Encore: Prague and the music of Mozart

St. Nicholas Church

Mozart's Don Giovanni is one of the best known operas of all time, but how many people know that it was written, in part, in Prague and premiered here in 1787? Mozart had an exceptionally good relationship with the city, where his music was generally far better appreciated than in Vienna, so it is apt that Prague is playing a big part in celebrations of Mozart's 250th birthday this year.

Mozart had traveled throughout Europe as a child prodigy with his sister and parents, meeting with royalty and nobility, but although he did visit Brno and Olomouc as an 11-year-old, he only came to Prague as an adult. Altogether he came three times - in January and February of 1787, in the fall of 1787 and again in August and September of 1791, the year he died.

On his first visit he was delighted and amazed to find that his opera the Marriage of Figaro was an enormous popular success, and we can hear about this in his own words, in a letter he wrote to a friend not long after Figaro had premiered in Prague:

"I drove with Count Canal to what's known as the 'Breitfeld Ball,' where the most beautiful women of Prague habitually gather!—I didn't dance or flirt with them ... but I was happy to watch all these people leaping around in sheer delight at the music of my Figaro, which has been turned into nothing but contredanses and German dances; here they talk of nothing but—Figaro; nothing is played, sung or whistled except—Figaro: no opera is as well attended as—Figaro and nothing but Figaro; a great honor for me."

Mozart's manuscript of the Marriage of Figaro
You may be wondering what "contredanses" and "German dances" were. This was before copyright law existed, so a composer could make money by selling a piece once to a publisher, or by playing his own music in private subscription concerts and NOT publishing the music. But once the piece was out there, any musician could - and many, many did - arrange the music for dance band, wind band, or any sort of ensemble - and sell or perform it, and indeed profit from it.

To Mozart this was natural. It was simply how things were, and he knew how to use the popularity of Figaro to his own advantage: he gave a concert in Prague, during which he premiered his so-called Prague Symphony, K. 504, performed his own piano concerti, and improvised on themes from the opera. The improvisation lasted a half-hour and left his audience - a very large one - in raptures. Unfortunately the improvisation is lost forever, but the Prague Symphony has remained with us.

From other letters, it appears that Mozart had a very good time here, going to aristocratic balls, staying in the palaces of the nobility. Amazingly, most of the places he visited or stayed in still exist. For example, the Thun Palace is now the British Embassy, The Clam-Gallas Palace houses the City of Prague archives - and still is used for concerts - the Strahov Monastery, where Mozart improvised on the organ is still active - complete with organ - the Liechstenstein Palace is now, aptly, the Academy of Music, the house called the Three Golden Lions still stands, and the Pachta Palace is now a luxury hotel.

Legend has it that Mozart wrote his 6 German Dances, K. 509, at the Pachta Palace, when Count Pachta tricked him by inviting him to dinner, but instead of leading him to the dining room, steered him into a room with only a desk, chair and manuscript paper and ink, and asked him to write some (evidently long-promised) dances. An hour later, goes the story, the dances were ready.

Another Prague residence famously associated with Mozart is the Bertramka Villa, which was the home of the celebrated singer Josefina Duskova, and her husband, the composer Frantisek Xaver Dusek, which is now a Mozart museum, where concerts are frequently given.

Mozart stayed here on his second visit, in October 1787, and was very happy. While there, he wrote a dramatic scene for Madame Duskova, called Bella mia fiamma, addio / Resta o cara. There is a similar story here to the Pachta tale - Mozart had promised Madame Duskova an aria, and when he showed no sign of writing one, she locked him in a garden hut until he produced it.

Another little-known piece he wrote in Prague, again for a friend, but evidently without having to be locked up is a song composed as a birthday gift to Prince Friedrich of Anhalt-Dessau, called Es war einmal. There is also a much more celebrated piece associated with the city - the Clarinet Concerto in A, which he wrote for the Czech clarinetist and basset-hornist, Anton Stadler. Mozart's third trip to Prague had been because of a last-minute commission for an opera to celebrate the coronation of the Emperor Leopold II in Prague. This was La Clemenza di Tito, and it was unfortunately not a success, but Stadler, who had played some demanding solos in it, requested this concerto, which Mozart sent after having returned to Vienna.

Just a few weeks later Mozart died. In Vienna, as is well-known, he was unceremoniously put into an unmarked grave, but in Prague a requiem mass was quickly organized (not his own requiem, but one by Roessler-Rosetti). It was performed at St. Nicholas Church in the Lesser Quarter, and four thousand people came to pay their respects.

CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur