The tradition that Mozart met Casanova in 1787 is another of Prague’s mysteries. Trying to explore whether they did in the absence of good evidence means that inevitably, the same legends are repeated. I want to discover if anything supports the possibility that they met or at least, show where the opportunities to do so could have occurred.
Local Prague tradition suggests that a meeting could have taken place either on the corner of Nerudova Street and Jánský Vršek, or at the Bretfeld/Breitfeld Palace itself. On closer examination of this story, the legend like so many others has probably grown upon the bones of proven fact. Mozart certainly did visit the so-called ‘Bretfeld’ ball and the Bretfeld – sometimes spelt Breitfeld – Palace is on Nerudova Street, in Prague’s Lesser Town. Mozart mentions attending the ball in a letter to Gottfried von Jacquin dated 15 January 1787 from Prague, on the first of his two important visits to the city that same year.
Mozart wrote to Jacquin that he went ‘to what’s known as the Bretfeld Ball’. Devoted to his wife Constanze (who had travelled with him) and uninterested in Bohemian female society due to both fatigue and sheer disinclination, Mozart noted instead the universal Prague popularity of his Figaro meant that even at the Bretfeld ball, the music had been converted into ‘nothing but contredanses and German dances’. Mozart demonstrates a distinct difference in attitude to what might be assumed to be Casanova’s response to the beautiful women of Prague or at least if we basis this on his career in matters of love. Both Mozart and Casanova did, however, shared a lasting association with Prague and were also Freemasons. Casanova may have attended recitals at the Dusek villa of Bertramka, whose own productive association with Mozart is romantic but blurred.
The Breitfeld Palace at Nerudova Street 33/240 appears to have been frequented by not only Mozart but also Casanova when he was on one of his Prague visits. If so, there is an obvious overlapping of venues but no record of a meeting between them. If such a meeting did take place on a Lesser Town street corner, this is, of course, the kind of encounter now impossible to verify. We do know that Mozart was staying in the town palace of Count Thun (the site of the current British Embassy) during his January 1787 visit. The former palace is closely situated to the Nerudova Street in Prague’s Lesser Town and would have been within easy walking distance. The baroque town mansion was rebuilt in 1765 perhaps by J. J. Wirch, for the nobleman Joseph of Bretfeld-Chlumčanský, who had an extensive collection of books and paintings. The palace was an important centre for Prague’s musical and social life, with popular balls and concerts being held there. Today the Breitfeld Palace where Mozart attended this society ball in 1787 has been split into apartments. A relief of St Nicholas still adorns the baroque exterior and the group of putti on the staircase by the sculptor I. F. Platzer, survive. Wall paintings were discovered in 1900 on the first floor and have since been restored.
As with so much that relates to Mozart and Prague, detangling historical fact from this affectionate and long-established ‘fiction’, is now virtually impossible as the fiction has probably become folklore as part of this complex process of oral traditions handed down over decades. We can, however, state with certainty that Mozart visited this building and attended the society ball.
Casanova lived the last years of his life at the baroque castle of Duchcov (Dux) in northern Bohemia, where he wrote those celebrated memoirs of the eighteenth century, Histoire de ma vie, whilst serving as librarian to Count Waldstein.
It is Lorenzo Da Ponte, who represents something of a human bridge between Mozart and Casanova. Casanova was friends with Da Ponte, and the two knew each other from their early association in Venice. Da Ponte may be the musical middle-man who links the two names, but it is just possible that Mozart met Casanova as part of their shared connection, instead of at a ball in Prague. Casanova was in Prague at the time of the Don Giovanni premiere, and he may have made drafts for a Don Juan drama at around this time. An association between Casanova and Don Giovanni would appear to be claimed by Alfred Meissner in his Rococobilder, which may be supported by findings in Duchcov castle that point to Casanova working on a scene in the famous drama. According to an article in the Smithsonian, (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/when-casanova-met-mozart-163068912/ retrieved 26/8/19), Casanova’s papers in the Czech archives in Prague contain lines relating to Act II, scene X of Don Giovanni, although I consider this no proof that he was in any way involved with the opera. It may instead just show him composing variations on a familiar story, whose content probably appealed to him.
An interesting theory is that Casanova attended the premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theatre on 29 October 1787. This darkly sceptical opera on the affairs of the soul as well as the moral nature of its protagonist could not fail to have registered with Casanova if he was indeed present, causing him to reflect on his catalogue of affairs. The conductor Jane Glover suggests that Casanova travelled to Prague expressly for the premiere (Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women, 260) and that Da Ponte may have also drawn possible inspiration for his libretto from his old friend’s erotic career (Ibid, 259) but does not name a source for these points.
Words attributed to Casanova give his response when asked if he saw Mozart’s new opera Don Giovanni, as: ‘Seen it? I practically lived it’ (Smithsonian, retrieved 26/8/19).
The question of whether they met at all will doubtless remain unanswered – for now, at least.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019