Mozart lost and found

Go to St Michael’s Church, Vienna, for a glimpse of Mozart’s world.

St Michael’s is one of the oldest churches in Vienna, Austria. It used to be the parish church of the Imperial Court.

The church is a late Romanesque, early Gothic building dating from about 1220-40. Over time, there have been many alterations, resulting in its present-day appearance, unchanged since Mozart knew it.

Its gilded pipe organ was once played by the 17-year-old Joseph Haydn and Mozart’s Requiem was performed for the first time in this church at a memorial service for the composer on 10 December 1791. One of those who attended the performance was Emanuel Schikaneder, whose libretto Mozart used for The Magic Flute in which Schikaneder had taken the role of Papageno at its premiere just three months earlier.

St Michael’s is most famous for its large crypt. Members of the nobility could access their family vaults through marble slabs marked with their coats of arms in the church floor. The coffin of a deceased member of the family could be lowered directly into the crypt via these slabs. From 1631 to 1784, about 4,000 people were buried in the crypt and today one can view hundreds of coffins adorned with flowers or skulls, as well as mummified corpses, some of them in baroque frock-coats and wigs. These were people who might have seen Mozart in the streets or known him. The most famous is Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), whom Mozart commissioned to write the libretto for his opera La clemenza di Tito.

Strange to be able to see people who had set eyes on Mozart! Stranger still to visit St Marx Cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna, where Mozart was buried in 1791. The only Biedermeier cemetery in Vienna, the inscriptions on its ivy-clad gravestones commemorate industrialists, wealthy gentry and even the wife of a sewage worker. No one knows the whereabouts of the mass grave in which Mozart was lain. When his wife Constanze visited a couple of years later, the sexton couldn’t tell her.

1786 saw the highly acclaimed premiere in Vienna of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, whose librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte with whom Mozart also collaborated on 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 his books and it is possible to hold in one’s hands a volume touched by a man who touched the hand of Mozart.

When Da Ponte died, 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 cleared and hundreds of coffins transferred to the Calvary Cemetery. No one knows if Da Ponte was among them. Ironically, Mozart and Da Ponte are both lost to posterity, while their works live on.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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