The Church of St Simon and Jude in the Old Town Prague

What Mozart played on in Prague

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Whilst most original instruments associated with Mozart now reside in Salzburg, owned by the International Mozarteum Foundation, other instruments on which he played are also of historical interest, not least because they offer an insight into his improvisational process at a particular point in his musical creativity. Some of these instruments were invariably cathedral or church organs upon which he played in the cities and towns where he stayed on some of his journeys, such as the organs in the churches at Mannheim, for example. The city of Prague claims similar associations – and as the city itself has such strong links with Mozart, some of these instruments deserve closer scrutiny.

The Organ in the St Nicholas Church Lesser Town Prague
The Organ in the St. Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague, Photo By Ludek [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mozart’s music appears to have been peculiarly suited to the late eighteenth-century Prague taste, which was regarded as somewhat richer and of a greater sophistication to that of Viennese audiences, a claim that is borne out by the deep appreciation for Mozart’s works, when he was universally praised on his first trip to Prague in 1787 as the composer of Figaro, which had been given in Prague the previous year. Mozart confirmed this in a letter from Prague to his friend, the amateur composer Gottfried von Jacquin, that in the city nothing but Figaro was being played, sung and whistled and that no single opera was being attended as well as his Figaro. Prague’s musical adaption of Mozart is also borne out by the verdict of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist in his memoirs: “the great beauties which other nations discovered in the music of that rare genius only after many, many performances, were perfectly appreciated by the Bohemians on the very first evening…” That Symphony K504 (“Prague”) and Don Giovanni were premiered in Prague with such success – “its equal has not yet been seen in Prague” (Prager Oberpostamtzeitung, 29.10 1787) attests powerfully to the type of musical public for which these works were intended. This is also confirmed by the Requiem mass held in Prague in Mozart’s memory a mere nine days after his death, a service which was attended by thousands, in stark contrast to the lack of any equivalent in Vienna.

The Organ in the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady at Strahov Monastery Prague
The Organ in the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady at Strahov Monastery, Prague, Photo By Fried Marek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mozart wrote surprisingly few letters in Prague, which we must ascribe to the probable constant pressure of activity; only once does he appear to mention an actual instrument. On his first visit to Prague in January 1787, he was accompanied by his wife Constanze to conduct a performance of Figaro on 22 January; he also gave a concert at which the Symphony K504 “Prague” was performed. He wrote to Gottfried von Jacquin from Prague that “a very good pianoforte” had been placed in his room in the town palace of Count Thun, which he was playing. (Mozart’s clavichord, today owned by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation, on which he composed the Zauberflöte among other works, was made in the 1780s, probably in Bohemia or Austria). The remarkable, so-called ‘Mozart Piano’ in Prague is kept in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music (part of the National Museum) and is a particularly revered instrument because it provides a direct link between the city and the composer. Traditionally thought to have been played on by Mozart during the first January visit of 1787, the two-metre mahogany hammer piano – with mother-of-pearl inlaid keys and mostly original strings – was manufactured by Franz Xaver Christoph of Vienna in around 1785. The piano was moved to Vienna and then to the Museum at Bertramka, where it remained until 2005. A Romantic plaque has been placed on the piano, although there are historical doubts as to its accuracy, especially because of the mention of Don Giovanni, which was not premiered until Mozart’s second visit, in October 1787. Mozart is reputed to have played this piano during a performance at the Institute of Noblewomen, accompanied by a member of the Sternberg family. The hammer piano was restored in 2006 in Vienna, under the guidance of musical instrument historian Alfons Huber.

The Church of St Simon and Jude in the Old Town Prague
The Church of St. Simon and Jude in the Old Town, Prague, Photo By Michal Km [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
As we might expect, Mozart also improvised on various church organs in Prague – that at the Church of St Simon and Jude in the northern part of Prague’s Old Town, for example. The church is now used as a concert venue for the Prague Symphony Orchestra and boasts exceptional acoustics. The pipe organ that Mozart played was built in 1724 by Andreas Wambesser and restored in 1993. Joseph Haydn also is said to have played on this organ. A plaque at the church includes the name of Mozart. Close to the Church of St Simon and Jude is another building, Nemocnice Na Františku, which also claims to be a place where he played. The building has an eighteenth-century chapel and still hosts concerts, so this tradition is at least, credible.

St Nicholas Church Lesser Town Prague
St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague, where a Requiem Mass for Mozart was performed on 14 December 1791, Photo By Widars Klagesturm [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady in Prague’s Strahov Monastery houses an organ built in 1774 by the Strahov Premonstratensian Lohel Oehlschlaegl, The Monastery confirms that Mozart played the instrument in 1787 when he visited Strahov.

The baroque organ of the St. Nicholas Church in Prague’s Lesser Town – with over 4,000 pipes – was also played on by Mozart, according to oral tradition. It was built as three separate organs by the Jesuit organ builder Thomas Schwarz in 1745-47. The St. Nicholas Church – the great Dientzenhofer masterpiece – was at least in the right area of Prague for Mozart to improvise, being in the Lesser Town, as we know that Mozart and Constanze stayed in the palace of Count Thun during the first 1787 visit. Count Thun’s palace was located on the site of today’s British Embassy, in the Lesser Town. The St. Nicholas Church states that Mozart played this organ whilst he was a guest of the Duseks, which implies it may have been during the second 1787 visit, but confirmed to me that no actual record exists of his playing it. Poignantly, it was in this Church that the Requiem mass took place in memory of Mozart, on 14 December 1791.

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a writer, historian
and freelance royal journalist. She contributes to an international
academic journal about royalty and also writes for magazines and the
web.

http://royalcentral.co.uk/author/ejtimms

https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethjtimms/

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