Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Part 4: Return to Opera, Later Vienna Years, Illness and Death 1786 - 1791.
Review Part 3: The early Vienna Years 1779 - 1786
Around the end of 1785, Mozart began his famous operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Establish the Marriage of Figaro overture and then weave under:
Da Ponte was a colourful character. He was Jewish by birth. His first wife died giving birth to a daughter in 1754. The widowed father, converted to Catholicism in order to marry eighteen-year-old Orsola Pasqua Paietta. She was only four years older than his son. He studied to be a teacher and was ordained a Catholic priest.
At this time the motto of the Venetians was, "a little Mass in the morning, a little gamble in the afternoon, and a little lady in the evening." While priest of the church of San Luca in Venice, he took a mistress, Anzoletta Bellaudi, who was married. Da Ponte delivered their first child, an event which he commented was:
The kind of incident that happens every day.
Lorenzo Da Ponte engraving by Michele Pekenino
Reprimanded by the vicar-general, Da Ponte and Anzoletta opened a brothel. Charged with "public concubinage and abduction of a respectable woman", Da Ponte was banished from Venice for fifteen years. He travelled to Austria, and applied for the post of Poet to the Theatres. Emperor Joseph II asked:
How many plays have you written?
Good, good! Then we shall have a Virgin Muse..
Years later Da Ponte recalled:
It was not long before numerous composers approached me for libretti. But there were only two in Vienna, whom I considered worthy of my respect, Martín y Soler and Mozart.
The musicologist Nicholas Till describes Mozart's and Da Ponte's 'complementary' partnership.
Da Ponte's robust realism tempered Mozart's more idealistic inclinations. There is a sense in which they can be seen as spiritual twins. For all his Casanovan bravado, Da Ponte was, like Mozart, a man in search of identity, security and acceptance.
Mozart wrote to his father:.
He has promised to write me an opera. But who knows if he will keep his word. For these Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face .... enough we know all about them! If he is in league with Salieri, I will never get a word out of him. But how dearly I should like to show what I can do in Italian opera!
Later Da Ponte wrote of Mozart:
Although he was blessed with talents greater, perhaps, than those of any other composer in the world, past, present or future, he had been prevented by the plots of his enemies from exercising his divine genius in Vienna, remaining unknown and obscure - like a precious stone which, buried in the bowels of the earth, hides the true brilliance of its splendour.
Establish Maria Callas in the Marriage of Figaro and then weave under:
The Marriage of Figaro
was based on a play by the French writer, Beaumarchais, that had already scandalised half of Europe.
It was claimed that it undermined the ancien regime and helped to bring about the French Revolution.
It was an attack on the nobility and le droit de seigneur, the right of an aristocrat to have his way with a serving wench, before she was married to someone of her class.
However the opera was commissioned by the enlightened Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, who ensured that the most offending passages were removed.
Joseph II Holy Roman Emperor
The 1st May 1786 saw its successful premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna.
Bring up the Marriage of Figaro and then fade as appropriate
Mozart asked Michael Kelly, who played the part of the stuttering judge not to stutter. Young as he was Kelly demurred. Kelly left this account:
Burg Theatre Vienna
The audience was convulsed with laughter, in which Mozart himself joined. The Emperor repeatedly cried out 'bravo!' and the piece was loudly applauded and encored. When the opera was over, Mozart came on stage to me and shaking me by both hands said:
Bravo! young man. I feel obliged to you; and acknowledge you have been in the right and myself in the wrong.
Kelly also gave a more general account of the first night.
I shall never forget his little animated countenance, when lighted up with the glowing rays of genius - it is impossible to describe, as it would be to paint sunbeams.
I thought the audience would never have done applauding and calling for Mozart. Every piece was encored, which prolonged it nearly to the length of two operas.
The biographer Jeremy Siepmann claims that as a dramatist, Mozart bears comparison with Shakespeare.
In the sextet in Act III, he not only has six characters singing six different things at the same time, but keeps them in character throughout.
However the Viennese audience was fickle. Its success was transitory. Its reception in Prague later in the year was warmer and more lasting.
At six o'clock I drove to the Bretfeld ball, where the cream of the beauties of Prague are known to gather. They talk about nothing but Figaro. The whole place has gone Figaro mad. Nothing is being played, sung or whistled, but Figaro. Certainly a great honour for me.
Less happy news followed his return to Vienna: Leopold, now back in Salzburg had fallen seriously ill. Wolfgang wrote to his father:
Since death, when we come to contemplate it closely, is the true goal of our earthly life, I have achieved such a close relationship with this truest friend of all humanity, that his image once terrifying to me, has become soothing and consoling! I never go to bed at night without reflecting that - young as I am - I may not live to see another day. Yet no-one, who knows me, could describe me as morbid or melancholy. For this blessing I thank our Creator every day, and profoundly wish that everyone could feel the same.
Meanwhile the success of Figaro led to a second collaboration with Da Ponte: the opera
. Da Ponte was also enjoying great success and was writing three librettos at the same time, night and day, while being serviced by a pretty, sixteen-year-old serving maid. The French poet Lamartine described the process.
It is thus that
, should be written, by an adventurer, a lover, a poet; with disorder inspired by wine, love and glory; torn between the temptations of debauchery and respect for divine innocence.
was premiered in 1787 in Prague.
Here is the magnificent final scene in which Don Giovanni goes down to hell.
Establish Don Giovanni and then fade under:
Each year on 29 October there is a performance at the recently restored Estates Theatre to commemorate the huge success of its premiere, conducted by Mozart.
It also met with success in Vienna in 1788.
It was described by the contemporary historian, Alfred Meissner, as:
Estates Theatre Prague
Bring up Don Giovanni again and play out as appropriate
An opera with no equal in the world. The maniacal heathen who defied God and all his angels had gone into his eternal fiery grave. A world of desire, arrogance, fear, lamentation and despair, as only Mozart could depict it, was presented to the audience and rewarded with endless applause.
are among Mozart's most important works and are mainstays of the operatic repertoire today, though at their premieres their musical complexity caused difficulty for both listeners and performers.
These developments were not witnessed by the composer's father, as Leopold had died on 28 May 1787.
In December 1787 Mozart finally obtained a steady post under aristocratic patronage. Emperor Joseph appointed him as his "chamber composer", a post that had fallen vacant the previous month on the death of Gluck. It was a part-time appointment, and only required Mozart to compose dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal. However, even this modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived. Court records show that Joseph's aim was to keep the esteemed composer from leaving Vienna in pursuit of better prospects.
Sounds of war. Musket fire, whinnying of horses. Clashing of swords. Establish then fade under:
Toward the end of the decade, Mozart's circumstances worsened. This was a difficult time for musicians in Vienna, because Austria was at war with the Turks, and both the general level of prosperity and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined.
Mozart began to borrow money, most often from his friend and fellow Mason Michael Puchberg; a pitiful sequence of letters pleading for loans survives. He made long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the spring of 1789 and to Frankfurt, and Mannheim in 1790. The trips produced only isolated success and did not relieve the family's financial distress.
Introduce the Great Symphony and play under
However in spite of this in 1788 he wrote
Symphony number 40
, popularly known as his "Great Symphony". The conductor Bruno Walter said:
It needs some maturity to understand the depth of emotion which speaks in Mozart's seeming tranquillity and measure. ... I was ... fifty when for the first time I was audacious enough to perform the G Minor Symphony. I ... had such a feeling of responsibility and of the difficulty to perform it .... And I wondered at all the young conductors who, without any qualms, just went ahead and conducted all these works which asked for such depth of feeling and such maturity of technique Down
Bring up the Great Symphony and play out as appropriate .
In 1788 Mozart wrote three Symphonies in quick succession, culminating in his final symphony, known as the
. Charles Grove, the founder of Groves Musical Dictionary, described it:
Establish the Jupiter Symphony and play under: .
It is for the finale that Mozart has reserved all the resources of his science, and all the power, which no one seems to have possessed to the same degree, of concealing that science, and making it the vehicle for music as pleasing as it is learned.
Nowhere has he achieved more.
It is the greatest orchestral work of the world, which preceded the French Revolution.
Bring up and play out the Jupiter Symphony.
Perhaps it was called The Jupiter because it had an imperial feel to it - just as you would expect the King of the Gods to sound.
The emperor suggested that Mozart get together with Da Ponte to write another opera.
Establish Soave Sia Vento from Cosi Fan Tutte and take under
He suggested they should write about two men, who test their wives. It was called Cosi Fan Tutte and subtitled School for Lovers. In Vienna of the time there must have been couples involved in libertine behaviour. In fact Mozart was almost certainly unfaithful to Constance, while about this time he wrote to her:
I'm glad you're happy - obviously - But I wish you wouldn't sometimes make yourself so cheap!
Bring up Cosi Fan Tutte and play out
Mozart's last year, until his final illness struck, was a time of great productivity. He composed a great deal, including some of his most admired works, such as the opera,
The Magic Flute
, which was premiered in Vienna on 30 September 1791.
Establish Papageno and then weave under:
Mozart conducted the orchestra, while Schikaneder, the librettist, also played Papageno.
Papegeno is a timorous bird catcher. He meets Papegana, a hideous old crone, who later turns into a splendid woman, who promises that together they will produce many pretty little Papegenos and Papegenas.
Papageno with a birdcage
The production was spectacular, using flying machines, fireworks, and scenery to dazzle the eye and touch the emotions. The opera was a great success. Later he wrote to Constance, who was staying with her sister in Baden.
I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever.
He listed the numbers that had to be encored.
Bring up Papageno again and play out as appropriate
But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed.
Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto
With Mozart everything is ambivalent. The entertainment came with a profound and dramatic message. Towards the end as four characters are preparing to enter the fire, they sing: "Thanks to the power of music, we go happily into the dusky night of death".
At this time he also composed the final piano concerto, the
the last in his great series of string quintets, the motet
Ave verum corpus
, and the unfinished
Establish and take under the Clarinet Concerto
His Clarinet Concerto was also written for his friend Anton Stadler, the famous clarinettist and freemason.
Bring up the Clarinet Concerto again and play out as appropriate.
Mozart's financial situation, a source of extreme anxiety in 1790, finally began to improve.
In August of 1791 Mozart set off for Prague for the coronation of the new emperor, Leopold, King of Bohemia. For the festivities, Mozart was to contribute a new opera
La Clemenza di Tito
. He took Constance, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, a new one month old son and Franz Sussmayr, a compositional pupil with him. At the time it was quite common for compositional pupils and teachers to work jointly on pieces of music, which would then be published in the teacher's name.
Final Illness and Death
Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the premiere on 6 September of his opera
La Clemenza di Tito.
He was able to continue his professional functions for some time, and conducted the premiere of
The Magic Flute
on 30 September.
Back in Vienna, Mozart spent most of October on his
Introduce the Requiem Introit and then weave under.
The weather was bad; rain, sleet and snow. Mozart's rheumatism was triggered and he began to suffer abdominal pain. He declared:
I am writing this Requiem for myself.
The illness intensified on 20 November, at which point he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting.
He was nursed in his final illness by Constance. Her youngest sister, Sophie, described his last day.
I had just lit the lamp in our kitchen and made some coffee for my mother. I stared into the brightly burning flame, and thought to myself: 'I wonder how dear Mozart is'. At that very moment the flame went out, as completely as if it had never been lit. The most terrible feeling came over me. I ran as fast as I could to their house. My sister admitted me.
Thank God you have come. He was so bad last night that I thought surely he was lost. Do stay with me today, for if he has another attack, he will die tonight. I know it. Now go and see him.
I went to his bedside. He looked up at me.
Constance's sister, Sophie Weber
Dear Sophie, how happy I am you have come. Stay here tonight, and see me die.
I tried to control my feelings, and persuade him otherwise. But he only replied:
The taste of death is now on my tongue, and I can already smell the grave. If you don't stay, who will support my dear Constance, when I am departed?
'Yes, yes, dear Mozart', I assured him. Oh God, how I felt! My poor sister beckoned me.
'Seek out the priests at St. Peter's and implore one of them to come as quickly as possible.
I did so. Then I ran back as fast as I could to my distracted sister. Sussmayr was now at his bedside. The score of the Requiem was spread out on the quilt. Mozart was explaining how he ought to finish it.
Doctor Closet arrived and ordered cold poultices to be placed on Mozart's burning head, which, however affected him to such an extent that he fainted, and remained unconscious until he died. His last act was an attempt to express with his mouth the drum passages in the Requiem. I shall never forget that sound. Nor can I describe how his devoted wife, in utter misery, threw herself on her knees and beseeched the Almighty for His aid.
Mozart and Sussmayr
Mozart died at 1 a.m. on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35.
Introduce the Requiem Introit again and play out as appropriate.
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me.
It is a great consolation for me to remember that the Lord, to whom I had drawn near in humble and child-like faith, has suffered and died for me, and that He will look on me in love and compassion.
He was buried in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St Marx cemetery, outside the city on 7 December.
The cause of Mozart's death cannot be known with certainty. The official record has it as "Hitziges Frieselfieber", "severe miliary fever", referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds. Researchers have posited at least 118 causes of death, including trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that Mozart died of acute rheumatic fever.
Gravestone of Mozart restored in 1937
Mozart's sparse funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer: memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were well attended. Indeed, in the period immediately after his death Mozart's reputation rose substantially.
Introduce the Ave Verum and take under
I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key, which unlocks the door to our true happiness.
Weave the Ave Verum under the closing credits.
Music of the Great Composers
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ludwig van Beethoven
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