Cafés and historic pubs remain fascinating experiences for the curious. Rich in tradition and local legends, they have invariably become interlinked with a variety of personalities who have in their own way, helped to shape a city’s cultural identity. Like an intellectual life-blood to the city’s artistic mind, some have attracted leading philosophers and writers, like what Vienna’s Café Central was for Stefan Zweig or what Prague’s Café Louvre was for Franz Kafka. Alfred Polgar described the Viennese coffeehouse as being the “meridian of loneliness,” where people who craved solitude “want company as they do so.” Cafés also could become venues for musical performance, such as Vienna’s oldest Café Frauenhuber, where Mozart once played. I have tried to gather together any oral traditions which still circulate in Prague, claiming that Mozart may have been there.
Mozart came to Prague five times, between 1787 and 1791 – the first in connection with Symphony K504 (“Prague”) and the last visit with the composition of La Clemenza di Tito, written for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, as King of Bohemia. The stories that have become established in Prague folklore as to the places he may have frequented are fascinating, not least because they offer us a rare glimpse into a possible social life outside of his creative sphere as a composer. Some of these supposed places no longer exist, but such is their reputation that they have not entirely vanished in popular memory. Interestingly, they also enable us to pinpoint Mozart on the city’s map, as some of the pubs are in areas where we know that Mozart was either staying, playing, visiting or performing, giving us a further insight into his other life. Some of Mozart’s more scatological letters can point to a certain hyperactivity, possibly due to the pressure of constant composition or the anxiety prior to a premiere performance – such as his ‘puzzle-letter’ to his sister Nannerl, the day before his motet ‘Exultate Jubilate’ (K165) was performed in Milan (16.1.1773) Given the music that he had written for Prague – notably his monumental opera Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague during his second 1787 visit – perhaps the pubs and cafés of Prague where he said to have drunk really may have offered a release during these periods of intense creativity.
Tradition has it that he played billiards in a long-vanished pub called U Šturmu on the corner of Skořepka Street, which is close to Uhelny Trh, Prague’s ‘Kohlmarkt’ (“The Coal Market”) We know Mozart lodged on the corner of this square, at the ‘House of the Three Lions’ on a 1787 visit (most likely the second) so the location for this is correct. The Rytirska Street connects Uhelny Trh with the Estates Theatre where Don Giovanni premiered to great acclaim on 29 October 1787, following on from the success of Figaro. Only the building where the café U Tří stupňů (“The Three Degrees,” also known as “The Coffee Sisters”) on the western side of the square, still exists. U Šturmů was listed as a residential building in an inscription on a Prague postcard of 1900, constructed on the side of previous arcade buildings, so perhaps the name was taken over from the vanished, old pub.
Mozart may have drunk coffee on the street known as Templova. Situated in Prague’s Old Town, the street is near the Pachtuv Palace on Celetna, which also claims musical connections with him. In the same vicinity is Štupartská Street, which had the long-vanished U Štupartsků, where he also said to have drank. U Štupartsků (“By Štupartsků”) could have been a venue during any of his five visits, although its location close to the Powder Gate in Prague’s Old Town could again point to the second 1787 visit. Another nearby pub was said to have been called U Modrého Hroznu “House of the Blue Grapes,” in which he drank. Building by this name is today to be found on Husova.
A 14th-century pub, U krále Brabantského (“For the King of Brabant”) on Thunovska, in Prague’s Lesser Town claims that Mozart drank there, on an information sign on its outer window. It would appear that the Thun palace where Mozart stayed in January-February 1787 burned down in the 1790s and that the building now in its place – housing the British Embassy – dates from the early nineteenth century. We know that Mozart asked for letters to be sent to him at the Thun palace in his own letter from Prague to his close friend, Gottfried von Jacquin so this historic pub would have stood very close to the palace where he was staying. It claims alongside Mozart, also the alchemists of Rudolph II amongst their customers.
These legends have become so embedded in Prague’s cultural history that it is almost impossible to corroborate them – but they have in a way become valuable in themselves, regardless of whether they are fact. Documented evidence of where Mozart socialized in Prague is sketchy; Mozart himself described these things rarely – unlike his father, Leopold Mozart – we do know that he attended a popular ball with Josef Emanuel Malabayla, Count von Canal (1745-1826) at the mid-eighteenth-century Breitfeld Palace on Nerudova Street, in the Lesser Town, because he mentions it to von Jacquin in the same letter (15.1.1787)
One café that Mozart certainly did not visit but which nevertheless helps to keep alive the city’s links with the composer, is Prague’s own late baroque Café Mozart. The café hosts daily performances by the Mozart Quartet and enjoys a prime location opposite Prague’s Astronomical Clock, overlooking the Old Town Square. It is famous for bespoke Mozart cakes and also contains a collection of Meissen porcelain. With Mozart’s music playing regularly, it is a place where he is ever present.
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.