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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’

Estates Theatre, Prague
Estates Theatre, Prague, where Mozart conducted Figaro in 1787 (Wikimedia Commons)

Much has been written about Leopold Mozart’s anxiety about his family’s financial security – and his own, as he aged. Leopold was unrelenting in his pressure on Wolfgang to find a permanent position. This, as much as anything else, may have precipitated Mozart’s split with home and hearth. In 1781, he cast off Archbishop Colloredo’s hated livery and shook Salzburg’s dust from his boots. Mozart would make his fortune as a freelance musician in Vienna, or so he believed.

There, at first, Mozart had all the concert and lesson business anyone could want. Five years on, though, Vienna’s appetite for Mozart’s keyboard virtuosity had already begun to wane. Increasingly, he saw opera as his future; but even there, the response was cooler than he had hoped. The Vienna premiere of Le nozze di Figaro in May of 1786 went well. However, after only nine performances that year, Figaro faded from the repertory.

In December of 1786 Figaro opened in Prague – and there it did not fade. Quite to the contrary.

In spite of his wide travels, Mozart had never visited Prague; there were more musical and financial attractions in other cities. But his music had led the way four years before, when a traveling company had first introduced the Prague public to Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

The Figaro premiere literally ignited a new musical sprit in the city. A month later, Mozart was invited to Prague to conduct a performance of the opera at the Nostic Theatre (now the Estates Theatre).

Given Vienna’s growing indifference, the adulation Mozart encountered in Prague must have been deeply satisfying. In a letter to his student Baron Gottfried von Jacquin, Mozart marveled, "Here they speak of nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. Nothing draws like Figaro."

Figaro was to be the main course for Prague, but Mozart also planned dessert – a symphony. Symphonies had been among his concert staples in earlier years, but since then Mozart’s symphonic output had fallen drastically (in 1773 alone he had turned out a half-dozen – as many as he composed in his entire ten Vienna years from 1781). In fact, there’s evidence that he initially planned to simply recycle the Paris Symphony (K300a) for Prague. He even composed a new finale for it. But for some reason he set that work aside, and made a fresh start. Mozart wrote the date on his newly-finished Prague symphony: 6 December 1786.

This was a somewhat uncharacteristically punctual finish for Mozart – he wasn’t due to leave for Prague until the 8th of January. Thus, some historians speculate that Mozart didn’t really compose K504 for Prague, but rather meant it for a Vienna premiere which never took place. Others argue against this, pointing out that the Viennese expected their symphonies to have four movements, and K504 has only three.

The missing minuet gives K504 its other (seldom used) nickname – "Ohne Menuett." And of course it provides yet another source of speculation for the music historians.

Some of them characterize the Prague Symphony as a throwback to Mozart’s earlier Italian-style 3-movement symphonies. This is a little tough to swallow, though, when hardly anything else about this symphony suggests those earlier works.

Mozart expert Alfred Einstein declared in the 1940s that K504 is "a full scale Viennese symphony which happens to lack a minuet simply because it says everything it has to say in 3 movements." Maybe so, but this strikes me as somehow more in line with Schumann’s ethos, or even Beethoven’s, than with Mozart’s.

One recent writer has even declared that by dispensing with the "aristocratic" minuet, Mozart was indulging his pro-Enlightenment persuasions. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem on first glance. Prague wasn’t too keen on Vienna’s political machinations, and one reason for their enthusiasm about Figaro was the opera’s rather daring political tone.

Or perhaps the experts are all thinking too hard. Seven years before, in his K338 symphony, Mozart had swapped the andante and minuet for no apparent reason. So maybe it’s just as valid to suggest that Mozart dumped the minuet in K504 because he felt sure that Prague’s musically canny audiences would let him get away with a bit of creative tinkering.

Nor was this the only example. Mozart began with a slow introduction, only the second time he had done so in a symphony (though Joseph Haydn had shown the way fully 25 years before). After the first 36 bars, Mozart dispelled the dark clouds with an energetic theme. He developed this theme in ways that no doubt raised a few eyebrows among his more knowledgable listeners.

A pastoral andante leads to the fleet-footed finale. Here Mozart gave Prague concertgoers a treat by including one of those Figaro themes that they were all playing, singing, and whistling.

Both the Figaro performance and the symphony were rousing successes for Mozart. Twenty-one years later, Mozart’s biographer Franz Xaver Niemetschek was able to report that this and the K543 symphonies "are still favorites of the Prague public, although they have been played at least a hundred times."

mozart in 1777
Mozart in 1777
(Wikimedia Commons)

Mozart died in the early morning hours of 4 December 1791. He was two months from his 36th birthday. Official Viennese documents listed the cause of his death as "hitziges Frieselfieber" — meaning very high fever with rash, which describes the symptoms, not the cause. Over the centuries since his death, medical experts have tried to analyze exactly what it was that took Mozart’s life.

On Monday (17 August 2009), researchers from the University of Amsterdam added their theory to the list. They think it may have been complications from strep throat. They say that in December of 1791, Vienna was experiencing a minor epidemic of strep throat, and that it may have begun in the city’s military hospital.

This is the latest chapter in an ongoing mystery story. In fact, the public began second-guessing Vienna’s official paperwork and news reports almost immediately.

One newspaper account from late in December 1791 held sway for generations. It suggested that the real cause of Mozart’s death was poison — that someone did him in. Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, and the early 19th century was more than ready to believe it.

They were able to find some corroboration, of sorts. In 1829, for example, an English music publisher interviewed Mozart’s widow, Constanze, then 67. She claimed that, though she herself didn’t think Mozart had been poisoned, Mozart had been convinced of it. She said he’d told her 6 months before his death that "someone has given me acqua toffana." Acqua toffana was an arsenic-based preparation.

Death Notice 1792
Death notice, 1792, unidentified newspaper
(Mozart Forum)

Mozart’s second son, Karl Thomas, was also sold on the poisoning story. He wrote years later that the painful and extreme swelling that Mozart experienced was a likely symptom of poisoning. He also pointed to Mozart’s acute foul odor around the time of death — he claimed this is the reason that the coroner didn’t carry out an autopsy — and to the fact that Mozart’s body allegedly didn’t stiffen after his passing. (It’s worth mentioning here that Karl was all of 7 years old when his father died.)

If Mozart really was poisoned, whodunnit? The most common answer: composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri allegedly confessed to the deed while ill and despondent; Beethoven’s conversation books (in which his guests wrote to him after he’d lost his hearing) contain exactly this report.

But other accounts suggest that these were nothing more than wild, unsubstantiated rumors. Certainly Salieri wasn’t prosecuted as Mozart’s murderer. Besides, what motivation would he have had? "Professional jealousy" gets the rap, but by that argument it would have made more sense for Mozart to have poisoned Salieri. After all, Salieri had a steady (and lucrative) court job, and Mozart had to scrape together pennies to pay his rent. Sad to say, by then Mozart’s career was on the wane.

If not Salieri, then whom? There was no shortage of other theories. Most of them tell us more about the writer’s attitudes than about Mozart. One rumor suggested that the Freemasons were somehow offended by The Magic Flute and its Freemasonry theme, and came after its composer. (Why not the librettist Schickaneder, too?) Others attributed his death to various alleged sinister cabals of Masons, Catholics, and Jews.

Some sources even suggested that Mozart poisoned himself. One story is that he was trying to treat a case of syphilis, and accidentally took too much mercury. This falls flat for the lack of evidence that Mozart ever had the disease. Another notion, maybe a bit more plausible, is that Mozart overdosed himself with patent medicines containing antimony.

If not poison, could it have been heart disease? Some newspaper obituaries mentioned "dropsy of the heart." Mozart did indeed suffer from edema in the weeks before his death, but his other listed symptoms don’t fit too well with that diagnosis.

One doctor’s report mentions "a deposit in the brain" — perhaps some kind of tumor. Intriguing, but again, the reported symptoms don’t support this notion.

One physician who had attended Mozart suggested "rheumatic inflammatory fever." A few years ago, this led physicians at the University of Maryland to an obvious conclusion: rheumatic fever. The University of Amsterdam researchers arrived at their strep throat theory by building on this diagnosis and by examining other health records from 1790s Vienna.

Over two centuries after Mozart’s death, the cause continues to fascinate and puzzle health experts. Since we have no way of exhuming his remains — the cemetery in which he was buried was later plowed — it’s not too likely that we’ll ever know for certain.

Further reading:

Strep throat may have killed Mozart from Reuters

What Killed Mozart? by Jan V. Hirschmann, MD


About 15 years ago, a professor of psychology stirred up the music world with the idea that listening to Mozart could make you smarter. Before the decade was out, the work of Dr Frances H. Rauscher, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, had brought forth a veritable flood of pop-psych books, tapes, and CDs promising in newspaper inserts and on television infomercials to boost your brain (or your baby’s). One enterprising author even went so far as to trademark the phrase "The Mozart Effect."

Dr Rauscher had a group of college students mentally unfold a piece of paper and try to identify its shape. She found that the students who had listened to a recording of Mozart’s K448 sonata were better and faster at the task. Dr Rauscher published the results in the journal Nature in 1993.

There were only two problems with the Mozart Effect. One was that it didn’t last: the students only held on to their newly acquired spatial skills for ten or fifteen minutes. The other problem was that when other researchers tried to verify the effect, some just couldn’t. So, over the years since, the idea that Mozart can make you smarter has lost much of its credibility.

However, a recent study has found that the Mozart Effect is real — but only for certain people. It definitely works for right-handed non-musicians.

Psychologist and Royal Holloway PhD candidate Afshin Aheadi assembled her own group of 100 university students — half musicians, half non-musicians. She had them listen to the same Mozart sonata that Dr Rausher used. Then they viewed a drawing, and were asked questions about it which forced them to mentally rotate the image.

Aheadi found that listening to Mozart helped the non-musicians with the task, but not the musicians. It seems that it’s the right hemisphere of the brain which processes spatial information. That’s the part of the brain that music tends to grab — in non-musicians. In effect, the Mozart "revved up" their right brains.

The musicians didn’t get the same right-brain boost because musicians process music with both brain hemispheres. And although the trial didn’t include any left-handed non-musicians, Aheadi’s team theorizes that they too might not get much benefit from listening to Mozart. That’s because southpaws tend to use both hemispheres of their brains more equally.

And the musicians? Mozart does them no good? Well, not exactly.

True, they didn’t get an immediate boost in their spatial processing skills from listening to Mozart. But that’s because they already had it. Thanks to their years of music study, the musicians were better at spatial processing right from the start of the test, long before the researchers ever hit the go button on the CD player. That finding confirms what we’ve known for years: early musical training improves mental ability. And that Mozart Effect lasts a lifetime.

Further reading:

A Limiting Feature of the Mozart Effect at Royal Holloway, from Sage Journals Online

Music and spatial task performance in Nature (14 October 1993)

The Mozart Effect: A Closer Look at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Spiegelgasse Today
Spiegelgasse today
(Creative Commons License Franz Jachim, Vienna)

Mozart’s 40th symphony is one of his most emotionally charged (dare I say Romantic?) works. It’s one of only two large-scale symphonies he composed in dark minor keys (the other is #25, also in g minor). And it’s one of three late, lonely symphonies that he actually meant to be played in — of all places — a casino.

The wonder is that he wrote the fortieth at all.

Over a period of 16 years (he started at age 8!) Mozart composed well over 3 dozen symphonies, and several more that were really slightly tweaked opera overtures. But once Archbishop Colloredo’s literal kick in the pants had launched Mozart into his life as a freelance musician in Vienna, he had little further use for symphonies. In the nine years he had left in this world, Mozart created only a half-dozen more.

No wonder. By 1781, when Mozart descended on Vienna, symphonies were falling out of fashion there. What the Viennese clamored for, at least at first, was Mozart at the keyboard. They filled the theatres for his operas, and for a while they even were willing to pay him handsomely – in advance, no discounts or refunds, thank you very much – for music lessons. His purse jingled a happy tune. Symphonies? There was no money to be made from them, so why write them?

He did knock out a few symphonies for specific occasions – in seven years, all of three. But the big symphonic revival came 1788. Mozart composed three more, his last, all in that one year. They’re the ones we call numbers 39, 40, and 41.

Why symphonies? Why then?

Seven years on, Vienna had begun to drift away from Mozart. The needy composer had mined the virtuoso vein voraciously, and it was nearly played out. Then there were matters over which Mozart had no control. The emperor’s reforms – exactly what Mozart admired about him – had taken money out of the pockets of the wealthy, so they were less interested in concerts and commissions. The reforms had benefitted the rising middle class, and they’d filled seats at Mozart’s concerts a few years before. But the Turkish War had sapped everyone’s resources and enthusiasm.

Mozart’s operas were still doing decent box office, but rumors circulated that the Opera would soon be disbanded. It was running a deficit, and the imperial treasury was rapidly draining away into the war. In the end, the Opera survived, but the whispering (and some actual pink slips) drove away some of the best singers – and the audiences.

Mozart’s income was sliding. But Mozart had rubbed elbows with nobility! Surely he deserved to live just as graciously as his musical colleagues – Salieri included – who had steady salaries from their court positions.

So he did. Between his profligate ways and Constanze’s worsening health (no surprise, since he kept her in a nearly constant state of pregnancy), Mozart was spiraling downward into debt. He wrote to his fellow Mason J M Puchberg, “Life becomes impossible when one must bide one’s time between various odd bits of income.”

Mozart was writing to ask Puchberg for – what else? – money. Nor was Puchberg the only one. By 1788 Mozart’s letters to his sister Maria Anna speak ever less of his full datebook, and ever more of his empty pockets.

Finally, desperate for some income, Mozart made plans for an autumn concert series. Phillipp Otto had just opened a new casino in the Spiegelgasse in Vienna. A couple of years before, Mozart had had some success with a "concerts in the casino" series at Trattner’s casino. Maybe Otto’s would work even better.

Initially Mozart sketched out a piano concerto for this series. He gave it up, though, maybe realizing that Mozart at the keyboard wasn’t quite the draw it had been. Instead, perhaps ready to try anything that might attract the jaded and uneasy Viennese, Mozart turned back to the symphonic world he’d mostly neglected.

Mozart had moved yet again, trying to cut his expenses. Although the new digs were cheaper, he now he had an idyllic garden in which to put pen to manuscript paper. There Mozart composed the turbulent 40th, along with its sunnier neighbors the 39th and 41st, during a 2-month period that summer.

Legend has it that Mozart never heard the 40th symphony performed, but that’s very unlikely. It’s tough to be certain, because Mozart’s letters, usually our best map of his musical life, are maddeningly thin on details. However, it appears that he did succeed in mounting at least one of the autumn concerts: Mozart wrote to Puchberg, offering him tickets. Alas, there’s no date on the letter. Although we’re pretty sure that Salieri used it in a benefit for the Tonkünstlersocietät in April of 1791, we may never know for sure whether Mozart’s 40th symphony was actually played where he intended it to be – in the casino in the Spiegelgasse.

Jasna Gora Monastery, Czestochowa, Poland (Photo: University of Warsaw)A manuscript cache discovered in April at a Polish monastery may contain hitherto unknown works by Mozart.

The collection, located at the Jasna Gora monastery, includes 20 manuscripts bearing Mozart’s signature. Musicologist Remigiusz Pospiech reports that 7 of the compositions found are already known as Mozart’s, and four have been identified as other composers’. Pospiech has invited scholars from the Salzburg Mozarteum to analyze the remaining nine manuscripts to determine their authenticity.

Jasna Gora, located in the town of Czestochowa in southern Poland, houses a collection of some 3000 manuscripts acquired over the centuries for the monastery’s orchestra. One of the purported Mozart works was performed during the town’s sacred music festival, Gaude Mater (Polish language page), early in May.


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