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Mozart plaque
November 1, 2019

The Smallest Memorial to Mozart in Prague: Conducting Don Giovanni

A golden memorial plaque, small enough to go unnoticed, commemorates the historic occasion when Mozart conducted his new opera Don Giovanni in Prague on 29 October 1787. The plaque records the spot where he conducted that night.

Following the success in Prague of Le Nozze di Figaro, the impresario Pasquale Bondini invited Mozart to see the opera in Prague for himself. Bondini had made arrangements for the work to be performed in Prague in December 1786 and probably sent his invitation to Mozart at around Christmas time, to come and experience for himself the extraordinary success of the opera (Hermann Abert, W. A. Mozart, 1012). In January 1787, Mozart travelled to Prague with his wife Constanze and personally conducted at least one of its performances. As a result of the Figaro success, he received a commission for a new opera from Bondini. It would prove to be his second collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The first of two Prague visits that he made in 1787, Mozart also gave a concert on 19 January whilst in the Bohemian capital, at which his D-major symphony K504 ‘Prague’ was performed. Mozart wrote to Gottfried von Jacquin back in Vienna that ‘here they talk of nothing but – Figaro… no opera is as well attended as – Figaro and nothing but Figaro; a great honour for me, no doubt.’ Niemetschek confirms the musical omnipotence of Figaro throughout Prague in the winter of 1786-87: ‘Figaro’s songs rang out in the streets, in gardens – even the harper inside the tavern had to play “Non più andrai” if he wanted a hearing‘. (cit., Ibid, 1012). 

Prague heard Figaro again as part of the celebrations for Archduchess Maria Theresia and Prince Anton Clemens of Saxony, who were travelling via Prague en route to Dresden where their wedding – already celebrated by proxy in Florence – would be solemnized in person. Figaro was the substitute for the opera that had been initially intended for the royal performance, Don Giovanni, as the latter was still underprepared. Frustrated, Mozart unburdened himself to Gottfried von Jacquin: ‘You’ll probably think my opera is over by now – but you’d be wrong’. Importantly, Mozart conducted the performance, writing to Jacquin: ‘Yesterday my Figaro was given in the fully illuminated theatre and I myself conducted’. (cit., Ibid, 1019). The Prager Oberamtszeitung wrote of Mozart at the royal performance: ‘The enthusiasm of the musicians and the presence of the composer were a source of general acclaim and satisfaction for Their Highnesses’. (cit., Ibid, 1019). 

He undoubtedly appreciated Prague’s warm enthusiasm for Mozart’s work. The sophistication of Prague’s musical public is perhaps the authentic root behind those words widely attributed to him ‘My Praguers understand me’, a remark which he may have never made. Instead, these words should rather be regarded as an accurate comment on the city’s adoption of Mozart, which folklore may have falsified into a quotation but which nevertheless points to the truth. The rich musical life of these two coeval imperial capitals revealed important differences when it came to their appreciation of Mozart’s music. 

The apparent dissimilarities between the Prague ear and its sister Viennese can be judged in the reception that Mozart’s new opera received when it was given in the respective capitals. As early as 1768, Leopold Mozart had written home from Vienna to Lorenz Hagenauer that the Viennese had little taste for entertainment outside the comic. His impression was that ‘the Viennese, generally speaking, have no desire to see serious and sensible things and have little or no idea about them, but want to see only foolish stuff… their theatres prove this every day.’ Perhaps Leopold was writing about something he witnessed, for he went on to describe a case scenario in point: ‘A gentleman… will clap his hands and laugh till he is almost breathless at some bawdy harlequinade or silly joke’. (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, 66). The said gentleman would lose attention immediately if anything beautiful or severe were on the theatrical menu.

Perhaps then it is unsurprising, that Mozart’s new opera, a dark interpretation of the familiar story of Don Juan, found a special reception in Prague that it did not find in Vienna. Prague probably also responded with proud enthusiasm to the fact that Don Giovanni was written for its public, who were the first to ever hear the opera’s entrance into the musical world, like witnessing a birth. Significantly, Mozart’s father Leopold had also died in May 1787 which may have given the new opera its lugubrious tone, death’s awesome reality having struck so close.

Mozart referred to Don Giovanni or Il dissolute punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni in a letter as ‘my Prague opera Don Giovanni’ (Ibid, 536) when describing a bill for its performance two years after its premiere. When Mozart travelled again to Prague in 1791 for the performance of his new opera La Clemenza di Tito for the festivities held in Prague as part of Leopold II’s coronation, Don Giovanni was given again on 2 September 1791. Perhaps significantly, Mozart reports with similar words to those he would express on the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787, that ‘Tito was being performed for the last time in Prague, also to extraordinary acclaim’, an acclaim which coincided with the widespread success in Vienna of his German opera, Die Zauberflöte, an opera of decidedly different mood.

When the opera was finally performed on 29 October 1787, Mozart wrote simply to Gottfried von Jacquin: ‘My opera Don Giovanni was staged on 29 October and met with the most tremendous acclaim’. This sole sentence refers to the opera that saw its world premiere at Prague’s Estates Theatre. The only other reference Mozart makes in the letter to the opera’s success is that it was staged again ‘for the 4th time – for my benefit’ (Ibid, 531). On the fourth occasion that the opera was given, Mozart was handed the receipts for its performance, which according to the author Volkmar Braunbehrens, probably amounted to between some 700 and 1,000 florins. (Volkmar Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna 1781-1791, 302). The brief nature of these references is evidence alone I think, of Mozart’s extreme time pressures, which must have been far greater than the first Prague visit of 1787, when writing again to Jacquin, Mozart had admitted to his frantic pace: ‘I’ve finally found a moment to write to you‘ (Ibid, 519). 

Contrary to received belief, the space from which Mozart conducted is not the modern place where conductors stand in the Estates Theatre. Instead, it is much further forward and set into the wooden floor. The plaque is usually obscured during musical performances and is barely visible even during intermissions. The golden plaque was put there in 1991 and read approximately in Czech: ‘At this spot, Mozart conducted from the stringed harpsichord’. This tells importantly where the harpsichord was set up, placing Mozart fittingly, amidst his musicians. The visitor might have expected to see a modern-day conductor standing in the place where Mozart stood that night, but, as we have seen, he conducted from his instrument. Quite how we know this is precisely where the harpsichord was placed, is not clear.

To revisit the night of 29 October 1787, we need to look at contemporaneous accounts of the premiere which refer to Mozart’s actual conducting of the performance as Mozart does not mention having done so. Interestingly, we are given an extraordinary insight into his creative attitude towards his work, when describing a later rehearsal for the Zauberflöte in 1791. Mozart writes to his wife in early October 1791 of going onstage during the rehearsal because he felt a sudden longing to play the glockenspiel part of Papageno’s aria. He seems to be expressing pleasure at experiencing the music like the rest of the audience: ‘Incidentally, you’ve no idea how delightful the music sounds from a box close to the orchestra…’ (Ibid, 565). 

Prague newspaper articles help fill in the gaps that Mozart left in his letters. One of these is the report in the Prague Oberpostamtszeitung, which tells us important details which Mozart either out of modesty or lack of time, omits to mention. We learn for example, that when he ‘entered the orchestra pit, he had to bow three times before the applause stopped, and the same thing happened when he left the pit’ (cit., Braunbehrens, 302). To underline Prague’s supreme respect for Mozart’s music, the Oberpostamtszeitung tells us that ‘the unusually large audience guaranteed an enthusiastic reception’. The Oberpostamtszeitung reports on the premiere, possibly in an alternative translation of the above passage: ‘Mister Mozart conducted himself, and as he came into the orchestra, three cheers were given’ (cit., ed. Harald Salfellner, Mozart: An Illustrated Life, 62). According to Alfred Meissner’s Rococobilder, when Mozart mounted the conductor’s podium ‘thousands of hands moved at his entrance, he gave a greeting of thanks on all sides, [and] quickly gave the signal to start’. (cit., Ibid, 62). According to the conductor Jane Glover, Casanova travelled to Prague especially to be present at the premiere (Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women, 260) of an opera whose content could all too easily be applied to his career with women. 

The memorial which was placed on the floor has a strange duality. It commemorates, on the one hand, the spot from which Mozart conducted the opera but also is a memorial itself, to the fact that the opera was performed in this theatre that night. A larger stone plaque records this on the outer walls of the Estates Theatre, to the right of the entrance. 

Something of the essence of that first performance remains in the theatre, a fact perhaps most striking when the building falls silent, and the space takes on a metaphysical aspect as the audience disperses. The Estates Theatre is one of the few wooden baroque theatres of its kind to survive without any major alterations and is an example of great beauty. Much of its original appearance remains the same, except for the chandelier and the electric substitute to candlelight. For the reverent onlooker, it is still possible to re-imagine the night of 29 October 1787, in today’s Estates Theatre

Finding the golden plaque in the floor amidst the metal jungle of music stands has its quiet magic. 

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

View of Prague in 1785 Wikimedia Commons
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