A Prague Symphony: Remembering Mozart

It’s 21 years since my visit to the city of Prague, and I wrote this 15 years ago in Delhi when it was Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary year. But I never sent it anywhere. Now that I realise that December 2021 (5th December, to be precise) is WA Mozart’s 230th death anniversary month, I decided to dig out this piece and share it with readers of my blog. It is a pity, though, that I don’t have my photographs of the visit anymore since all my cartons of books, which also contained my photo albums, were devoured by termites some years ago at my parents’ place in Goa.

That the Czechs love their music is more than evident on the streets of Prague. Just walking through the old parts of the city – which is what tourists from all over the world come to see – you’ll find a solo violinist or a guitarist playing classical music. The difference between them and street musicians in other European cities, I noticed, is that they don’t care to look at passers-by. So immersed in their music are they and so unselfconscious, that you marvel at their devotion to the piece they are playing.

The other delightful aspect of Prague that caught me completely by surprise, is the way they invite people to attend concerts held in churches and concert halls. I still can’t forget how taken aback I was, when a young man who looked straight out of the 18th century, walked up to me. Dressed in period costume, complete with powdered wig and satin jacket with tails, he gave me a programme sheet for a concert which had WA Mozart written in bold capital letters across the page. Well, he might himself have passed off as a character from an opera.

On taking a closer look at the programme, though, I found only two Mozart compositions amongst the thirteen concert pieces mentioned. So why this fascination with Mozart? Or was this just a way to lure gullible tourists? I told myself not to be such a cynic. I had heard Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, more popularly known as the Prague Symphony, so I decided to explore Mozart’s connection with the city instead. Surely, there had to be more. And what a discovery it turned out to be.

Tucked away in the secluded, wooded suburbs of Prague is a charming little villa called Bertramka. More a cottage than a sprawling villa. Open to the public, this is the place where Mozart spent many wonderful months composing arias and forging friendships with the city. Bertramka is now a Mozart museum, beautifully preserved, which in many ways provides us with glimpses into Mozart’s life and his association with Prague.

Surprisingly, Mozart’s first connection with Prague begins in 1777, in his hometown of Salzburg. This is where he meets the then famous Prague cantantrice, Josephine Dusek, and her composer husband, Frantisek Dusek, who were performing concerts together. Mozart was only 21 years old at the time, when he composed his first aria for her. Little did he know then that the Duseks would prove to be such wonderful friends and hosts ten years later, when he actually did visit Prague and composed at their home, Bertramka.

Bertramka, where Mozart composed his operas, now a museum dedicated to him; Image: Hikitsurasan on Wikimedia Commons

From the time he moved from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, his career as a composer and musician was not getting any support from the court, then the mainstay of most composers. And, although Mozart was a child prodigy and a prolific composer – he had already composed scores of concertos for wind and string instruments as well as for the piano and several symphonies – most of these compositions were for himself or for his friends and pupils.

What brought Mozart to Prague was not just friendship, but the musical tradition of the city. While he is credited with being the rare composer to have created music in almost all its forms, it was Prague that opened the floodgates for his operas. The reason was simple: Vienna had a tradition of opera houses that were courtly or state institutions. The biggest opportunity to compose that came his way was the Marriage of Figaro, one of his best-known operas. However, it was not comissioned by the court and yet was staged in Vienna, largely with help from Lorenzo da Ponte, the famous librettist.

By contrast, Prague proved to be fertile ground for Mozart’s opera endeavours. This was because the city already had a flourishing Italian opera tradition and a more educated and responsive audience. Besides, operas in Prague were not meant for the nobility alone, but for the public as well, since opera houses in the city were municipal institutions. Any wonder then, that the ordinary people of Prague participate visibly in its music tradition even today?

So, long after the success of Seraglio in 1783, the people of Prague eagerly awaited Mozart’s compositions. In 1786, the Marriage of Figaro was staged here and it was a resounding success with the people of the city and its musicians. In fact, Prague would be the city where his new operas would be first staged, in the years to come.

With the success of the Marriage of Figaro, members of the Prague Opera Orchestra wrote Mozart an invitation letter. He gladly accepted their invitation and visited Prague in January 1787 along with his wife, Constance. He received a grand welcome on his arrival and was the guest of the Count in the beautiful palace just below the famous castle of Prague. During his four weeks’ stay in Prague he had the chance to meet with the aristocratic gentry as well as interact with the musicians of the Prague opera.

The culmination of Mozart’s stay was the world premiere of his Symphony No. 38, better known as the Prague Symphony, which was performed on January 19, 1787, and dedicated to this city. It was a moment that would turn his fortunes and his future as a world-renowned composer. He not only returned to Vienna with a handsome fee, the reward also came in the form of another order to compose an opera for the autumn season.

So, while the court and the musical tradition in Vienna offered Mozart little encouragement or work, Prague openly welcomed and publicly recognised his music in every respect.

In October 1787, Mozart makes his second visit to the city with his wife and he, along with the librettist, Ponte, work hard with other musicians of the orchestra to finally produce another great opera. Don Giovanni had its premiere in Prague on October 29, 1787 and the response was more than overwhelming. It prompted Mozart to write to a friend in Vienna,

“I wish you, my good friends were here at least one evening and would participate in my delight… one makes here, every effort to persuade me to stay for several more months and to compose another opera. But, I cannot accept this offer, no matter how flattering it is.”

Mozart’s heart belonged in Vienna and he had always wanted to achieve success there. However, further disappointments awaited him in Vienna: he did not get the post of court composer even after the passing away of Gluck, and although he did manage to stage Don Giovanni, he had to compromise and make several modifications to his original score.

His final visit to Prague was quite by providence. The estates of Bohemia suddenly needed a new state opera for the coronation of King Leopold II as the new ruler of Bohemia. They commissioned the Prague impresario, Guardasoni, who soon realised that only Mozart could compose an opera of such high standards in the short time available. Mozart, meanwhile, was busy composing The Magic Flute and The Requiem in Vienna, but couldn’t refuse the offer for financial reasons.

He did visit Prague for the last time in August 1791, but the stay was not as enjoyable since he was overworked, not in the best of health and also had a premonition of death. There were some special moments, though, that he spent in the city, composing a short aria for Josephine Dusek with whom he had developed a strong emotional bond. In fact, an aria he had composed for her years ago became part of the coronation opera, La Clemenza di Tito, which premiered on September 6, 1791 in Prague.

Saying goodbye to the city wasn’t easy for Mozart and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that he felt a direct affinity with its people. On returning to Vienna, he composed a clarinet concerto with amazing speed and sent it to Prague, where it was premiered ten days later on September 16, 1791. When Mozart passed away some months later that year, Prague is said to have been the only city to honour him with a huge mourning ceremony at St Nicholas Church, a famous landmark of the city.

Most music experts and critics regard Mozart’s piano concertos to be his most sublime pieces of work. However, as I step out of Dusek’s villa, Bertramka, I can’t help but wonder how many more operas he would have created for Prague, had he lived longer. That he died young has perhaps deprived us of more enthralling music, but if there is a city we have to thank for the few great operas he gave us, it is the city of Prague.

No wonder then, that the people here express their gratitude day after day. They pay their homage to Mozart by keeping his musical legacy alive on the streets, in old town squares and in churches and concert halls.

As I can remember, the walk back from Bertramka through the woods, was a quiet one for me. I was reminded of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, later also made into a film, in which he deals with the professional rivalry between Mozart and Italian composer, Antonio Salieri, veering into paranoia at times for Mozart. I don’t wish to raise ghosts from the past in his 230th death anniversary month, but I thought it might be worth sharing a link to a 2019 New Yorker piece that I shared with subscribers to my monthly newsletter, The Whistle, which talked of Salieri’s comeback in the music world.

In India, Mozart is famous for his Symphony No. 25, instantly recognised as the signature music of Titan, one of the country’s leading wristwatch brands from the Tata Group, built by Ogilvy India, an advertising agency I have worked for in two stints in the past. I must admit, though, that I am not a fan of Mozart, preferring many other composers to him in all forms of classical music.

At any rate, here’s hoping many other music lovers will make the journey to Mozart’s opera city. It can never be too late to reflect on the powers of friendship and over 200 years of glorious music, can it?

Post Script: The history of Mozart’s opera composition while in Prague in my piece is based on information provided in the Museum literature that I bought, which I have also unfortunately lost to termites, along with my photographs and books.

The featured image at the start of this post is of Prague city by Denis Poltoradne on Unsplash

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