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mozart-bertramka
Bertramka is now a Mozart Museum. Photo: Raymond Johnston
March 29, 2024

Mozart: Locked In at Bertramka?

Local Prague legends say that W. A. Mozart was locked in a room at least twice in the Bohemian capital as a playful exercise to compel him to compose something. The fruits of this seemingly involuntary confinement are thought to have been his 6 German Dances, K509, and on a later occasion, his scena for soprano, Bella mia fiamma, K58. The locations for both works are listed as Prague in the Köchel catalogue, but is there any evidence to support the legends?

Like all traditions, they contain at least one particular truth. Composition in a locked room was, of course, something which Mozart had experienced before, as a test of his genius. It was part of the examination process, so he was admitted to the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna in 1770. This particular requirement had entailed the young Wolfgang being taken to an adjoining room to the Hall of the Academy, with the door locked after he had been escorted there. On this occasion, the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang successfully completed a setting in four parts to an antiphon he had been given. 

To examine the possible truth of these legends, we need to look closer at Mozart’s movements and the dating of the pieces according to the Köchel catalogue. We will probably never know the true nature of what happened, but in exploring the context in which these pieces were said to have been written, we can at least test their possibility. Mozart’s 6 German Dances, K509, are dated 6 February 1787 in Prague, exactly two months since the composition of K504, his Symphony No. 38 in D, the ‘Prague’, which he wrote in Vienna. By the time of the composition of the 6 German Dances, Wolfgang was in Prague itself, a journey he undertook in January 1787 with his wife Constanze in answer to an invitation he had received to conduct a performance of Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart and Constanze set out for Vienna on 12 February, so the 6 Dances were written just under a week before they departed from Prague, where he had during this visit; he also directed a concert featuring his Symphony ‘Prague’

Mozart’s letter to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin, dated 15 January 1787 from Prague, is the only letter that survived this first visit to Prague and is the most critical account of the journey. Mozart describes in his letter a certain musical restlessness whilst staying in Count Thun’s palace in the Lesser Town, referring to one morning spent without composing a single line. However, a pianoforte had most thoughtfully been placed in his guest room, which he used later that day (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, 520). Leopold’s letters preserved at the Mozarteum to his daughter Nannerl, now Maria Anna Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, between 2 and 9 February 1787 do not mention the composition of the 6 Dances and nor should there have been any real reason for doing so. The letter to Jacquin predates the composition of the 6 Dances. Notably, when Mozart wrote the supremely significant Don Giovanni premiere, there were minimal references to the actual music of the opera. 

The Smetana Hotel in Prague, formerly the Pachtuv Palace, actively promotes the tradition that it was here that Mozart composed his six dances, which I have already explored as part of the present series. The Mozart Suite is, by tradition, in those rooms that Mozart occupied for some short period and, within them, where he was locked to compel him to compose. According to the Smetana, ‘In this suite, situated in the original 17th century Palace — former residence of the noble Pachta family, Mozart himself composed his Six German Dances for the Count Pachta during one of their famous family matinees’. I have been unable, as yet, to discover any evidence for this popular story, and it is realistic to assume that no proof exists. It is the kind of story that is now important for its value in local folklore, but equally, on these grounds, it is impossible to refute. It is certainly possible that the dances were written at the Pachtuv Palace, given the fact that Mozart numbered Major General Johann Joseph Philipp Pachta von Rayhofen, usually referred to as simply ‘Pachta’, as one of his Prague friends. For example, he mentioned going to call on him directly during the Prague visit of 1789 but found him not at home, which implies that he had been to his town palace before. Mozart does not refer to visiting ‘Pachta’ on the first 1787 visit in his letter to von Jacquin, but this is in itself not unusual, given that Mozart rarely details his movements in any depth in his surviving letters from Prague.

The contredanses that Mozart wrote for Count Pachta and the six German dances K509 (dated 6 February 1787) are almost certainly the sole works that Mozart wrote on this first trip to Prague; at least one of Mozart’s biographers makes the apparent distinction between the 6 German Dances and the contredanses written for Count Pachta (Hermann Abert, W. A. Mozart, 1014).

The second tradition of being ‘locked in’ has received widespread attention because of words attributed to Mozart’s eldest surviving son, Carl Thomas. These should be treated with the proper caution of any recollection recorded much later, whilst bearing in mind that Carl Thomas may have been repeating information told to him by someone other than his father, Mozart. Carl Thomas Mozart received part of his education under Franz Xaver Niemetschek in Prague between 1792 and 1797 and, importantly, received piano instruction in Prague from none other than one of the Duscheks (Abert, 1340), the same Duscheks who owned the villa at Bertramka. Therefore, he may have been recalling things told to him in Prague of the 1790s, a Prague which very much remembered his father and had deeply mourned his death in 1791. More letters have come to light by Carl Thomas in recent years, such as a letter from him to Alois Taux from Milan, dated 4 April 1856, the year of the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, in which the anecdote about Bella mia fiamma was published (Ibid, 1340).

The date of the scena for soprano, Bella mia fiamma, K528, is dated 3 November 1787, Prague in Köchel. This composition’s date is exciting and points me to a drive to compose after expending gigantic creative energy with the premiere of his ‘Prague’ opera, Don Giovanni, on 29 October 1787. After composing Bella mia fiamma, he wrote a letter to von Jacquin from Prague dated 4 November 1787 and, in typical Mozartian fashion, devoted only a tiny part of the letter to the actual premiere. However, importantly, it is the opening subject of his missive. In the letter, Mozart refers to an ‘aria’ that he will give von Jacquin when he returns to Vienna, although it has not been identified. He does refer to a ‘song’ in an added passage to the letter on 9 November 1787, which could perhaps be Das Traumbild K530, which Mozart wrote in Prague on 6 November 1787 (Ibid, 532) or possibly his song Des kleinen Friedrichs Geburtstag, K529, also dated by Mozart at Prague on the same day. Des kleinen Friedrichs Geburtstag was itself from the work Kinderbibliothek by the writer and poet Johann Eberhard Friedrich Schall and, as recent research has shown, also partially by Campe and ‘Das Traumbild’ – a setting to the eponymous work by Hölty (Hermann Abert, W. A. Mozart, 1024). 

The words attributed to Carl Thomas have encouraged the tradition that Bella mia fiamma was penned for Josepha Duschek at none other than Bertramka, the Duschek villa in the Prague district of Smichov, which has a long-standing romantic association with Mozart, although with scant documentary proof. I endorse the theory that Mozart visited but only stayed for part of his second Prague sojourn, not least because the Smichov district was less practical with all his commitments prior to the premiere of Don Giovanni, which had been postponed on at least two occasions. Aside from his main accommodation, Bertramka would have been a welcome respite for peace. Besides this, Mozart is known to have stayed in the House at the Three Golden Lions, a convenient short walk from the theatre where the premiere occurred. Josepha Duschek was believed to have locked Mozart in a room at Bertramka to entice him to compose something. There were instruments exhibited there when the Mozart Museum was opened in 1956, and at least one pianoforte into the 1970s. These instruments were part of a more comprehensive collection of Mozart memorabilia, forming part of the tradition that binds Mozart’s music to the villa.

Franz Duschek was an extremely accomplished keyboard player and was considered as such amongst Prague’s sophisticated musical public, having received instruction under Wagenseil (Abert, 1010); his wife Josepha was also an excellent player. It was at Bertramka that Mozart was thought to have composed the scena for Josepha, having written an earlier scena, a recitative and aria for soprano for her, Ah, lo previdi – Ah, t’invola agl’occhi miei, K272, whilst in Salzburg, dated August 1777. Popular tradition has often maintained that Mozart worked on Don Giovanni at Bertramka while he was visiting. If so, the composition of the scena represented a calmer inspiration after the extraordinary success of Don Giovanni. Musically, this extremely fine and difficult scena follows on nicely from the rich complexity of Don Giovanni, premiered only five days earlier. 

Leopold Mozart did not admire Josepha Duschek’s voice for one, at least according to his letter to his daughter Nannerl, dated 18 April 1786: ‘Mme Duschek sang, how? – I cannot help it, she screamed an aria by Naumann in a quite astonishing way, with exaggerated powers of expression, just as she did before, only worse…’ Leopold was in no doubt as to where the fault lay: ‘Who is to blame? Her husband, who knows no better, has taught her and continues to teach her, convincing her that she alone has true taste‘ (cit., Albert, 1011).

The sense of mischief in the Duschek-Mozart relationship seems to have been present from the beginning, at least according to a letter from Leopold from 28 September 1777 – the year that Mozart first met Josepha Duschek. They described Mozart as ‘now more of a scamp than ever’ but that he should go ‘directly or indirectly to Prague, where he will always be given a warm welcome’ (cit., Albert, 1011). The writer Tomislav Volek suggests that ‘Bella mia fiamma’ was composed by Mozart as a ‘reward’ to his hostess Josepha Duschek after the premiere (Tomislav Volek, ‘What did Prague mean for Mozart?’).

Carl Thomas Mozart’s words were published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, vol 4, 198-199. The story was attributed to ‘Mozart’s son’ by the Berliner Musik-Zeitung in this 1856 issue – in Carl Thomas’s lifetime – he died as the sole surviving child of Mozart two years later, on 31 October 1858 in Milan, leaving numerous mementoes of his father to the Mozart-Museum on Salzburg. His younger brother, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, had died in 1844 at Karlovy Vary. The journal, therefore, did not name Carl Thomas Mozart specifically, but by the time the story was published, he was the sole child of Mozart still living. The words have been published variously in translation and translated back into German sources and are, therefore, no longer reliable. I managed to consult a copy of the original Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo (1856) and found in it the important preface to the words:

Milan. The following anecdote might not be found in any of Mozart’s many biographies. The source is Mozart’s son, who relates it in a letter of the 4th to [ ] Popelka, owner of the villa Petranka [sic].

Lambert Popelka – an admirer of Mozart – purchased the Bertramka estate at auction, and according to Czech information, it was Popelka’s son Adolf who commissioned the bust of Mozart by Thomas Seidan, which stood in the garden at Bertramka. The Benezit Dictionary of Artists states that the Czech sculptor Thomas Seidan was born in Prague in 1830 and studied under J. von Myslbek. Adolf Popelka organized a celebratory gathering for the centenary of Don Giovanni’s premiere in the gardens of Bertramka in 1887. So sacred were the visits of Mozart considered to have been at the villa that Popelka is even thought to have left specific instructions that the rooms Mozart had occupied at Bertramka were never to be inhabited but remain instead as a shrine in his memory. On the death of Popelka’s widow in 1918, the villa passed to Mathilda Sliwenská, who, in turn, bequeathed it to the Mozarteum.

In order to discover the reason for Carl Thomas’s letter, I researched the original in a document held at the Salzburg Mozarteum’s Bibliotheca Mozartiana. The letter is dated 4 March 1856 and kept within the record for Briefe vom Bertramhof, Prag, Jänner 1944, 1944,1 – S. (1-4)

[Letters from the Bertramhof, Prague, January 1944] (sadly, ‘Bertramhof’ refers to the Germanized name assigned to Bertramka during the Nazi occupation of Prague. A copy of the letter is held in the National Library of the Czech Republic. 

In Briefe vom Bertramhof, I could confirm my assumption that it had been Lambert Popelka who wrote first to Carl Thomas Mozart, and it was to mark a significant occasion, which explains the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo date – 1856. Prague wanted to celebrate the centenary of Mozart’s birth in 1756; Popelka applied to Carl Thomas as Mozart’s sole surviving son for a description of the Bertramhof from the period of the 1790s, when Carl Thomas remembered it. Consulting the original text allowed me also to see that Popelka’s letter to Carl Thomas was dated 23 February, so Carl Thomas took time to recall in detail before responding. He dated his reply on 4 March 1856.

Carl Thomas came to Prague in his eighth year and remained there until the age of fourteen, a considerable period of time. The Mozartgemeinde in Prague published Carl Thomas’s letter to Popelka in January 1944; in issue 1 of that year, its publication was priced at 3 K. It was printed in the original German.

The letter from Carl Thomas contains loving details of Bertramka as a place familiar to him despite the distance in space and time. He refers to these childhood memories as pleasant and present in both mind and memory. Touchingly, he tells us that even after fifty-nine years, he would know the place blindfolded. He maintains that each room and corner of the garden is incredibly preserved in his memory.

His memories become more focal as to his father and the story of the Duschek scena. Carl Thomas describes the Bertramka garden, where there was a flower parterre and a hilly walk surrounded by fruit trees on the left side. The lower part of the Bertramka estate, which contained the fruit garden, was the source of extraordinary memories for Carl Thomas and probably refers to the so-called ‘Pelletische Garten’, also the property of Josepha Duschek and close to the villa. On the right side was a bassin and glasshouse and, finally, a mount used for agricultural purposes, from which there was a view of the nearby cemetery and at whose summit was a pavilion.

The words of Carl Thomas in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo are different from those of the original text at the Mozarteum. For example, the former refers to Mme Duschek locking in ‘the great Mozart’ (Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, Vols 1855-56, pp. 198-99), but understandably, Carl Thomas refers directly to Mozart as his father. What now becomes apparent is that the Zeitung paraphrases the words of Carl Thomas instead.

Carl Thomas tells us that in the villa above, Madame Duschek had already prepared ink, quill and notepaper and here kept his father locked in, intimating to him that he should not regain his freedom until he had delivered the aria that he had promised her, on the words’ Bella mia fiamma addio!’, which he didTo avenge himself for what had occurred, Mozart brought considerable technical difficulties into the aria and then threatened Duschek that he would destroy the aria immediately if she failed to perform it faultlessly at first sight.

Bertramka still redounds with rich associations of Mozart’s presumed visits to his friends. The roads Duskova (Duschek’s name in the original Czech) and the Mozartova are close to Bertramka. Unless more concrete evidence comes to light, it is possible to confirm that Mozart wrote either his 6 German Dances or the aria ‘Bella mia fiamma’ under ordinary circumstances. Carl Thomas’s anecdote gives the strongest case for this tradition, which must originate from somewhere, but crucially, Carl Thomas does not say where it came from.

Mozart’s first Prague visit left little time for composition. If the aria was indeed written for Josepha Duschek, it was composed and dated 3 November 1787, which places it precisely five days after the premiere of Don Giovanni. Mozart’s letter to Jacquin was written the day after the date of the aria’s composition; ‘the aria’ requested by Jacquin is suggested by Bauer and Deutsch in their Briefe und Aufzeichnungen (1962) as referring possibly to KV 621a. This is, in turn, listed in Köchel as ‘Anh. 245, 621a, Aria for Bass, ‘lo ti lascio, o cara, addio’, with its place of writing as ‘Prague?’, although this is from the later 1791 visit, in connection with La clemenza di Tito, K621.

Whether written in a locked room or not, what can be stated with reasonable certainty is that these pieces were at least penned in Prague, so the city that so loved Mozart can at least claim them as its own.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2024

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