Last month in these pages, we celebrated Beethoven’s birthday. Now let’s give a cheer to Mozart, whose 258th birthday is on Jan. 27. We’re pleased to feature an excerpt from Paul Johnson’s new biography of the great master. Centuries after his birth, Mozart remains many people’s favorite composer. Beyond his prodigious output, Mozart’s gift and skill with instruments were also remarkable; he mastered every one except for the harp. Moreover, no sooner had the clarinet been invented and introduced than Mozart began playing it and adding it into his arrangements. Below, we offer a short excerpt from Johnson’s book, in which he explores how Mozart began composing opera. Happy birthday, Mozart!
The following excerpt from “Mozart” by Paul Johnson is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Paul Johnson, 2013. Part of the intro above from the publisher’s promotional material.
There are many extraordinary things about Mozart, but the most extraordinary of all is his work in opera. There was nothing in his background to prepare him for the stage. His father knew everything about the violin and was familiar with every aspect of church music, but opera was foreign territory to him. It is true that during their three visits to Italy, they had the opportunity to see opera, and Mozart (not his father) successfully absorbed various forms of Italian musical idiom. But until he began to grow up, Mozart rarely went to the theatre, especially the opera. He seems to have acquired the instinct to make music dramatic, to animate people on stage, entirely from his own personality.
Yet his impact on the form was fundamental. He found opera, so called, in rudimentary shape and transformed it into a great, many-faceted art. He is the first composer of operas who has never been out of the repertoire, but is an indispensable part of it, a central fact in the history of opera. He forms, along with Verdi and Wagner, the great tripod on which the genus of opera rests, but whereas they devoted their lives to the business, opera is for Mozart only one part of his musical career – not necessarily the most important part, either.
Mozart composed 20 operas, by one computation, 22 by another. Opera was evolving fast in the 18th century, and definition is difficult. To begin with, it was composed in four main languages – Italian, French, German and English. Opera seria, or tragic opera, was the first main type to emerge with its particular forms: arias, choruses, and recitative. An intermezzo developed to provide comic relief, or buffa. This expanded until it became a work in its own right, an opera buffa, or comic opera. There was a good deal of class consciousness in these musical forms. Opera seria took tragic themes from antiquity on Latin or Greek models and was performed at court on solemn occasions, usually in the top court theatre. Hence it was also called grand opera. Opera buffa could be done in a commercial theatre to a bourgeois audience. But in England and northern Germany (and elsewhere), a popular or plebeian opera, or rather plays punctuated by songs and performed in the vernacular, was also blossoming and proved irresistible. “The Beggar’s Opera” ran in London for years and was taken to Germany, and there blended with local versions to produce a form of music drama called singspiel. By the time Mozart reached maturity, there were thus three main types of musical drama on stage: opera seria and opera buffa, both in Italian, and singspiel in German.
But Mozart’s evolution as a stage composer was more complicated. His first effort, given May 13, 1767, when he was eleven, was “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” This was, strictly speaking, an intermezzo, inserted in the interval of Rufinus Widl’s Latin play “Clementia Croesi,” given to an academic audience in the auditorium of Salzburg’s Benedictine University. It was also in Latin but sung by two sopranos, two contraltos, a tenor, and bass, and scored for strings, two oboes, and two horns. He enjoyed this enormously, and so, it seems, did the audience. So in 1768-69 he tried his hand both at an opera buffa, “La finta semplice,” and a singspiel. The first was ultimately derived from a Carlo Goldoni comedy, the second from a tale by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There followed in 1770 his first opera seria, “Mitridate, re di Ponto,” written for four sopranos, an alto, and two tenors, and scored for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, and four horns (K. 87).
Mozart was gaining experience, and not all his efforts for the stage were operas. In 1771 he wrote a festa teatrale for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand with a Modena princess. This was called “Ascanio in Alba” and had a large number of singers. The orchestra was big and included a serpent, the only time Mozart used one (K. 111). His dull celebration of Colloredo’s installation was described as a serenata, and K. 208, “Il re pastore” as a dramma per musica. But there was a regular opera buffa of a sort, “La finta giardinera” (K. 196), written in 1774, and “Lucio Silla” (K. 135), an opera seria, from 1772; “Semiramis,” described as a duodrama, is lost and may never have been started. “Thamos, Konig in Agypten” was “a play with music” (K. 345), but again had a large orchestra. “Zaide” (K. 344) is a singspiel but is incomplete. Mozart wrote 15 numbers to be sung, and had only the final scene to write (plus the overture) when he dropped it – we don’t know why. There is no libretto, so no spoken dialogue has survived, though various modern attempts have been made to stage it.
These operas, if finished, were put on in various places – private houses, the archbishop’s palace, the ducal theatre in Milan, and the Assembly Rooms in Munich. Not one has a decent libretto. Almost all contain fine music. Much of the action on stage is highly improbable, and some of it makes little sense. The Italian operatic tradition, which pervades them, took little account of probabilities. Mozart had an instinct for realism, an urge to make music and drama correspond, to some extent at least, to ordinary life as he and his contemporaries knew it, but he was too young and inexperienced as yet to break through the conventions and take charge.