Mozart letter
Reproduced with permission of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Mozart’s Letters and Prague

in Culture

Mozart’s letters are unique. Like those of any composer, we are given a rare insight into the man behind the music, in his own words. We are so used to ‘hearing’ Mozart regarding a symphony or an aria; far less do we listen to him outside of the realm of music, to hear what he had actually to say. In the case of his letters, we do not hear a libretto but Mozart’s own words; it is indeed Mozart talking.

Various attempts have been made to compare Mozart’s manuscripts with his letters, in the search for possible similarities in his creative processes which might be representational of both structural and stylistic patterns in his individual oeuvre. Mozart’s manuscripts have successfully given the lie to the popular myth that they were originally written without correction, lending false weight to the idea that his work was still that of the mature Salzburg Wunderkind, dictated at first hearing from God. Unsurprisingly, his letters are those of a human; in other words, of the man, that of course, co-existed alongside the composer, which made up his identity as a whole. These letters are part of the ephemera of his daily life, affording an insight into a world that is all the more fascinating because of its ‘ordinariness’; amidst a letter to a close friend, he refers seemingly casually (but importantly as part of the letter’s opening sentence): “My opera Don Giovanni was staged on 29. October and met with the tremendous acclaim.”

Importantly, Mozart’s letters form part of the collage of Mozart, the composer, the life. They are part of what makes him for us, a man and not a statue; they add flesh to the myth, instead of marble, the stuff of gods.

Mozart’s surviving letters from Prague are a consequence of the musician; written as if he knows that his true talent lies not in letters; he writes mostly to communicate; the letters lend a practical side to his genius. By contrast, his emotional letter from Paris to his father, Leopold Mozart describing the death of his mother, Maria Anna Mozart in 1778, is a miracle of simplicity, all the more poignant because of the moving way in which he relays the event to his family, far from home. His letters to his cousin, Maria Thekla Mozart – the so-called ‘Bäsle-Briefe’ – are a separate case in point and whilst their style has shocked those unable to equate a composer of soaring musical serenity with the content contained within them, they nevertheless help Mozart himself to remind us of his humanness, as well as what was probably a much-needed outlet with which to vent his considerable frustration from the constant pressure of creativity. They also prove that letters for Mozart had not always just been to communicate news.

The style of Mozart’s letters from Prague is practical too; symptomatic of the man on the move, stopping to describe for example, where he stopped en route, where he had posted his letters, who he met and to a lesser extent, what he did. Mozart’s peripatetic letters are not written with that careful eye for posterity and contemporaneous curiosity that had accompanied those missives sent home by his father, Leopold Mozart to Salzburg, in the hope that they would be treated like news bulletins to the family’s circle of acquaintances back home. In fact, his letters on these musical journeys are perhaps the best testament to his busy lifestyle, preparing for an opera, giving a concert, visiting a friend; sometimes there is a sense of his grabbing his pen only when he has time, to which he admitted in a letter from Prague to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin back in Vienna: “I’ve finally found a moment to write to you…” Indeed, he elaborated that he had meant to write four letters but only wrote one: “and even this was only half written. – My wife and Hofer [the imperial court violinist who accompanied them to Prague] had to finish it”. (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, Pg 520, 2006). These letters might even appear hyperactive on perusal, but then this was an honest reflection of Mozart’s pace of life when he wrote them. Mozart’s Prague letters are then in a way, a microcosm of his life and are full of energy; reading them one gets a sense of the constant activity: “No sooner had we arrived… then we were rushed off our feet to be ready for lunch at 1…” (Ibid, Pg 520)

Mozart letters
Reproduced with permission of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The letters that Mozart wrote from Prague allow us unique insight into the city he first encountered in 1787, although his reputation as the composer of Le Nozze di Figaro had preceded him, as he described in his first letter from the city. Mozart’s Prague is a practical one; it is the city whose musical public warmly welcomed him before his arrival and to whose sophisticated ears he paid a high compliment, through the gift of Don Giovanni and of course, his symphony K504, ‘Prague’. His Prague is a Prague of theatre, friends, rehearsals, visits, organs, post stations.

Mozart wrote to only two people from Prague; his wife, Constanze and his friend, Gottfried von Jacquin, if we are to count those that have survived. His letters to Constanze were written when she did not accompany him, as was the case in 1789. Several other documents survive written by Mozart listed in the database of the Mozarteum to von Jacquin or his family; these include a dedication to Joseph Franz von Jacquin together with the double canon KV 228 (515b) in the Bibliotheca Mozartiana and a letter to Gottfried von Jacquin written from Vienna mentioning the death of his father, Leopold Mozart, which must date the letter to after May 1787; the latter was sold at Christie’s Paris on 26th November 2003, as Lot 174 and remains in private ownership.

His first letter to von Jacquin from Prague reads like a manuscript in many ways, because of the number of musical references contained within it; even at the ball he attended the evening of his arrival in Prague on 11 January he refers to the music from Figaro being used for contredanses and German dances. The following day he mentions significantly that because he got back late from the ball, “the whole of the next morning was again sine linea [without composing one line of music]”. This in itself is mentioned clearly because the failure to do so is unusual; the next line goes on to say that there was a pianoforte in his room at the Thun Palace and that it went “without saying that we’d play a little quartet…” but that even that evening was again spent without composition because this time he was playing music. In the same letter, he writes that he went to the opera and relates when his concert would be; this concert on the 19 January was the occasion when Mozart gave the symphony K504 ‘Prague’, with improvisations from Figaro. In this same letter, he writes to von Jacquin that he planned to see Figaro in Prague, as ‘here they talk of nothing but – Figaro; nothing is played, sung or whistled except – Figaro; no opera is as well attended as – Figaro…’ (Ibid, Pg 520). Whatever his admiration for Prague – and this was, of course, pre-Don Giovanni – he clearly missed Vienna – his musical home: “although Prague is indeed a very beautiful and pleasant place – I’m really longing to be back in Vienna… I’ll probably have to give a second one, [concert] which will, unfortunately, prolong my stay here”. (Ibid, pp. 521-22)

Mozart’s second letter – written between 15-25 October to von Jacquin from Prague is full of the preparations for Don Giovanni on 29 October 1787: “You will probably think that my opera is already long since given but there you’re somewhat mistaken. Firstly, the local theatre people here are not as skilful as those in Vienna, to study an opera in so short a time. Secondly, I found on my arrival so few measures and arrangements in place that it would have been impossible to have given the opera on the 14th yesterday….” (Mozart Briefe und Dokumente – Online-Edition, herausgegeben von der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg, Author’s translation, retrieved 07/06/18). He wrote that the premiere was fixed for the 24th October but delayed again because of a singer’s having fallen ill; he picked up the letter again on 25 October, to say it had finally be fixed for the 29th October and that he would write to him after the premiere to say how it had gone.

The third letter to von Jacquin was dated 4-9 November 1787 and significantly written after the premiere of Don Giovanni; true to his word, it contains a description of the opera’s reception as part of the opening line. Perhaps this is also important because there was now no living father to whom Mozart could report his thunderous success; instead, Mozart reported it – laconically but probably in exhausted relief – to von Jacquin, again a testament to Mozart’s regard for his friend, to whom he wrote in the first Prague letter: ‘Farewell, best of men! – How I value our friendship – long may it last!” (Ibid, Pg 522).

As this letter was written so soon after the premiere, we might imagine that the letter was written from the house on Uhelny Trh which today contains a small medallion of Mozart and a plaque to record his stay in part of the house in 1787; its near-lying location to the Estates Theatre where the opera was given could also point to this having been the case. Very little of the rest of the letter refers to either Prague or the premiere but even here, after the opera’s resounding success, the pull of Vienna remained strong: “People here are doing everything possible to persuade me to remain here for another couple of months and write another opera. – But, however flattering their offer, I can’t accept it…” (Ibid, Pg 532) Mozart also mentions a song, which could refer to the piece Das Traumbild, which Mozart wrote during this trip to Prague and dated 6 November 1787, so during the period that Mozart penned the letter. (Ibid, Pg 532)

Of Mozart’s surviving letters from Prague – there are five listed in the database of the Mozarteum – not one of these is preserved in Prague, in the City Archives or otherwise; most probably because both recipients were of course, in Austria. Of his three letters to Gottfried von Jacquin in Vienna, one is in private ownership; the second is in the State Regional Archives at Trebon, in southern Bohemia. (The Trebon archives have a collection of Mozartiana, including books, catalogues and a Festschrift for the Deutsches Mozartfest, in Passau in 1986). A third is kept at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, in Vienna.

The two remaining letters to Constanze from Prague in 1789 similarly have diverse addresses of their own; the first from 10 April 1789, was sold at Christie’s, London as part of a sale of ‘Books & Manuscripts’ (Sale 4791) on 24th June 1992, as ‘Lot 2: Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, An Autograph Letter Signed To His Wife’; its present whereabouts in private ownership is unknown, but it did exceed its estimate price of £45,000-£55,000, selling for £60,500, according to the catalogue of the auction which I consulted. (Christie’s, retrieved 07/06/18). This letter was written during Mozart’s concert tour of 1789 with Prince Lichnowsky (later a patron of Beethoven) which took him to Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, via Prague. He again relates his ‘report on Prague’, detailing where they were staying, who they met, where they dined and whom they visited. Again, symptomatic of the man (and the musician) on the move, he concluded: “On receiving this letter you must write to me poste restante in Leipzig, you understand…” (Ibid, Pg 537).

Writing from Berlin to Constanze on 23 May 1789, he listed – in a pedantic manner not unlike his father Leopold Mozart’s exacting methods – the various places that he had written to her: “On 8 April from the post-stage at Budwitz. – On the 10th from Prague…” Rather touchingly, he refers to Prague again in the same letter, but rather because of the nearness, it represents in the distance to the wife with whom he longs to be reunited: “On 1 June I’ll be sleeping in Prague, and on the 4th – the 4th? – with my dearest little wife…” (Ibid, Pg 543)

A quick note from Mozart to Constanze, headed from ‘Prague’ is dated 31 May 1789 and preserved at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, in Vienna. This note is purely practical and personal and sums up a great deal of Mozart’s life en route as he writes: “Just this moment, I have arrived… I’ll arrive Thursday the 4th June between 11 and 12 o’clock promptly at the last or first post station… in haste…” (Mozart Briefe und Dokumente – Online-Edition, herausgegeben von der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg)

The known locations of Mozart’s surviving letters from Prague, for example, those to von Jacquin and that to his wife, Constanze, held at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, allow us to study Mozart’s handwriting in more detail. The letter to von Jacquin (4-9 November 1787) is beautifully written, in Mozart’s distinctive German gothic script, with frequent dashes, occasional exclamation marks and underlining; it reads rather like a careful but ebullient opera score, reflecting the busyness of the content. Interestingly, Mozart appears to underline the word ‘Prague, the 4th November’ but double underlines the date ‘1787’; he also partly does the same in his letter to Constanze from Prague, underlining this time, only the word ‘Prague’ and then underlining the year twice, as if emphasising to his wife his exact whereabouts he is on his way home. This is what makes the latter note so particularly interesting; it is a private, personal, hurried little note, written in the same almost bird-like handwriting, ‘In Eile…’ [In haste]. Mozart’s signature to his wife is underlined in a zig-zag style three times, with a true theatrical flourish.

The latter sentence could be seen as indicative of much of Mozart’s lifestyle. Although his letters give us his own words, much appears to be left out, but then his energies were, of course, channelled elsewhere and reflect this. The letters from Prague nevertheless relate what he saw as important to mention and are vignettes of his activities, as man and composer. And as part of his identity, they rightly also reflect the dominance of music in his life, like the main character in an opera, then in his letters.


©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and freelance writer and journalist.

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