to be quickly disappointed. In January 1778, the new elector, Carl Theodor whose musical establishment at Mannheim was one of the glories of Europe, dismissed him with a modest pension which he did not receive until 1780. In July 1779 he was granted a privilege to publish music in manuscript but he seems not to have taken advantage of this opportunity beyond issuing his own works. From around 1784 to 1 September 1803 he lived with his brother-in-law, Johann Baptist Moser, a judge at the Augustinian prebendary institute at Weyarn, and wrote sacred works as well as symphonies and school dramas for the monastery. In 1786 he also taught composition at the Benedictine abbey at Tegernsee.
Although Michl achieved success as an opera composer, even composing at short notice the 1776 Carnival opera Il trionfo di Clelia for the Munich court (in place of an indisposed Josef Mysliveček), his contemporary reputation rested to a large extent on his sacred works, many of which have not survived. While he certainly composed works for the stage, it is possible that some of the works attributed to ‘Michl’ may have been composed by yet another member of the clan, Johann Michael Michl, the musical director of F.J. Moser’s theatrical troupe. Michl certainly composed instrumental works, including symphonies, serenades, concertos, diverti-mentos and smaller chamber works, and they were sufficiently well known to be advertised in Breitkopf ’s annual thematic catalogue supplements between 1773 and 1787.
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