MOZART Italian Opera Company of Chicago


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1756-1791

Essays on Mozart's Life & Works
Don Giovanni: Comedy or Tragedy?
   
Perhaps the greatest musical genius that ever lived was born Johannes Chrysostomus Gottlieb Wolfgangus Mozart on January 27, 1756 in Salzburg. The German "Gottlieb" name was changed to the Greco-Latin "Theophilus" (after a merchant who was Mozart's godfather) for the Baptism. Both names can be translated as "beloved of God." The Italian version of this name, which Mozart preferred and began using on one of his Italian excursions in about 1770, is "Amadeo." In turn, the Latin version of this name is "Amadeus." This is the middle name by which he became best known during his lifetime. 
   

Leopold Mozart

Mozart's father, Leopold (1719-1887) was a violinist in the court of Archbishop Count Hieronymus von Colleredo (1732-1812). In those days, many cities like Salzburg in Eastern Europe were tiny fiefdoms that were either ecclesiastical, or secular. If, like Salzburg, a city were ecclesiastical, it was ruled by a bishop, archbishop or some other kind of clergyman who paid homage to the Pope in Rome. The secular entities were ruled by dukes, barons, or princes who owed their allegiance to the Emperor in Vienna. Whether ecclesiastical or secular, the rulers of these cities were absolute tyrants, that held the power of life and death over all their subjects.

Archbishop Colloredo
Archbishop Colloredo


The courts of these petty princes included musicians, who were servants equivalent in rank to cooks. When Wolfgang was born, it was expected that he, like his father, would serve the Archbishop as a musician for his entire life. It was not surprising that Leopold's son would exhibit a certain amount of musical talent at a young age, but when the three-year-old boy began to play everything he heard from memory as best he could on the harpsichord (especially the lesson studies of his older sister), Leopold realized that Wolfgang was a prodigy of the highest order. So Leopold sought to both exploit his son's ability and to ensure that Wolfgang would be rewarded for his incredible talent.

The Mozarts -- nannerl, Wolfgang and Leopold
"Nannerl," Wolfgang & Leopold

From 1762 to 1767 Leopold took Wolfgang and his sister, Maria Anna "Nannerl" (1751-1829), to many of the leading cities of Europe, including Vienna, Prague, Munich, Mannheim, Paris and London, where their royal hosts were astonished by Wolfgang's musical prowess at the violin and keyboard. It was during these years that the boy was known as Das Wunderkind. At the same time, Leopold foresaw the time when Wolfgang would get older and the novelty of being a child prodigy would wear off. In those days, Italian opera was the dominant form of entertainment in the various royal courts of Europe. Determined that Wolfgang would not only succeed, but prosper, as a composer, Leopold received permission from the Archbishop to make three tours of Italy in the years from 1769-1773 so that Wolfgang would learn first hand how to compose Italian opera.
 

Travels in Italy

During his Italian travels Mozart became fluent in the language and continually impressed his hosts wherever he went, all the while soaking up the warm sun and the techniques and nuances of opera, the art that had taken the civilized world by storm. As evidence of his fabulous musical ability is the story of Mozart in Rome.

W.A. Mozart in Italy
Mozart in Italy

 


It is said that he was invited to the Sistine Chapel for a performance of a Miserere. When the performance ended, the story goes, Mozart asked to see the score. When his request was refused, he boasted that he remembered it anyway and was directly challenged to prove it on the spot. Mozart responded by writing out the entire score note-for-note.

His reputation now legendary, when he arrived in Bologna, he was quickly made a member of the city's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica. Perhaps the ultimate demonstration of Italian respect is that Mozart, although still in his teens, was commissioned to compose three operas for Milan's Teatro Ducale, the predecessor of La Scala.
Joseph II
Joseph II
Antonio Salieri
Antonio Salieri
  Francesco Benucci
Francesco Benucci


Mozart in Vienna


When Mozart unceremoniously left the service of Archbishop Colleredo and arrived in Vienna in 1781, he was filled with confidence and was initially welcomed by the Emperor, Joseph II (1741-1790), with great fanfare. From the leading (mostly Italian) members of the Viennese musical establishment that were currently favored by the Emperor, however, the reception was not quite so warm. Given the extraordinary popularity of Italian opera with the nobility of Europe, most of the major cities hosted cliques of Italian composers, poets and singers who were relied on to produce operas on request. These Italians were naturally influential, well paid individuals who jealously strove to preserve their positions. The most prominent Italian musician in Vienna was Court Composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), who is reputed to have directly conspired against Mozart. In retrospect, it is understandable that Italians would resent a native Austrian whose ability to compose Italian opera was far greater than their own, but today it is fashionable to downplay any conflict between Mozart and Salieri, despite all the evidence. In any case, from 1781 to 1786, while Mozart in Vienna composed symphonies, concertos, sacred music, sonatas and chamber music and became known as the best keyboard player in the city, he was effectively frozen out of the lucrative Italian opera business.

Lorenzo da Ponte

lorenzo da Ponte
Lorenzo da Ponte

Fortunately for Mozart and posterity, there was one Italian that valued the opportunity to collaborate with Mozart more than preserving a "united front" against him. This was Imperial Poet Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838). Considering the grandiose tone of the poet's Memoirs, we can assume that his decision to approach Mozart was based on a deep desire to attain artistic immortality. He was certain that Mozart was a far greater composer than any of his Italian rivals and that associating his name with Mozart's offered him the best chance of achieving that lofty goal. Da Ponte must have been a bit surprised when Mozart joyfully proposed Le nozze di Figaro (1786) for their first opera. The play on which the opera is based, Le Mariage de Figaro (1784) by Beaumarchais (1732-1799) had been banned from the stage in Vienna for political reasons. But da Ponte used his influence with the emperor to get the royal approval for the project. Despite its brilliant music and the casting of celebrated bass, Francesco Benucci  (1745-1824), in the title role, Figaro was not a great success in Vienna. But it triumphed mightily in Prague, and its incredible popularity there led directly to the next Mozart-da Ponte Italian opera, Don Giovanni (1787), which was premiered to wild acclaim in the Bohemian capital.

When Mozart returned to Vienna in November of 1787 he was finally appointed Imperial Court Composer, but it was several years before he received a commission for another Italian opera, until after the successful Viennese revival of Le nozze di Figaro. Working one final time with da Ponte, Mozart composed yet another masterpiece, the comic Cosė fan tutte (1790), an opera that probably would have been performed many times but had to be cancelled abruptly with the untimely death of Joseph II.
 

When we speak of "opera" today, we are usually referring to those works which constitute the "standard repertoire," a group of about 50, mostly Italian, works that are performed more than any other operas by major companies worldwide. The oldest operas in this group are the three Mozart-da Ponte works. Produced some two centuries after the first opera in 1597, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosė fan tutte represent a decisive turning point in opera composition. (Note that this revolutionary period also signaled a catastrophic turning point in Western society.) In other words, from Mozart on, opera was different than it had been. There are many reasons for this, some artistic and some social, but the most striking aspect of these operas is that their characters are "real," and that these connect directly with their audience on an emotional and psychological level that they had not done before. This is difficult for us to comprehend because we have never experienced drama any other way. It was owing to Mozart's uncanny ability to vividly depict a character, and his or her full range of emotions, with music, that characters of an opera were perceived as actual, regular people for the first time.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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