Abel Seyler

Abel Seyler

A silhouette of Abel Seyler

A silhouette of Abel Seyler
Born (1730-08-23)August 23, 1730
Liestal, Switzerland
Died April 25, 1801(1801-04-25) (aged 70)
Rellingen, Denmark-Norway
Residence Liestal, Hamburg, Hanover, Weimar, Gotha, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Schleswig, Rellingen
Nationality Swiss
Era Age of Enlightenment
Known for Banker (Seyler & Tillemann) and theatre principal (Hamburg National Theatre and Seyler Theatre Company)

Abel Seyler (23 August 1730, Liestal – 25 April 1801, Rellingen) was a Swiss-born banker, who later became one of the great theatre principals of 18th century Europe. He was "the leading patron of German theatre" in his lifetime,[1] and is credited with introducing Shakespeare to a German language audience, and with promoting the concept of a national theatre in the tradition of Ludvig Holberg, the Sturm und Drang playwrights, and German opera.[2] Already in his lifetime, he was described as "one of German art's most meritorious men."[3]

The son of a Basel calvinist priest and descended from many of the city's leading patrician families, Seyler came to Northern Germany where he became a wealthy merchant and banker in Hamburg, who achieved notoriety for his speculation with financial instruments. After speculating heavily on currency debasement during the Seven Years' War in close association with his business partner Heinrich Carl von Schimmelmann, his companies went spectacularly bankrupt with enormous debts, but he nevertheless retained a portion of his fortune. His great passion was the theatre, and he used his remaining funds to finance and effectively head the Hamburgische Entreprise—also known as the Hamburg National Theatre—employing Lessing as the world's first dramaturg. In 1769, he founded the Seyler Theatre Company, which became one of the most famous theatre companies of Europe during the period 1769–79 and regarded as "the best theatre company in Germany at that time."[4] He commissioned works such as Sturm und Drang by Klinger (which gave its name to the era), Ariadne auf Naxos by Benda and Alceste by Schweitzer, considered "the first serious German opera."[5] Seyler became a freemason in London in 1753 and was a central figure in German freemasonry until his death.

In his first marriage to Sophie Elisabeth Andreae, Seyler had three children, the pharmacist and scholar Abel Seyler the Younger, who was a member of the Illuminati, the Hamburg banker L.E. Seyler, the senior partner of Berenberg Bank for half a century, who married into the Hanseatic Berenberg/Gossler banking dynasty, and Sophie Seyler, who married the Sturm und Drang poet Johann Anton Leisewitz, the author of Julius of Tarent. His children were raised by his brother in law, the noted natural scientist J.G.R. Andreae. In his second marriage, Abel Seyler was married to Friederike Sophie Seyler, Germany's leading actress of the second half of the 18th century and the author of the opera Oberon, which inspired The Magic Flute. The principal founder of biochemistry and molecular biology Felix Hoppe-Seyler was an adopted son of his grandson. Abel Seyler was named for his great-grandfather, the Basel politician Abel Socin, who belonged to the Italian noble Socin family. He lived out his days on the Rellingen estate of his long-time friend and fellow prominent freemason, the renowned actor Friedrich Ludwig Schröder, where he is interred.

Background and childhood

Main article: Seyler family

Abel Seyler grew up in Liestal outside Basel in Switzerland. He was the son of the Calvinist clergyman, Dr.theol. Abel Seyler (Seiler) (the elder) (1684–1767), who was parish priest of Frenkendorf-Munzach in Liestal from 1714 to 1763, and Anna Katharina Burckhardt (1694–1773), who belonged to the Basel patrician Burckhardt family.[6] He was descended on both his parents' sides from some of the most prominent families of the Basel Daig, the city-state's de facto aristocracy. He was a paternal grandson of the noted theologian Friedrich Seyler and Elisabeth Socin, a member of an Italian-origined noble family originally from Tuscany. He was named for his great-grandfather, the Basel judge and envoy to the French court Abel Socin (1632–1695). On his mother's side he was also descended from the Merian and Faesch families. He was also a matrilineal descendant of Justina Froben, daughter of the humanist Johann Froben. He had a sister, Elisabeth Seiler (1715–1798), married to parish priest Daniel Merian.

Müller & Seyler and Seyler & Tillemann

Main article: Seyler & Tillemann

As a young man, Seyler established himself as a businessman in Hamburg. With his business partners Edwin Müller and Johann Martin Tillemann, he founded the companies Müller & Seyler and Seyler & Tillemann, which engaged in an ever-increasing and complex speculation, especially with financial instruments, in the 1750s and early 1760s. Notably, the companies speculated heavily on currency debasement during the Seven Years' War. They leased the mint factory in Rethwisch in cooperation with their business partner Heinrich Carl von Schimmelmann and produced large amounts of coins (so-called Heckmünzen), that were exported to various German states during the war.[7] Müller & Seyler and Seyler & Tillemann went bankrupt in 1763 in what was considered a "malicious bankruptcy" with 3 million Mark Banco in debts. Litigation relating to the bankruptcy was initiated in 1763, and the case, now famous in the history of capitalism itself, reached the Imperial Cameral Tribunal.

Mary Lindemann argues,

[An] important case against several business partners reached the Imperial Cameral Tribunal (Reichskammergericht) in 1765. It offers an excellent perspective on "deceitful schemes" and especially on the bill-jobbing of two companies: Müller & Seyler and Seyler & Tillemann. Although the voices presented here are those of their creditors, the documents nonetheless reveal how contemporaries viewed the business practices of "malicious bankrupts" and how these practices assumed particularly baleful shapes in their minds. The creditors’ lawyers laid out the background to the case in considerable detail. Müller and Seyler were new men; Edwin Müller had come from Hanover several years before and Abel Seyler had been born in one of the Swiss cantons. Both had, however, "learned their business" and married in Hamburg. "If one could trust their books," their actual starting capital amounted to no more than thirty-eight thousand Mk. Bco., "of which, however, well over half had been frittered away through the acquisition of furniture for two households, [for the purchase of] clothes, jewels, silver plate, and other needs for themselves, their wives, and their children, [and also for] carriages, horses, and so on." Their business was undercapitalized from the beginning. In the 1750s, this seemed a minor problem because credit was easy to obtain. When the cash flow failed, they tried to acquire money quickly through bill-jobbing. Because their ready funds could not cover their expenses and debts, theirs became "the most audacious [form of] Windhandel." As their business increased—as they took on ever more commissions in goods for import and export, invested in a sugar refinery, and lent money to several people—they simultaneously pursued their bill-jobbing and expanded it markedly. In 1757, they acquired a new partner, named Tillemann, who, however, contributed "not one Creutzer" to their capital, but that did not stop them from vigorously extending their business. Although their enterprises seemed to prosper in the late 1750s, they did so only "at the expense of others."[8]

However, despite suffering "a sensational bankruptcy for an enormous sum [...] neither of them had lost his good humour or his taste for light living."[9]


After the bankruptcies of his companies, Seyler devoted himself to theatre, his great passion. From 1767 to 1769 he was the main financial backer and owner of the Hamburg National Theatre,[10] the first attempt to establish a national theatre in Germany, based on the ideas of Ludvig Holberg. The theatre employed Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as the world's first dramaturg, and attracted eminent actors such as Konrad Ekhof and Friedrich Ludwig Schröder. Lessing's work at the Hamburg National Theatre culminated in his influential book Hamburg Dramaturgy, which gave dramaturgy its name. The theatre was located in the Comödienhaus building, and had to close after two years after Seyler had spent the rest of his fortune on it.

In 1769 Seyler founded the National Theatre's effective successor, the Seyler Theatre Company, attracting some of the most famous actors of Germany. The Seyler company comprised around 60 members at any given time and several hundred members during its entire existence, and included an orchestra, a ballet, house dramatists and set designers. George III of Hanover and the United Kingdom contracted him in 1769 with performing at Hanover and other cities of the Electorate of Hanover, appointing him "Director of the Royal and Electoral German Court Actors," a privilege he held until relinquishing it in 1772. In 1771 the Seyler company was invited to Weimar by Duchess Anna Amalia, where they performed at the Weimar Schlosstheater until the 1774 fire. They were generously paid and performed three times a week for select guests at the court. A patron of the arts, Duchess Anna Amalia invited many of the most eminent men in Germany to Weimar, including Herder, Goethe and Schiller. After the Weimar palace burned down, the Seyler company performed for one year at the ducal Court Theatre in Gotha and then in Dresden, Leipzig and Frankfurt.

According to John Warrack,

The success of Abel Seyler's company in the post-war years was rooted in his business acumen, coupled with a flair for attracting talent, but he would not have flourished without the greater respect beginning to be accorded the travelling theatre companies in the new climate of interest in drama and hence in dramatic music. Seyler was not only able to recruit actors of the distinction of Konrad Ekhof; in 1769 he appointed Anton Schweitzer as music director, charged with adding opera to the spoken repertory.[11]
Lessing during his time as dramaturge of the Hamburgische Entreprise

Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (Goethe's childhood friend) was employed by the Seyler company as a playwright for two years and Klinger's play Sturm und Drang was first performed by the Seyler company in 1777. The opera Alceste, composed by Anton Schweitzer with a libretto by Christoph Martin Wieland, was written on the behest of Seyler and was first performed by the Seyler company on 28 May 1773.[2] In 1774, Seyler arrived in Gotha and commissioned Georg Anton Benda to write several successful melodramas, including Ariadne auf Naxos, Medea and Pygmalion. At its debut in 1775, the opera Ariadne auf Naxos received enthusiastic reviews in Germany and afterwards, in the whole of Europe, with music critics calling attention to its originality, sweetness, and ingenious execution. It is widely considered Benda's best work, and inspired Mozart.

In 1778 Seyler and his theatre company were recruited to form the core of the new Mannheim National Theatre, which was founded by Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria. As artistic director, and in cooperation with the theatre's intendant Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg, he developed the theatre's characteristic style, based on a belief in the need to achieve a balance between a more natural style of playing and a certain nobility and idealisation.[12]

From 1781 to 1783 Seyler was director of the Schleswig Hoftheater. Between 1783 and 1787 he was again in charge of the Comödienhaus in Hamburg, and from 1787 to 1792 he was again director of the Schleswig Hoftheater. In 1792 he retired with a pension from his acquaintance and fellow freemason Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel.

From 1798 he lived as a guest on the estate of the actor, long-time friend and fellow prominent freemason Friedrich Ludwig Schröder in Rellingen, where he died in 1801 and where he is interred.


Like many of his collaborators, Seyler was a freemason. He joined freemasonry in London in 1753,[13] became a member of the Absalom lodge in Hamburg in May 1755,[14] and was involved with freemasonry until his death.

Abel Seyler and Konrad Ekhof, along with other members of the Seyler Company, founded the first masonic lodge in Gotha. The founding took place on 25 June 1774 in the Gasthof Zum Mohren, on the occasion of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, and Ekhof became the first Worshipful Master and Seyler the First Warden. The lodge was originally named Cosmopolit, likely reflecting Seyler's cosmopolitan beliefs, but was renamed Zum Rautenkranz in honour of the ducal family shortly after. Its members included several members of the Seyler Company, such as Seyler, Ekhof and the composer Georg Anton Benda; the reigning Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and the Duke's brother, Prince August of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg joined shortly after its establishment, as did many members of the nobility and local elite of Gotha. The lodge became a centre of the spiritual and cultural life of Gotha, and a stronghold of enlightenment and philanthropy. Many members of Seyler's lodge, notably the Duke and his brother, also became members of the Illuminati, and the Duke later offered that society's founder Adam Weishaupt asylum in Gotha.

Marriage and issue

He was married in his first marriage to Sophie Elisabeth Andreae (1730–1764), the daughter of the wealthy Hanover court pharmacist Leopold Andreae (1686–1730), the owner of the Andreae & Co. pharmacy. Sophie Elisabeth Andreae was a sister of the renowned natural scientist and court pharmacist Johann Gerhard Reinhard Andreae. They had two sons and a daughter. Following the death of his first wife in 1764, the children were raised by their uncle in Hanover. In 1772, Seyler married his long-time mistress Sophie Friederike Hensel (died 1789), Germany's most famous actress of the late 18th century.

His eldest son Abel Seyler the Younger (born 1756) was court pharmacist in Celle and a member of the Illuminati. His younger son Ludwig Erdwin Seyler (1758–1836) was a banker, became a co-owner of Berenberg Bank and married into the Berenberg/Gossler banking family. His only daughter Sophie Marie Katharina Seyler (1762–1833) was married (1781) to the Sturm und Drang poet Johann Anton Leisewitz.

The principal founder of biochemistry and molecular biology, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, was an adopted son of his grandson, the theologian Georg Seyler.


Seyler was a godfather of Jacob Herzfeld (born 1763),[15] known as the first Jewish stage actor in Germany,[16] when the latter converted to Christianity in 1796.

A portrait of Abel Seyler is found in Deutsche Schauspieler.[17]


  1. Wilhelm Kosch, "Seyler, Abel", in Dictionary of German Biography, eds. Walther Killy and Rudolf Vierhaus, Vol. 9, Walter de Gruyter, 2005, ISBN 3110966298, p. 308
  2. 1 2 Konrad Kratzsch, Klatschnest Weimar: Ernstes und Heiteres, Menschlich-Allzumenschliches aus dem Alltag der Klassiker, p. 48, Königshausen & Neumann, 2009, ISBN 3826041291
  3. Reichard, Heinrich Aug. Ottok., ed. (1794). Theater-Calender auf das Jahr 1794. Gotha. p. 241.
  4. "Herzogin Anna Amalie von Weimar und ihr Theater," in Robert Keil (ed.), Goethe's Tagebuch aus den Jahren 1776–1782, Veit, 1875, p. 69
  5. Francien Markx, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Cosmopolitanism, and the Struggle for German Opera, p. 32, BRILL, 2015, ISBN 9004309578
  6. Johann Jakob Brodbeck, Geschichte der Stadt Liestal, A. Brodbeck, 1865
  7. Schneider, Konrad (1983). "Zum Geldhandel in Hamburg während des Siebenjährigen Krieges". Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte. 69: 61–82.
  8. Mary Lindemann, "The Anxious Merchant, the Bold Speculator, and the Malicious Bankrupt: Doing Business in Eighteenth-Century Hamburg," in Margaret C. Jacob and Catherine Secretan (eds.), The Self-Perception of Early Modern Capitalists, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
  9. Karl Mantzius, A History of Theatrical Art in Ancient and Modern Times: The great actors of the eighteenth century, P. Smith, 1970, p. 112
  10. Felicia Hardison Londré, The History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999, p. 146, ISBN 0826411673
  11. John Warrack, German Opera: From the Beginnings to Wagner (p. 93), Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 0521235324
  12. Schiller: A Birmingham Symposium, p. 37, 2006
  13. Weiblichkeitsentwürfe und Frauen im Werk Lessings: Aufklärung und Gegenaufklärung bis 1800 : 35. und 36. Kamenzer Lessing-Tage 1996 und 1997, Lessing-Museum, 1997
  14. Manfred Steffens, Freimaurer in Deutschland: Bilanz eines Vierteljahrtausends, p. 582, C. Wolff, 1964
  15. Paul Schlenther: Abel Seyler. In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Band 34, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1892, pp. 778–782.
  16. http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=2632
  17. Ph. Stein, Deutsche Schauspieler I, Schriften der Gesellschaft für Theatergeschichte, Vol. 9, Berlin 1907


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