Jakub Jan Ryba was a highly talented Czech composer, versatile musician, and active teacher and writer on music in the era of Mozart and Beethoven. Born in 1765 in a small village belonging to the Benedictine order near Klatovy in Bohemia, Ryba grew up steeped in the traditions of rural church music-making whilst at the same time keeping abreast of the latest musical trends. As a boy he received musical instruction from his father and in 1781 he was sent to study at the Piarist Gymnasium in Prague. In 1786 his father fell ill in the town of Nepomuk and Jakub left Prague in order to help him. In early 1788 he was appointed as an assistant, and a few months later given the post of cantor and choirmaster at Rozmital.
As one would expect with such an appointment, the vast majority of his output is church music, including numerous masses and other liturgical works in addition to special devotional pieces for Christmas and Easter with Czech texts. Without a doubt his best-known work is the so-called Czech Christmas mass of 1796 ("Hej Mistre" [Hail Master], a narrative sequence based on the Christmas story, with each section representing part of the Mass). The Czech Christmas mass holds something of a similar position to Czechs as Handel's Messiah does to the English-speaking world; it has been performed in chapels, churches, cathedrals, and choral societies without interruption since the end of the eighteenth century. His next most popular works are Christmas pastorellas, of which Rozmilý slavícku (Charming Nightengale) is among the finest examples and bears the strong influences of Mozart and Haydn. So successful was Ryba in absorbing the high Viennese style that his beautiful Mass in E flat was long thought to be the work of Haydn. In addition to his music for the church, Ryba composed several concertos, 25 symphonies, and 72 string quartets in addition to hundreds of other chamber pieces. His efforts also ensured that Czech art song had a parallel with the classical German lieder in his publication in Prague of 12 Czech songs with piano in 1800. He was a tireless and committed teacher and wrote an important treatise on music and also translated many important Greek and Latin works into Czech. He corresponded with many important musicians of his time in Prague, Vienna, and Pilsen -- the latter making him an honorary citizen.
Ryba was something of a restless spirit and often in conflict with his superiors; some have suggested that he felt his talents to be above the drudgery of the average schoolmaster and cantor. The mounting professional pressures and long-term personal problems proved too much for him and on April 8, 1815, he committed suicide.