A Mozartian pilgrimage (Prague)

It is 255 years since the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and 220 years since his death. BBC’s Radio 3 began the New Year with 12 days of wall-to-wall Köchel numbers. Not to be outdone, here is my own small tribute to the genius of Salzburg.

1786 saw the highly acclaimed première in Vienna of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Later that year its reception in Prague was even warmer and this led to a second collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, this time on the opera Don Giovanni. Many years later Da Ponte ended up in New York where he opened a bookstore, taught Italian literature at Colombia University, and died in 1838. Colombia’s library has a collection of some of his books, so it is possible to hold in one’s hands a book touched by the man who undoubtedly touched the hand of Mozart.

When Da Ponte (left) died, a Requiem mass was held in New York’s old Catholic cathedral after which he was buried in St John’s cemetery in the Bowery. No monument was ever erected and a half-century later no records existed that could identify the grave. In 1903 Manhattan’s Catholic burial grounds were subject to a mass clearance and hundreds of coffins transferred to the Calvary Cemetery. No one knows if Da Ponte was among them, which is ironic because Mozart was similarly mislaid. More of that in my next blog.

In 1787 the opera Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theatre in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Da Ponte’s libretto was billed as a dramma giocoso, a term denoting a mix of serious and comic action. The work was conducted by Mozart himself and was rapturously received by the public. It is reported that Casanova was in the audience. Certainly he knew both Mozart and Da Ponte and his surviving papers – not always reliable – suggest that he had a hand in revising the opera’s libretto.

The Estates Theatre is one of the most elegant theatre buildings in Europe. It was built by the aristocratic Count Nostitz Rieneck and officially opened in 1783 with performances of the tragedy Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Lessing. In 1948 the theatre was renamed the Tyl Theatre (after the Czech nationalist writer) and was known as such until 1990 when, after eight years of refurbishment, it became known once again as the Estates.

In 1992 I visited Prague and decided to try to see the theatre. It was closed. Walking around the outside, I espied the stage door and decided to ring the bell. A small woman dressed in black appeared and I, not speaking a word of Czech, gave her to understand in fractured German that I was an English conductor (true) who was departing her beautiful city later that day (not quite true) and could I possibly see where Mozart had conducted the première of Don Giovanni?

She invited me inside and pointed to a seat. After a few minutes a bulky uniformed man loomed into sight, jangling a huge bunch of keys and beckoning ominously – like the Commendatore himself. He indicated that I should follow him and in the course of the next hour showed me the entire newly renovated building, gleaming with golden plasterwork and glowing with warm red velvet. My tour was inclusive: the washrooms, the administrative offices, the bars, every backstage nook and cranny, and, finally, the orchestra pit. With a gesture of triumph, my Commendatore pointed a stubby finger at a small wooden platform on the floor and enunciated in a stentorian voice, “Mozart!”

I ended this most memorable of visits standing on the very spot where Mozart conducted Don Giovanni.


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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