Widely recognized as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a prodigious Austrian pianist and composer of over 600 works, including operas, concertos, symphonies, and other pieces of music.
Author of several books about Mozart, including W.A. Mozart Idomeneo and Coffee with Mozart, Julian Rushton is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Leeds (UK) and Chairman of the Editorial Committee of Musica Britannica.
Simply Charly: When writing Mozart, what sort of materials did you draw on to research the great composer’s life? What made you decide to write a biography of Mozart, and who was the intended audience?
Julian Rushton: I was invited to contribute Mozart to the series The Master Musicians by the general editor, the late Stanley Sadie. He was also the editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and he had already asked me to contribute articles on Mozart and his operas for The New Grove Dictionary of Opera; he was himself at work on a major Mozart biography of which, unfortunately, only one very fine volume was completed. My Mozart is not simply a biography; it’s also an account of the music, which includes as detailed a work-list as space allowed.
I am not a professional biographer, but at about the same time I was also invited to write a shorter work, without music examples, to be entitled Mozart: an Extraordinary Life, for the series published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. What moved me to accept these invitations was the feeling that I could do a useful job by writing short books in time for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006: one with and one without illustrated discussion of the music (and not a single sentence in common!). I intended them to be scholarly but readable, and thus useful to students and music-lovers of all ages.
SC: Prior to writing Mozart, you had previously written about Mozart’s Idomeneo in a book of the same name for Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Why did you select Idomeneo, in particular, to write about? What makes Idomeneo “Mozart’s greatest opera seria?”
JR: Cambridge Opera Handbooks has covered all of Mozart’s mature operas, and I was fortunate to get in early with a book on Don Giovanni (1981), with contributions from Edward Forman and Bernard Williams. I proposed Idomeneo (1993) to the publishers because I have always found it a wonderful and fascinating work, and I wished to engage with its complex composition history, as well as musical and dramatic qualities. I wrote about half the book myself, with historical and analytical additions by Stanley Sadie, Mark Everist, Don Neville, Chris Walton, and Craig Ayrey.
To suggest that Idomeneo is “Mozart’s ‘greatest opera seria” is hardly controversial. He composed only two mature works in that genre. For Milan, before his fifteenth birthday, he had composed two admirable if conventional examples (Mitridate and Lucio Silla), as well as other works in related genres suited to courtly celebrations. Aged 19, he composed the shorter and beautiful Il re pastore, for the Salzburg court. All these operas consist predominantly of arias, with few ensembles and little choral writing. Therefore, they belong squarely within Italian traditions. For Idomeneo (1781) Mozart was offered an old French libretto, translated into Italian and modified towards Italian taste (there are fewer, but longer, arias) while retaining typically French features, including dramatic choruses. The commission was from the Munich court; the ruler had come from Mannheim and brought his famous orchestra with him. So Mozart could give free rein to his orchestral imagination as well, conjuring storms, literal and emotional, and underlining tragic conflicts.
This synthesis of elements from French and Italian traditions was not unprecedented; he knew work by other composers, notably Gluck, who had attempted a comparable synthesis. Mozart revised Idomeneo in 1786, complicating the textual situation that was already involved, as requirements of the Munich court (including a long final ballet) meant that he had to make savage cuts, especially in the third act. Modern performances usually restore some or all of these (and omit the ballet).
Mozart’s only other opera seria is the last opera he composed, La clemenza di Tito (although its premiere took place before that of Die Zauberflöte). It’s a fine work, but it was composed for a less open-minded patron and was based on an old and well-known Italian libretto by Metastasio, ‘made into a real opera,’ as Mozart put it, by his collaborator Mazzolà. La clemenza had to be written quickly, and Mozart would probably have revised it had he lived (the recitatives appear to be by one of his assistants, possibly Süssmayr, who later completed the Requiem). Its musical and dramatic qualities have often been underrated, but it still takes second place to Idomeneo among his serious operas, as it is perhaps deliberately less rich in musical invention (even so, the Empress who favored only Italian composers thought it ‘very bad’).
SC: In addition to his other works, Mozart composed 22 operas over the course of his career; his first was composed in 1767 while his last was composed in 1791. As Mozart grew older, how did his operas change in theme and style?
JR: There are 16 completed operas, three unfinished operas, one ballet, and two other pieces of theatre music that are not operas (Thamos and Der Schauspieldirektor). That’s 22 titles but not 22 operas!
There’s no deliberate change of theme if by that is implied subject matter. Throughout his career, Mozart wrote operas both serious and comic. Prior to Mitridate (1770), he composed the serious Latin Apollo et Hyacinthus and two comedies, both from 1768; one is in Italian (La finta semplice) and the other in German (Bastien und Bastienne). From time to time he expressed a wish to write more in German, but circumstances (or rather patrons) generally preferred Italian opera. Mozart was practical; he could only make his name and fortune by satisfying the market. He would have written French opera if asked, despite his distaste for French music. His last three operas sum it up: an opera buffa (drama giocoso) for the Viennese court, a German comedy for an independent theatre, and an opera seria for the coronation of the new emperor in Prague.
As for style, it’s more a case of maturing and developing technique and imagination. His earlier operas are well composed but conventional, based on obvious models. Returning from Paris in 1778, he was fully mature, and tackled Zaide and then Idomeneo; here he had the freedom to experiment (one result of which is that Idomeneo was too long and had to be cut). The emperor Joseph established a German opera company (National Singspiel) in Vienna, so Mozart wrote for it (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 1782); then Joseph established an opera buffa troupe, and Mozart wrote for that as well. In his Viennese operas, the richness of style achieved in Idomeneo was tempered by circumstances, and perhaps some criticism (if indeed the emperor did say of Die Entführung that there were too many notes). But the sharper focus on character and situation in such works as Le nozze di Figaro (1786) is ample compensation.
SC: Of Mozart’s operas, three—Zaide, L’oca del Cairo, and Lo sposo deluso—were abandoned and not performed until after Mozart’s death. Why did he neglect to finish these three in particular?
JR: ‘Neglect’ conveys a misleading impression. Professional composers could hardly afford the time to write operas unless there was a commission or at least a strong likelihood of performance.
Zaide (1779) is exceptional in that Mozart, who was back working for the Archbishop of Salzburg, seems to have written it speculatively, hoping to interest the emperor’s newly established Vienna National Singspiel. Mozart took Zaide far enough (probably two whole acts out of three, but we can’t be sure of this) for it to be completed relatively quickly had the chance arisen. When he went to live in Vienna, he offered it to the National Singspiel, but it was considered too serious. Instead, he was given a similar libretto to set (this became Die Entführung aus dem Serail and was the most widely performed of all Mozart’s operas in his lifetime).
The two fragmentary Italian comedies were begun when the emperor engaged an opera buffa troupe for the court theatre with such fine singers as Nancy Storace and Francesco Benucci. Mozart read (he told his father) some 100 librettos looking for something worth setting. Lo sposo deluso seems to be a conventional story from one of these libretti; he also tried to get a new libretto from the translator-librettist of Idomeneo. This was L’oca del Cairo (The Cairo Goose) but as a plot it seems less goose than turkey. Nevertheless, in writing and sketching large sections of these operas, and in contributing insertion arias and ensembles to operas by other composers, Mozart acquainted himself thoroughly with the opera buffa troupe and was well prepared for writing on the more ambitious and original Le nozze di Figaro.
SC: Mozart wrote his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, at the astonishing age of 11 years old. Why did he first choose to begin writing operas, especially at such a young age? Did his youth have any impact on how the opera was staged or received?
JR: Did he choose, or was he chosen? No doubt when it was suggested to him, he jumped at the idea. But there’s little doubt that if his father had said ‘no,’ he would not have done it. We know little or nothing about the staging of these very early operas. As for reception, we hardly know anything about that, either; there were no press reports. La finta semplice was received with skepticism by the opera management in Vienna who declined to perform it, but that was probably more a political or personal than an artistic decision. It was probably given a single performance in Salzburg. It’s really quite surprising that these pieces survived.
SC: When composing his operas, what did Mozart look for in a libretto? What made him choose Lorenzo da Ponte to collaborate with so often?
JR: The question seems to imply that the libretto and librettist were the composer’s choice. That was not normally the case in Mozart’s time. Most librettos were given him to set. This is obviously true when he was a child or a very young adult, although in later operas he almost certainly intervened and made improvements.
With Idomeneo, the court probably selected the old French libretto for translation and adaptation to modern tastes. Mozart’s father was still trying to exercise some control, but Mozart obtained leave to go to Munich and acted on his own (he was, of course, much more experienced in opera than either his father or the librettist Varesco, a Salzburg cleric). The first completed opera for which he may have chosen the subject was Le nozze di Figaro.
Mozart collaborated with Da Ponte only three times, admittedly more than with any other librettist. Da Ponte was the Court Poet in Vienna; if Mozart was to have his operas performed, he was the natural, if not the only, choice. And he was delighted to find in Da Ponte a poet of real gifts—intelligent, witty, prolific, and flexible in what he was willing to undertake. So Da Ponte adapted a French play for Figaro and overhauled and expanded a shorter Italian libretto as Il dissoluto punito, or Don Giovanni. He also worked for other composers; his Una cosa rara (music by Vicente Martín y Soler) was a tremendous success, followed up by L’arbore di Diana – these in the years of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte also worked for Antonio Salieri, offering him a libretto he called La scuola degli amanti (The School for lovers). Salieri began to set it but desisted, we don’t know why. Under the title Così fan tutte, and probably revised in many details, it became Mozart’s third Da Ponte opera.
SC: Was opera considered as distinguished and aristocratic in Mozart’s era as it is today? What was the opera scene like in the 18th century, and how were Mozart’s works received?
JR: I can’t say how it was considered by the population at large, but in practice in Mozart’s era, opera was more dependent on aristocratic patronage than it is today, and less dependent on simply selling tickets. Aristocratic patronage elides with state subsidy, since the states where Mozart worked (Salzburg, Bavaria, Austria, Bohemia) were run by hereditary or elective princes. Nowadays, though some are expensive, opera tickets are available to anyone prepared to pay.
The reception of Mozart’s operas was generally good (contrary to romantic ideas of a misunderstood genius), but they were not as readily assimilated as those of some of his contemporaries, notably Giovanni Paisiello and Martín y Soler. We know little about the operas that premiered in Salzburg, which were not given elsewhere. In Milan his operas were well received, but ran for only one season, as was often the case for other composers: nearly all the repertory was new every year (how different from today). Mozart’s father reported with pride that Ascanio in Alba was better received than the larger opera given that season by the senior German composer of Italian opera, Johann Adolf Hasse. But no further commissions were offered in Italy after Lucio Silla in the 1772-3 season.
Idomeneo was admired by its first audience, as far as one can tell, but had few performances. Die Entführung was well received and was periodically revived in Vienna and widely performed in Germany. Figaro may have been slower to catch on, perhaps because its political content, or that of the play on which it is based, made impresarios cautious. But it did well in its first run in Vienna and still more so when revived in 1789. It was a triumph in Prague at the end of 1786 and led to the commission for Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague in 1787. Don Giovanni was considered difficult by the Viennese, but was soon taken up by German theatres, often in translation and with the recitatives replaced by spoken dialogue. If payment for performances had been on a royalty footing, Mozart might have become rich. Così fan tutte was well received but perhaps less well appreciated than the operas of Martín y Soler and Paisiello.
In 1790, Mozart contributed to an opera for Emanuel Schikaneder’s somewhat less fashionable, but popular, theatre (Theater an der Wieden): Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosopher’s Stone). Then, in 1791, for the same troupe he composed Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). This was a triumph, which he lived just long enough to enjoy. After his death, it and Don Giovanni were his most widely admired operas once a fashion for La clemenza di Tito had passed. The other Da Ponte operas were not forgotten (but appeared to some, such as Beethoven, to be frivolous and even immoral, with the plot of Così fan tutte occasionally sanitized). But Mozart was famous for more than writing operas; his quartets, symphonies, and Requiem, all helped keep his name in the public eye while his contemporaries’ music fell into disuse; and so his operas were frequently revived and, in some cases, revered.
In the 19th century, operas were frequently revived with cuts and music borrowed from other operas – not necessarily by the original composer (a fashion consistent with practice in Mozart’s own time: he contributed to several operas by other composers, as did Joseph Haydn in Eszterháza). The move towards textual ‘authenticity’ (Werktreue) came later in the 19th century, confirmed by what were considered ‘definitive’ published texts in complete editions. The comprehensive revival of Mozart that we take for granted today began in the early 20th century, and versions of Idomeneo in its 150th included a radical recomposition by Richard Strauss. It is only quite recently that such works as the 1775 Munich opera buffa La finta giardiniera, Idomeneo, and La clemenza di Tito have become, if not repertory pieces, at least quite frequently revived.
SC: In the introduction to your book Coffee with Mozart, you refer to The Magic Flute as “the foundation stone of German opera.” What specific aspects define “German opera,” and how did The Magic Flute encapsulate them?
JR: First, the language of the libretto must be German. A growing sense of national consciousness led to a rejection of much within earlier German culture that was considered to be of Italian origin (including opera seria). The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) and German versions of Don Giovanni were used to claim Mozart as a truly German composer in the 19th century (though, paradoxically, Die Zauberflöte was also translated into Italian as Il flauto magico: London was one wealthy center that seldom presented opera in any other language).
Die Zauberflöte is not, of course, the first important German opera even by Mozart himself. But it was not composed for a court theatre (as was Die Entführung). Its mixture of high seriousness, including quasi-religious ritual with comedy, and realism with the supernatural, connects it to traditions that could be perceived as German (though matters are rarely that simple and the influence of Italian street theatre – commedia dell’arte—cannot be excluded). It also evokes German musical seriousness (notably the Bach-like chorale sung before the trials by fire and water), as well as incorporating popular musical idioms, mainly in the role of Papageno (first performed by the theatre manager, Schikaneder). This is less a matter of priority than of the genius that mixed these elements into something audiences found and still find irresistible, and several of these elements reappear in the next archetypical German opera, Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber, a cousin of Mozart’s wife (whereas Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, is based on a French libretto). In turn, Weber was a major influence on Richard Wagner.
SC: What was the influence of mythology on Mozart’s operas? Was it common for composers to draw on Greek mythology for the opera, as Mozart did in Apollo et Hyacinthus?
JR: Mythology has little to do with comic opera and in the 18th century most opera seria was not mythological, but based in history (Mitridate, Lucio Silla, and La clemenza di Tito are representative examples). Such operas excluded supernatural intervention in the plot. But a type of court entertainment in Italian, usually called festa teatrale or azione teatrale, with music in the aria-based idioms of opera seria, did draw on Greek or Roman mythology as a way of celebrating the virtues of a local prince. Examples are Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione (for Salzburg) and Ascanio in Alba (for Milan). This type of opera is best known from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna, 1762). This (written for the Viennese court) preceded his more ambitious Alceste, where he and his librettist Calzabigi attempted to reform Italian opera by, among other things, incorporating elements from French opera. The subject had been treated in the previous century by Lully.
French opera, in contrast to Italian opera of the 18th century, retained and recycled mythological subjects, and gods or demigods take part alongside mere mortals, as in the operas of Lully and Rameau. The choice by the Munich court of a French libretto as the basis for Idomeneo accounts for it being mythological (the story is part of the sequel to the Trojan War, like Gluck’s Iphigenia operas) and for its supernatural elements – the storm, the hero’s rash vow, the apparition of a sea monster, the oracle of Neptune.
Of Mozart’s later Italian operas, only Don Giovanni involves the supernatural (the walking statue and chorus of demons that punish the dissolute ‘hero’). Don Juan could be considered a modern myth. Much of its history lies in the popular theatre but the story had previously been used in operas, and there was a fine Don Juan ballet (1761) composed by Gluck. Die Zauberflöte is also a subject dependent on magic, as its name implies. Despite precedents in mystical literature and popular theatre, and references to Egyptian deities, it is essentially a myth invented for the purposes of the opera, like its predecessor Der Stein der Weisen.
SC: Another Mozart scholar, Robert Greenburg, has remarked: “Much of today’s Mozart scholarship is about debunking myths.” Do you generally find this to be the case? What are the “myths” of Mozart, and how have they been propagated?
JR: Certainly a lot of modern Mozart scholarship does debunk myths, or tries to (they are often revived).
One primary myth concerns Mozart’s genius, as if his method of composition verged on the supernatural. His music is superlatively good, but his methods were quite normal, including sketching and drafting prior to completing a full score, and he was prepared to revise his music to accommodate singers, and to publish versions with ornamentation not present in the original notation. A letter is still sometimes cited concerning his ability to compose every detail and carry works around in his head until the time came to write them down. This has been known for over 150 years to be a crude forgery.
Another primary myth is that Mozart was neglected in his lifetime. Today we see only Joseph Haydn as his equal, but for most of his contemporaries Mozart was one among many aspiring composers, and his supreme qualities were less obvious. Moreover, his music could seem difficult, as he sometimes stretched the boundaries of the permissible. Consider the finales to Don Giovanni: in the first, three small orchestras play simultaneously in different dance meters, and in the second, the harmony for the walking statue can still amaze us, as well as its orchestration with trombones, which hardly ever appeared in opera buffa. Notwithstanding his considerable learning (including studies of J.S. Bach and Handel) and his adventurousness in harmony, Mozart’s music had many admirers in his lifetime. Plenty of his music was published and other pieces circulated in manuscript copies. Even before his death, there were many discriminating people who regarded him as an exceptional genius, and not just because of his earlier fame as a child prodigy.
There is a myth attached to the last three symphonies, composed in 1788: the story is that he wrote them out of artistic compulsion and never heard them. History hasn’t divulged all the details, but we know he was planning to give concerts in the following season. Before his death, a number of concerts included symphonies by Mozart, and although the programs don’t say which, there are reports of them being ‘new.’ So he wrote them with a purpose, and probably did hear them.
The myth of his death: there is no reason to suppose he was murdered. He died of natural causes – a severe fever. And he was not living in penury, although he probably ran up debts in supporting his family (there were six children, although only two survived infancy; his wife needed expensive medical care) and possibly by gambling. He borrowed money but probably paid much of it back when fees came in. He had a salary from the imperial court and was in line to become organist of Vienna’s Cathedral of St Stephen.
It is no myth that he was cut down at the height of his career, with every chance of growing fame and fortune. But dying mid-way through composing a Requiem appealed to the Romantic Age. His widow proved a skillful propagandist and did not quash fantastic stories about the origins of the Requiem. As for Salieri, Mozart had more reason to poison him that he to poison Mozart. Salieri was better placed in court circles and had no aspiration to write German operas; he saw Die Zauberflöte and praised it warmly. If in his dotage he muttered something about poisoning Mozart, it was surely a metaphor. But this led to the play by Pushkin, made into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and the kernel of a modern play and film, Amadeus (there’s another myth: the name. Mozart wrote it as Amadè or Gottlieb, and was officially Theophilus, all meaning ‘god-loving’).