For foreigners For foreigners
Ozdoba Zpět na předchozí stránku Ozdoba
What did Prague Mean for Mozart?

 Tomislav Volek


         The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth is an excellent reason to look back and take stock of the whole Mozart phenomenon. Since January people have been making the attempt all over Europe, since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on the 27th of January 1756 and it would be unthinkable not to mark the occasion in any civilised country. To mark the occasion is one thing, however, while to reflect more deeply, consider all the issues and evaluate the impact of so great a genius in the two and a half centuries since his birth is something quite different. Essentially, in fact, the task is so difficult as to be beyond the capacities of any author. (Stendhal: "The theme dwarfs the narrator”). Editors have unfortunately been oblivious of the basic asymmetry of the task, which might be summed up in the words, “a small person of 2006 confronts a creative giant spanning two and a half centuries“, and they have contributed to a contradictory situation in which all the media (including the tabloid kind) have felt the need to say something about the major jubilee of a genius, but despite the token superficial expressions of respect, the lack of authors competent to speak on the matter has been sadly obvious. What kind of results could have been expected!?

       Miserable results indeed. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to many papers, magazines and pen-pushers that to write about a creative genius behind a huge body of work that has come down to us through ten generations is something quite different than to write about actors, models, footballers or hockey players, members of parliament or ministers of the year 2006, who are of course legion and who practically all know only one song: a song about themselves. But Mozart gave unforgettable voice to Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Leporello, the Commendatore, the Queen of the Night, Sarastro, Papageno, Tamino, Tito, Vitellia, Don Alfonso, Guglielmo, the Count and Countess, Figaro and Susanna, Cherubino, Constanze, Osmin, Idomeneo, Electra, Zaide and Gomatz, Mademoiselle Silberklang, Sandrina, Podesta, Mitridate, Aspasia, but also the Christian Spirit (Christgeist) and World Spirit (Weltgeist), Apollon and Hyacinth, Bastien and Bastiennne and so on, just to mention about a quarter of the characters of his dramatic works, almost every one of them unique and irreplaceable.

        Yet the less the jubilee pen-pushers know about Mozart’s characters and other works, the more they assume a pseudo-privileged viewpoint and tell us all about the need to “demolish Mozart myths”. The music correspondent of a leading Czech newspaper, for example, wrote about the need to “change the image” of a composer “whose concerts brought in dizzy sums to him” while he himself behaved like an “immature, over-sensitive profligate”! In the mass of rubbish produced about Mozart in January you could also learn that he was an infantile and vulgar man, a peacock and a gambler, a drinker and womaniser and so on, who allegedly immediately squandered an1y money he earned, and so fell into debt and “no-one in Vienna had any time for him any more”... It is almost as if there were an agreed common aim behind these lousy stylistic exercises, i.e. to denigrate the composer as a human being and not to write about his work! Perhaps because it would be pretty hard to connect this picture of a second-rate and morally decimated man with music that takes up 130 volumes of a critical edition and whose value no one would dare to doubt.

Horribile dictu ! – so the old Latinists would groan over this curious way of “glorifying” one of the greatest musicians in human history by resorting to backstairs gossip! The Mozartian Society in the Czech Republic has tried to counter products of this kind on its web pages. Yet what do we find when we look at attempts to take stock of Mozart in 2006 from better qualified pens and in international academic publications?

New publications abroad provide us with a chance to join in the anniversary debate on Mozart by responding to the arguments and interpretations of foreign scholars, particularly in relation to the theme of Mozart and Prague – a theme close to our heart, of course, but with broader implications than the merely local. In this context the most immediately striking publication is Das Mozart-Lexikon, a book produced for the anniversary under the editorship of the leading Vienna Mozart scholar, Prof. Gernot Gruber as part of the planned six-volume, Das Mozart-Handbuch (Laaber-Verlag). As one might expect, this huge 933-page lexiconincludes entries on the cities that played an important part in Mozart’s life. Surprisingly, however, we do not find “Prague” among them. The basic information on the theme is included under the entry Die böhmischen Länder but we Praguers can scarcely fail to ask why Prague is not accorded the same importance in Mozart’s life that the Mozart-Lexikon attributes not only to Salzburg and Vienna, but to Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, and even Mainz? Mozart’s Mainz yes, but Mozart’s Prague no? (Please don’t try to remember how many operas Mozart composed in Mainz, because the answer is zero, but the entry nonetheless informs us that in Mainz Leopold Mozart once presented a play by his seven-year-old son in an inn and that the adult Wolfgang once played there at the chateau. It is curious that Mainz merits an entry when there are dozens of towns with the same status in Mozart’s life all over Europe. These, naturally, get no mention.) When we discover that the lexicon has no separate entry for Milan either, although three of Mozart’s operas were premiered there, we can reasonably conclude that we are dealing with a certain systematic historical distortion in a book produced by a German publishing house. Can it be that someone somehow wants to give readers the impression that Mozart is primarily a phenomenon of German-speaking lands with a few episodes in Paris and London? (These major capitals obviously have to have a place in the Lexicon, while the peculiar “marginalisation” is applied only to cities in “marginal” countries like Italy and Bohemia.) Gernot Gruber seems not to have got over the habit of taking the embarrassingly politicised view of historical facts that afflicted his earlier book Mozart und die Nachwelt (1985). There he could actually write that, “Among the reasons for the warm reception of Mozart’s operas [in Prague] the patriotic [?!] aspect is the most striking. The very enthusiasm with which Praguers reconciled Mozart with his disappointments in Vienna speaks of the artistic understanding and open-mindedness of the citizens of the city, but also of the patriotism of Germans in Prague. Mozart was also a factor in the fight [!?] against the Czech nationalist [!?] movement [!?]." If a text like this had been written during the war, at the time of the Nazi occupation of Prague, it would not be so surprising, but in 1985? Mozart scholar Gruber seems to be oblivious of the fact that in Mozart’s time nationalist conflicts had not yet afflicted Prague, and that to ignore the role of Czech musicians and the majority Czech public in the creation and development of the cult of Mozart in Prague would mean retrospectively erasing from Mozart’s circle of Prague friends the Dušeks, Kuchař, Němeček, Vitásek, Mašek, and in the Prague Opera Orchestra Král, Šebek, Kučera, Mazancl, Houska, Střelský,Vaněřovský, Matějka, Votruba and so on, not to mention the friend from Salzburg that Mozart visited at the University Library, Hurdálek (incidentally, the only Praguer from whom Mozart requested an entry in his personal album...) and so forth.

After this disturbing evidence of a certain continuing tradition of distorted interpretation in a German publication subject to expert Austrian editing, one naturally looks around for a different, more qualified view of the question of the cities that played an important role in Mozart’s life. And, lo and behold, the editors of the musical monthly, Österreichische Musikzeitschrift definitely take a different view of the issue. In their special Mozart number in 2006 they decided to include a block of articles under the general title, Zwölf Mozartstädte. They commissioned contributions from 12 authors from different countries, and unlike Prof. Gruber they did not consider Prague and Milan were unworthy of the designation “Mozart Cities”. Unfortunately, however, in the case of Prague they made a different mistake by commissioning an article not from an expert but from a functionary, a head of department at the Czech Museum of Music, who hastily and with numerous mistakes copied from the work of other people, so that a chance to provide the international music public and the music-lovers with an informed view was lost.

Otherwise, the editors’ idea of comparing important cities in Mozart’s biography as a way of achieving insights that other approaches to the Mozart phenomenon miss, has proved genuinely fruitful. In the knowledge that Prague is a city without which something very fundamental would be lacking in Mozart’s life and work, we are therefore happy to join the kind of comparative project conceived by the editors of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift.

In this we have many advantages compared to the others, the first being the fact that research on the theme of Mozart and Prague has a long history, de facto longer than any comparable scholarly project. After all, Prague was the first European city in which a book about Mozart was published, and one that naturally contained some sections on the relationship of Praguers to Mozart’s music. In 1798, the then high school teacher František Xaver Němeček published his Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart. It was so well received by readers that ten years later this unique work by a historian and witness – by this time Němeček was a professor of practical philosophy at Prague University – was published in a second edition. Since then there have been many more editions, including facsimiles and translations, and so when Rudolph Procházka published his book Mozart in Prag in Prague in 1892, he was continuing a well-established tradition. This was developed further in the 1930s by Paul Nettl, a reader at the Prague German University, who emphasised the continuity of Prague Mozart scholarship in the sub-title of his book, Mozart in Böhmen (1938): Herausgegeben als zweite, vollständig neubearbeitete und erweiterte Ausgabe von Rudolph Freiherrn von Procházkas Mozart in Prag.

After the 2nd World War, Mozart research in Prague slowly revived. Archival discoveries provided the basis for the present author’s book, Mozart a Praha [Mozart and Prague] (1973) and his studies about the Prague connections of the two operas composed specifically for Prague. After the fall of the Communist regime, the present author was also able to train a new generation of scholars in Mozartian lectures and seminars at Charles University. This generation has plenty of material to tackle, as Milada Jonášová in particular has shown with her discoveries of new important period copies of Mozart’s work, published at home and abroad. These discoveries demonstrate, inter alia, that not only did Prague respond to Mozart’s music with deep interest, but that it was from Prague that many pieces were disseminated in numerous copies and transcriptions, abroad, and even to Vienna.


During his short life W. A. Mozart took 17 journeys, and was away from home for a total of 10 years and 2 months. This makes the time he spent in dozens of towns and cities one of the main themes of his biography. Is it therefore reasonable to ask why he undertook specific journeys, what kind of city he chose, how he and his music were received there, what stimuli and opportunities each city offered him and what traces his works left there.

Naturally we need to make a distinction between the European tours he made as an infant prodigy and the journeys he made as a musician with professional skills and experience. As an infant prodigy Mozart – temporarily – attracted attention and enthusiasm among the social elite sought out by his father, but what was the situation in his later years? It is safe to say that Mozart never set out on a journey at random, "au hazard". His destination was always a city with a ruling court, where the position of court capellmeister existed and, ideally, an opera as well. It was in cities of this kind and with the prospect of such a position at a court that Mozart sought to make his career.

As many of the contributions to the Mozart issue of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift confirm, there is no reason to doubt the composer’s systematic efforts in this context, and this leads us to a crucial and in its way shocking fact, one not usually mentioned and not even touched on in the project Zwölf Mozartstädte, which is that no-one anywhere in Europe ever offered Mozart the post as capellmeister or composer that he so eagerly sought! No city, no royal or princely town ever offered him what he looked for and put himself forward for over so many years. And it is this fact that ought to be mentioned at the end of every set of texts on the theme of Mozartstädte! This would once and for all make clear a major tragic feature of Mozart’s life as a musician and a man.

Mozart took this failure particularly hard in the case of the two cities that were his home for many years: Salzburg and Vienna. In both he had a period of hope that he might be appointed to such a post, in Salzburg when the death of the court capellmeister created a vacancy in August 1778 and in Vienna in December 1787 when the position of court composer came free. Unfortunately, giving Mozart such a high position was out of the question as far as Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg or Josef II in Vienna was concerned. In the case of Vienna the situation was quite obviously “political”. With his excellent musical education the emperor no doubt realised that Mozart, who had then been resident in Vienna for six years, was by far the most suitable candidate for the post left vacant by the death of Gluck, but he clearly felt that it was best to avoid the conflicts that could be expected between the court capellmeister Salieri and a new court composer with the provocative genius of Mozart. The imperial decision of December 1787 was therefore very much a “Judgment of Solomon”: the position of court composer remained vacant, and while Mozart – whose new Prague opera “Don Giovanni” had been greeted with admiration by the experts – was accepted into court service, this was on a more or less formal basis, since he was placed in the vaguely defined category of "Kammermusicus", given the average pay of a member of the court orchestra and assigned no specific duties. (After Mozart’s death, however, the position of court composer was filled again, this time by the consistently loyal Leopold Koželuh who was unencumbered by any embarrassing genius…)

How have these facts about Salzburg and Vienna been interpreted by the Mozart scholars from these cities in 2006 in the Mozart issue of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift? Prof. Ernst Hintermeier in his article "Sie wissen, wie mir Salzburg verhasst ist !" ("You know how I hate Salzburg", which is a quotation from one of Mozart’s letters)presents the real situation without evading the issue in any way, but Prof. Manfred Wagner in his article Mozart als freier Künstler in Wien (Mozart as an Independent Musician in Vienna) performs an extraordinary academic tight-rope act in order to be able to put forward the theory that in Vienna Mozart found “optimal opportunities for his work”. The claim is of course at odds with the historical facts. It would be more correct to say that “yes, Vienna was a city that could have offered Mozart optimal opportunities for his work but did so only to a very limited extent”. As is generally known, Mozart more than once expressed dissatisfaction with his situation in Vienna, a fact that Wagner shrugs off with derogatory comments at Mozart’s expense! First he suggests that the composer was sorely tempted “to hanker after positions”("war er dennoch versucht nach Anstellungen zu schielen"), and then takes the notion of “hankering” even further by intimating that Mozart had a “marketing-tainted mania for titles” ("Mozarts marketingverdächtige Titelsuche"). This is nothing but disinformation designed to conceal the fact that Mozart was not considered worthy of the office of court composer in Vienna. Mozart was by no means a title chaser by nature, as we can see quite clearly from the fact that when the pope honoured him with a higher chivalric order than the one awarded to Ch. W. Gluck, Mozart soon ceased to add the title “cavaliere” to his name, while the socially adept Gluck signed himself “chevalier” to the end of his life. So what has “Titelsuche” to do with it? Mozart was naturally and justifiably keen to obtain a position that would give him the chance to compose operas and other major musical works and assure a decent income for himself and his family. At a time when he was interested in a position at court in 1777, he saw it as an opportunity that would enable him, "alle jahre 4 deutsche opern, theils Buffe und serie, zu liefern" (“to produce 4 German operas, part comic, and part serious, every year"). What is extraordinary is not Mozart’s attitude but the behaviour of today’s representative of numerous Viennese musical and non-musical institutions M. Wagner ("Titelsuche" is much in evidence on his web page!), who after ridiculing Mozart for his alleged need for titles takes it upon himself to grant the composer a nonsensical, ludicrous and degrading title of his own devising: "höchster Unterhaltungschef des Kaiserhauses" (“supreme head of entertainment at the emperor’s house”)!

When claiming that in Vienna Mozart found “optimal work opportunities” (“die optimalen Arbeitsmöglichkeiten”), M. Wagner adds with clear distaste the words, “even if this has not always been a view taken in the literature” (“auch wenn dies in der Literatur nicht immer so gesehn wurde”). Not only has it not been taken “in the literature”, but it was certainly not a view taken by Mozart himself, since otherwise he would hardly have written the following to Puchberg on the 12th of July 1789, and by extension to us in 2006, that, “… Mein Schicksal ist leider, aber nur in Wien, mir so widrig, daß ich auch nichts verdienen kann, wenn ich auch will; ich habe 14 Tage eine Liste herumgeschickt und da steht der einzige Name Swieten !" (“… My fate, but only in Vienna, is so wretched that I too can earn nothing, even when I want to: for 14 days I had a (subscription) list circulated, and the only name on it is Swieten"). Are these the words of a proud musician enjoying “optimal work opportunities” in Vienna?

As an impassioned defender of the good name of imperial Vienna, Wagner develops the theme of Mozart’s income still further, initially with a claim that is in fact valid only for the last four years of the composer’s life: “Mozart had a fixed income ...”. Yes, 1.200 florins annually as court “chamber musician”. But Wagner’s next claim about this fixed income is unsupported by any evidence, i.e. “ was probably much higher than might be supposed from the bare figures”. And this is followed by another logical somersault on the theme of Mozart’s “fixed income”. Apparently, “... it varied from year to year” ("es schwankte …"), with Wagner estimating it at as much as 5.000 florins for the year 1791…! Given this kind of conjuring with facts and “fixed incomes”, it is no surprise that the author entirely fails to mention Mozart’s debt of 1.435 florins and 32 kreuzers to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, which he was ordered to pay by a decision of the Viennese court towards the end of 1791.

 But let us leave the advocate of the City of Vienna, Wagner, and confront Europe’s Mozart cities with some more questions. We know that all Mozart’s long nursed hopes of a position as capellmeister were to be frustrated, but what other expressions of favour could he expect from the European cities that we today call “Mozartian”? What creative commissions or opportunities did they offer him? Who gave him important commissions as a composer and where?

If the desire to compose operas took first place among Mozart’s creative interests, then it is evident that only four European cities provided him with such an opportunity at any point in his life. They were Milan, Munich, Vienna and Prague. Only four cities commissioned and also presented operas by the greatest musical dramatist of the 18th century! (For purposes of comparison: in the case of Verdi it was 12 cities and in the case of Wagner five cities but also a theatre in Bayreuth built exclusively for his operas...).

Let us start our comparison of these four Mozart “operatic” cities chronologically, and therefore with Milan. The situation here was very peculiar, although the literature rarely informs us of just how peculiar it was. It is true that the capital of Lombardy provided Mozart with three opera commissions, and this is the highest number from any city in which he did not actually live. But we must be careful, for these commissions were not genuine orders from an Italian opera house! Two of them (Il Mitridate, Ascanio in Alba) were commissioned by one and the same Austrian patron (!), who was also undoubtedly the moving force behind the third commission (Lucio Silla). He was the supreme representative of the Austrian state in occupied North Italy (Lombardy), i.e. the governor with his seat in Milan (and with relatives in Salzburg), the count Karl Joseph Firmian. The Italian record in respect of commissions of Mozart operas is therefore very ambivalent and is qualified by the fact that a) no Italian opera house ever came up with the idea of commissioning an opera from Mozart and staging it, and b) no other opera house took over Mozart’s Il Mitridate and Lucio Silla and presented it in their own programmes. And of course the "festa teatrale" Ascanio in Alba was so closely bound up with the environment and immediate situation at the Austrian Habsburg court in Milan that it could not in fact have been taken up by another opera house. Altogether, the musical dramas that Mozart wrote for Italy and that were staged in Italy were presented a total of 52 times. With this their effect ended, since they returned to the Italian stage only in the mid-20th century, in all kinds of different arrangements.

Initiated by the Austrian governor, the commission of Ascania for the Austrian court in Milan, which since 1771 had been presided over by the Archduke Ferdinand, awakened in Mozart the hope that the archduke would appoint him to the head of his court music. An Austrian promoting an Austrian... The Mozarts, father and son, therefore prolonged their stay in Milan by several weeks, waiting for a summons to the court (which came) and an engagement (which did not). In one of the letters written by Marie Theresia (that loving mother and “beneficent ruler”) to her son Ferdinand, she adds a warning not to engage "useless people" ("gens inutils") like Mozart and his family! Thus in Habsburg Lombardy as elsewhere, Mozart’s dream of obtaining a post as capellmeister ended in fiasco. Instead the position was entrusted to the much less gifted Czech composer (in Italy an Austrian), Václav Pichl (see CM 4/2005)... And we can only wrack our brains over the question of why Pichl should have been “more useful” as a court capellmeister – according to the honourable empress – than Mozart...

After Milan, we move on to the two opera commissions for the official seat of the Elector of Bavaria, Munich. It is not precisely known who it was that initiated the first commission, which resulted in the opera buffa La finta giardiniera. This was staged – but not under the direction of Mozart! – in January 1775 at Munich’s second theatre, the old “Salvatortheater” and was performed only three times. Mozart’s first opera composed and staged on German soil failed to make much of an impact.

Mozart’s second Munich opera, Idomeneo, re di Creta, was a much deeper work with much better prospects. The elector himself was behind the commission and the opera was staged in January 1781 in the beautiful new court theatre (Cuvilliés-Theater). This in itself testifies to the fact that Mozart’s social and musical credit had already risen considerably, at least in this part of Germany. Suffering from an absence of opera commissions in Salzburg, Mozart threw himself into the work with enormous energy and struggled in a brave and disciplined way with a whole range of obstacles: the subject had been imposed on him; the adaptation of the libretto was the work of G. Varesco, an Italian chaplain to the prince archbishop of Salzburg with no experience in the field of drama; for the title role of warrior-king and lover Mozart had to accept a once outstanding but now sixty-six-year-old tenor... In Munich the brilliant and still highly effective tragic work was performed three times – and that was it. Ergo: the two Mozart operas written for Munich had no more than six performances altogether. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this says something fundamental about the Munich opera public of the day.

Between the two Munich commissions Mozart wrote one opera independently and not to order – Zaide. It was a desperate expression of Mozart’s desire to compose opera, even without commissions, at a time when instead he was having to make a living in Salzburg as an organist! Zaide is a work of great quality using a German text, but when in 1781 Mozart arrived in Vienna there was no interest in the piece from the recently founded court singspiel company. One reason must certainly have been that some of the roles in Zaide were too difficult for the inexperienced singers of that company.

 In the ten years of life left to Mozart after his arrival in Vienna in 1781, fate decreed that only two cities were to provide him with the chance to compose opera. They were Vienna and Prague. Of the two only Vienna was a capital with a royal court and court opera. Only there could a brilliant musicians hope to become a court composer or court capellmeister. Naturally Mozart took that into account in 1781 when he wrote a letter to his father from Vienna justifying his decision to stay there. He wrote that it was “für mein Metier der beste Ort von der Welt". As we know from letter of July 1789, Mozart’s experience of the city in the intervening eight years in Vienna was to be quite different.

Unsurprisingly, given his method of “striking out the inconvenient facts”, in his text on Vienna M. Wagner offers readers the vaguely formulated information that Josef II “initiated the German National singspiel" ("initiierte das deutsche Nationalsingspiel") but omits to mention its inglorious end. Above all, he makes no attempt to interpret the fact that despite the brilliant success of The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), the court in Vienna commissioned no further singspiel from Mozart and allowed the German company in the Burgtheater (1778-83) to collapse for lack of repertoire. Equally unsurprisingly, Wagner then passes over in silence the fact that the only demonstrable theatrical commission given to Mozart by the court was the music for the one-act The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor). Neither Le Nozze di Figaro nor Così fan tutte was composed on the commission of the court; in both cases the court poet Lorenzo da Ponte negotiated the composition with Mozart and then managed to arrange the staging of the already finished works on his own initiative. Another question that arises here is why, in their accounts of Mozart’s situation in Vienna, none of the Viennese specialists have taken into account a source published 46 years ago in the Salzburg Jahrbuch by the present author. This source records the view expressed by the Bohemian Estates Theatre Commission after the staging of the opera La clemenza di Tito as part of the coronation festivities in Prague in 1791, to the effect that “a prejudiced antagonism to Mozart’s composition has been evident at the court” ("zeigte sich bei Hof wider Mozarts Composition eine vorgeffaste Abneigung"). For purposes of comparison let us add at that no prejudice against Mozart’s composition was discernible in the Prague public. On the contrary, after the departure of the court and its society, Tito achieved a popularity comparable with that of the other Mozart operas.     

Since we know what kind of cities Mozart gave priority to on his travels through Europe, it will be clear why Prague was not one of his destinations for many years. It was only another bitter experience in Vienna – the withdrawal of his brilliant opera buffa Nozze di Figaro from the programme after only nine performances, but at the same time the arrival of a celebratory poem and invitation from Prague after the success of the same opera in the Bohemian metropolis­–, that led the now thirty-one-year-old Mozart to decide on a trip to Prague. Friends had invited him there before, but Prague lacked the key magnets of a princely court and a court opera. In short, a city that could offer no position as court capellmeister or composer was simply not attractive for Mozart. (To point up the tragicomic aspect of the situation we should add that theoretically a Habsburg could have offered Mozart the post of capellmeister to the King of Bohemia, because he was also King of Bohemia, but like all his predecessors except for Rudolf II he resided in the Arch Duchy of Austria...)

Yet while Prague could not offer Mozart the permanent source of income and freedom to compose represented by the post of court composer or capellmeister, in 1787 it could offer him something else he wanted too – a commission to write an opera. While Prague was not a royal seat, unlike any of the non-Italian royal seats to which Mozart had been offering himself for years, it had a public opera house. Furthermore, since this opera house had been in operation for more than sixty years, the city also possessed two or even three generations of opera enthusiasts. An institution and public of this kind was a totally new cultural factor in the Central Europe of the time, and one still unknown to cities such as Vienna, Munich, Berlin or Dresden with their feudal courts and court operas. The crucial factor behind the creation of a beautiful relationship between the composer Mozart and the Bohemian metropolis was precisely the existence of a large opera public with a strong interest in and experience of new productions in Italian opera.

Considered from this angle, Prague emerges among the Mozartian cities as the perfect polar opposite to Mozart’s native Salzburg. While Salzburg had a ruling court and court orchestra, as an archbishop’s court it had no opera, a fact that was devastating for Mozart: "Es ist kein Theater da, keine opera !" To some extent Prague also seems to be an opposite case to Munich and Vienna as well, since while the latter had operas, these had for decades been “only” court operas, which excluded the public from a share in the genre. Let us remind ourselves that Mozart wrote two operas for Prague just as he wrote two for Munich, but in the Bavarian capital they found a public only for six performances, while in Prague the two operas played on and on. This was because in politically provincial 18th-century Prague, Italian opera had for decades been the main attraction of the local secular culture. Italian opera had enjoyed an uninterrupted life here since 1724 and – an extremely important point as far as Mozart would be concerned – it differed fundamentally in type from all the other opera houses north of the Alps. It was not the private theatre of the ruler and a small circle of his court society, but a publicly accessible city opera that anyone could attend if they had the interest and money for a ticket. In line with Italian practice this institution was headed by an impresario, who in Prague enjoyed the kind of freedom of which the intendants of court companies, hemmed in as they were by the requirements of official duties, could not even dream. It would, for example, have been unthinkable at a court production to have an inebriated (Roman) emperor turning up on stage, blathering inanities in several languages and drunkenly combing his hair with a branch. Or – in the intermezzo – to have a scene in which the “hero” in the costume of an emperor commands a lady in front of his “throne” to take off all her clothes...This freedom, appreciated by a public that was also big enough to pay for a large number of performances, was undoubtedly a major reason why the Prague opera became so popular with Italian artists, especially at the beginning of their careers. This was why dozens of world premieres of Italian operas took place here, including works by such authors as A. Vivaldi, Ch. W. Gluck and – W. A. Mozart.

In a chapter on Mozart and Prague we need to see Mozart as one of a decade of composers of Italian operas whom Prague, thanks to its public opera house, commissioned to write an opera. Or to put it another way, one of many composers from whom the Prague public, through the local impresario, ordered a new opera. Some of the themes of Mozart’s operas were hardly new to Prague. The city had experienced its first opera on the Don Juan theme in 1730, and another in 1776 (by V. Righini and successful enough that it was transferred to Vienna after a year, just like Mozart’s opera eleven years later.) Prague had also seen an opera about the noble Tito 30 years before Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

In the 1780s the popularity of Italian opera was at its height, creating particularly favourable circumstances for Prague’s meeting with Mozart. Testimony to the atmosphere is given by a local newspaper story printed on the 8th of July, 1786, reporting that in Prague a visitor need only stand on the corner of a street for a while, “… and from all sides he will hear arias from popular Italian operas, and so it may be feared that one day whole operas will be performed in the street." ("... und es werden ihm von allen Seiten die Arien aus den beliebten italienischen Opern entgegen tönen, so dass zu fürchten ist, es werden auf der Gasse ganze Opern gegeben werden.")

It was just a few months after this report on Praguers’ love of opera that Le Nozze di Figaro was first staged in Prague. It was not the first Mozart opera to be performed in the city – that was The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1783 – but this time the response was absolutely extraordinary, and led to the equally extraordinary step, an historic moment in European opera, when the orchestra sent the composer of the successful opera a letter inviting him to visit Prague. The letter itself has been lost, but it is mentioned with evident paternal pride by Leopold Mozart in a letter of the 12th of January 1787. The very existence of such a letter underlines the unusual character of the situation: the orchestra of an opera house, not under the direction of any "Hoftheaterkommission", could of its own accord invite a composer from another land to visit and to collaborate with it. Could the orchestra of a court opera have been able to do such a thing?

With its enthusiasm for the Le Nozze di Figaro, the Prague public effectively decided on the commission of a Mozart opera written specially for itself. It happened to be the “opera of operas”, Don Giovanni. Today we know that it was commissioned from Mozart by a Prague impresario whose motive was undoubtedly cool calculation and the prospect of excellent takings after the commercial success of Le Nozze di Figaro. In his book, F. X. Němeček did not forget to mention that "… this opera was played almost without interruption throughout the winter (…) and was a wonderful help in getting the entrepreneur out of his miserable financial situation.” (“… diese Oper fast ohne Unterbrechen diesen ganzen Winter gespielt ward, und (…) den traurigen Umständen des Unternehmers vollkomen aufgeholfen hatte.")

The heart of the answer to the question, “What did Prague mean for Mozart”, should therefore be sought first and foremost in the Prague commission of an opera for the autumn season of 1787. A composer at the height of his creative powers was given a chance to compose a major opera entirely according to his own ideas, without any kind of prior limitations or conditions. There was no censorship in his way, no interfering instructions from the theatre management or the "Hoftheaterkommission", no binding extra wishes of particular singers, and no reason to fear a lack of sympathy from the public. Mozart could fully develop his whole personal universe of human and musical experience and imagination in his favourite musical dramatic genre! And because the Prague orchestra consisted of outstanding instrumentalists, he could write an orchestral score that was far more demanding than in any of his previous operas.

It is a pity that no sources survive to provide us with insight into the process by which the opera was composed. What is certain is that when Mozart and his wife arrived in Prague on the 4th of October 1787 to direct the preparations for the staging of Don Giovanni, the opera was far from finished. Fortunately, in a rather paradoxical way, our Bohemian forbears made it easier for the English expert on Mozart autographs, Alan Tyson, to make a laborious identification of which parts were written in Prague. This is because the Bohemian paper used by Mozart is even on a first glance worse in quality than the rest of the papers used for this composition... This means we can be completely sure that apart from the overture and Masetto’s aria from Act I, Mozart composed a substantial part of Act 2 in Prague. In total this means around 1,600 bars, representing a third of the entire score. Mozart found quiet for composition just outside the city in the Villa Bertramka, where he was the guest of the musical couple Josefina and František Xaver Dušek. (After the premiere of the opera he rewarded his hostess with a beautiful aria and recitative, “Bella mia fiamma, addio”.) Then, to amuse himself and his Prague friend, in the comic part of the opera finale he included small allusions to the harpsichordist and author of piano reductions of his operas Jan Křtitel Kuchař, the charming singer of the role of Donna Anna, Tereza Saporiti, the simple melodies of the opera Cosa rara by Martin y Soler, which had squeezed his Figaro out of opera programmes in Vienna, and so forth. The public today can respond with amusement only to one of these allusions, and that is Mozart’s quotation from his own work, Figaro’s popular aria Non più andrai.

It is remarkable that even in this, the earliest history of the staging of Don Giovanni, the difference between the Prague Opera and the Vienna Opera of Mozart’s day is very clear. While the Prague public immediately and rapturously welcomed Mozart’s crowning work in the form that he composed it, a year later the same work went down less well in Vienna. First of all the singers of the court opera took a condescending attitude to both Mozart and his work. The tenor refused to sing the aria, Il mio tesoro, and insisted on the composition of a different aria, and the singer playing Donna Elvira behaved in the similar way. In order to satisfy the local public Mozart and Da Ponte had to add the comic duet between Zerlina and Leporelo. This duet, which introduces the alien spirit of a coarse-grained suburban farce into a masterwork and which is always left out today, itself suggests something about the difference between the opera public in Prague and Vienna. And even with the forced changes, after 15 performances Don Giovanni was withdrawn in Vienna. There was no one left who wanted to see it.

      In 1791, Prague had another chance to enter the life of Mozart with a new initiative and did not waste it. The impresario Domenico Guardasoni, whose knowledge of the Prague opera public was unrivalled, chose Mozart to compose an opera for the celebrations of the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and the Bohemian Estates hastily commissioned the composer by a contract of the 8th of July. Guardasoni’s motives were the same as those behind the commission in 1787, but this time with the prospect of even better financial rewards, for the arrangement meant that the Bohemian Estates would be footing the bill for a new opera that he could add to his repertoire and continue to stage for the Prague public in years to come. When the Italian opera company left Prague for ever in 1807 after his death, they gave as their last performance Mozart’s Tito. The opera had been so popular that when choirs from this opera were performed at concerts, the public was capable of singing along. Which of us has ever experienced such a thing in a concert hall?


      Was The Magic Flute any less popular in Prague? This unique Mozart singspiel was first performed outside Vienna by the company of the Praguer František Bulla in Lwow (Lemberg) and immediately afterwards in October 1792 in Prague by Václav Mihule’s company. The Praguers were enchanted with it. The popularity of The Magic Flute reached a peak in 1794, when it could be heard in the Bohemian metropolis in three different versions: in the German original, in Czech translation and in an Italian version, with recitatives composed in Prague. Another unique achievement for Mozart’s Prague!


      The love of Praguers for Mozart’s music was also reflected in the activities of many musicians away from the opera house, as is evident from the concert programmes of Mozart’s friend Josefina Dušková and the much younger pianist Jan Vitásek, for example. Mozart’s friend and fellow Mason, the outstanding clarinettist Anton Stadler, begged Mozart to finish the clarinet concerto quickly enough for him to include it in his Prague concert, and so on the 16th of October 1791 Prague was the first city to enjoy a performance of Mozart’s last composition for orchestra and soloist.

        Prague’s love of Mozart and his work remained constant even after his death, and indeed the city’s response to his death once again gave it primacy among “Mozart cities”. Did any other city express such an honour for the dead musician shown by Prague with its requiem mass in the Church of St. Nicholas on the 14th of December 1791? To which city, if not Prague, did his widow Constanze send her sons to be cared for? And was not Prague the first city to set up a Mozart memorial (1837, kept in the University Library, now the National Library, to this day)? Is there any city in which the “opera of operas”, commissioned by Prague, is performed more frequently than in Prague? There is not, and even in this point Prague maintains its Mozartian primacy.

     It is sad that after so much in the way of praise for Mozart’s Prague, this Prague Mozartian cannot but admit in conclusion – in the interests of an objective view – that currently far from all the productions of Mozart’s operas in Prague are of the artistic standard they deserve. In a number of aspects the Mozartian tradition in Prague seems to be undermined and weakened. Today the Czech metropolis no longer has the kind of enlightened opera public that it possessed in the last years of the 18th century. But this – fortunately – is not our theme in these pages…



Translation: Anna Bryson

Published in : Czech music 2006, Nr. 2.