Mozart Symphonie No. 31

Between Paris and Prague: Mozart the Traveller

Mozart was no stranger to travelling: nearly a third of his life was spent on the road. Travelling was expensive, and not without danger, but it provided an almost perfect environment for Mozart. He could concentrate on his thoughts, and compose.

On the Road (Olga Scholten, 2013)
On the Road (Olga Scholten, 2013)

Between 1762 and 1791 Mozart - either as a child prodigy or as a mature artist - visited most major, and many minor, cities in western Europe, including London, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Prague, Amsterdam, The Hague, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. Travel meant planning, thinking ahead to the next stop, whether to journey by boat or carriage, where to stay, and arranging letters of credit and letters of introduction, as well as a host of lesser concerns such as the purchase of guidebooks, medical supplies that might be needed, and appropriate clothes. In Mozart’s case, it also meant organizing concerts at public venues or audiences with local nobility and, on numerous occasions, composing.

Unfortunate accident

To be sure, travel – at least for an itinerant musician, no matter how well-connected – was not always easy: carriages were often uncomfortable, roads were poor, and the pace of travel was slow. And sometimes it was dangerous, especially in cases of serious illness, since medical practices were not only uncertain but differed from country to country. When Mozart and his father were travelling in Italy, Leopold sustained a serious leg injury that lingered for weeks:

‘I must tell you about my unfortunate accident. You know that 2 horses and 1 postilion make 3 beasts. During the last stage to Rome our postilion struck the horse, which was walking along between the shafts and therefore supporting the sedia [the two-wheeled carriage] on its back. The horse reared up but became increasingly stuck in the sand and dust, which were more than six inches deep, and fell heavily on its side, pulling down the front section of the sedia as it has only 2 wheels. I held back Wolfgang with one hand to prevent him from being thrown out, but my right leg struck the centre bar of the falling dashboard with such force that half the shin bone of my right left was gashed open to the width of a finger… By the next day the matter was beginning to look somewhat serious as my leg was very swollen and I spent most of yesterday and today in bed.' (Letter of 30 July 1770)

Travel in style

Travel – or at least travelling in style (as Leopold Mozart felt was necessary; in September 1763 he wrote to his Salzburg landlord, Lorenz Hagenauer: ‘We have to travel in a noble or courtly style for the preservation of our health and the reputation of my court’) – was also expensive; the journey from Salzburg to Koblenz in 1763, for example, cost almost three times Leopold’s annual salary at the Salzburg court. And frequently the rewards fell short of what was necessary to make good the family’s expenses, to say nothing of their efforts; when Karl Alexander of Lorraine made them wait nearly a month before granting Wolfgang an audience at his Brussels court, Leopold wrote that the Prince ‘does nothing but hunt, guzzle and swill, and in the end it turns out he’s got no money’ (letter of 4 November 1763).

Enlightenment thinking

The Mozarts, like other travellers of the time, compensated for some of these problems by taking with them a number of items from home, including a tea chest, foods, medicines and books. And the journey itself was often its own reward: for many eighteenth-century itinerants, travel was a chance to see new peoples and places, to learn different customs – or, as a geography book owned by Leopold Mozart put it, to learn one’s place in God’s creation. In short, travel was an integral part of Enlightenment thinking, inquisitiveness and education. It was also exhilarating, as Leopold’s description from 1764 of the family’s English Channel crossing shows: ‘The sea and especially the ebb and flow of the tide in the harbor at Calais and Dover, then the ships and, in their wake, the fish that are called porpoises rising up and down in the sea, then – as soon as we left Dover – to be driven by the finest English horses that run so fast that the servants on the coach seat could scarcely breathe from the force of the air – all this was something entirely strange and agreeable.’

Mentally sketching

For all its broader Enlightenment significance – and there is no question Leopold intended the early travels to serve as a foundation for Wolfgang’s education, even his ‘modernity’ - music nevertheless played a central role in all of Mozart’s travels, both early and late: he performed, he collected music by others, and he composed works of his own, either on speculation or on commission. Some works were – literally – museum pieces; when he was in London in 1765 the British Museum asked Wolfgang for a sample of his work, the motet ‘God is our Refuge’, KV 20. Others were intended as ‘test pieces’, either for admission to a prestigious Italian academy (such as the Miserere, KV 85, composed for the Bolognese Academia Filarmonica) or to show he was capable of composing large-scale vocal music (this seems to have been the case with the aria ‘Fra cento affanni’, KV 88, composed in Milan in early 1770, a direct result of which was Mozart’s commission for Mitridate.) A few, such as the keyboard sonata KV 309 (Mannheim October-November 1777), appear to have been intended as teaching material, but the majority – a significant majority, including the ‘Paris’, ‘Linz’ and ‘Prague’ symphonies, as well as the ‘Prussian’ quartets (K575, K589 and K590) – were for his own concerts or the result of commissions.

Compositional method

That Mozart composed so much music while travelling is a testament to his compositional method. Although he required a piano, at least to begin with, having fixed on some basic ideas, he then elaborated them in his mind, mentally sketching out the shape of a piece and many of its details before committing it to paper. The writing down of a work was often a mechanical task, one that freed his imagination to roam, at the same time, over new ideas and new works; in a letter of 20 April 1782 Mozart described to his sister the composition of a prelude and fugue: ‘I send you herewith a prelude and a three-part fugue. . . I could not finish the composition any sooner. And, even so, it is awkwardly done, for the prelude ought to come first and the fugue to follow. But I composed the fugue first and wrote it down while I was thinking out the prelude.’

The Paris Symphony

In at least one instance, it was the very fact of travel - Mozart’s repertory of ‘travelling music’ and the need to compose - that may have given rise to an unexpected decision to compose a new work. It was Mozart’s habit, throughout his career, to tailor his works both to his performers and to his audiences, and when he was in Paris in 1778 he wrote to his father:

‘I’ve had to write a symphony to open the Concert Spirituel. It was performed to general acclaim on Corpus Christi… Without exception, people liked it. I was very afraid at the rehearsal as I’ve never in all my life heard anything worse; you can’t imagine how twice in succession they bungled and scraped their way through it. – I was really very afraid. (…) I prayed to God that it would go well because everything is to His greater glory and honour; and behold, the symphony started, Raaff* was standing next to me, and in the middle of the opening allegro there was a passage that I knew very well people were bound to like, the whole audience was carried away by it – and there was loud applause – but as I knew when I wrote it what effect it would produce, I introduced it again at the end – now people wanted to have it encored. They liked the andante, too, but especially the final allegro – I’d heard that all the final allegros and opening ones too begin here with all the instruments playing together and generally in unison, and so I began mine with 2 violins only, playing piano for 8 whole bars, followed at once by a forte – the audience, as I expected, went ‘shush’ at the piano – then came the forte – and as soon as they heard it, they started to clap – I was so happy that as soon as the symphony was over I went to the Palais Royal – had a large ice – said the rosary, as I’d promised – and went home.’ (Letter of 3 July 1778)

The Prague Symphony

Somewhat unexpectedly, the ‘Paris’ symphony may have a relationship to another ‘travelling’ piece, one seemingly distant from it both stylistically and geographically: the ‘Prague’ symphony, KV 504.

One of Mozart’s earliest biographers, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, reported that at his Prague concert of 19 January 1787, Wolfgang performed two symphonies, one in E-flat and one in D – the ‘Prague’. It may be, though, that Mozart have originally intended to perform the ‘Paris’ symphony. As Alan Tyson** showed, a surviving autograph trumpet part for the 1778 ‘Paris’ symphony is on a type of paper used by Mozart only in December 1786, about the time he left Vienna for the Bohemian capital. But why was Mozart even copying this part (presumably to replace a lost original) unless he planned to perform the work? Accordingly, it may be that Mozart had in mind in to present the earlier work, not a newly-composed one. What is more, the finale of what is now the ‘Prague’ may originally have been intended as a new finale for the ‘Paris’, for the last movement of the ‘Prague’ appears to have been written before the first two movements. Given the evidence of the autographs, it is not hard to imagine Mozart, bumping along in his carriage through the Bohemian woods and with little time before his Prague concert, deciding to perform the ‘Paris’ rather than compose an entirely new work and, needing a trumpet part, copying one out; but then, perhaps, he thought to revise the work, adding a new finale and, finally, new first and second movements. The result was an entirely new piece, the ‘Prague’, that in some way owes its origin to Mozart’s lifelong preoccupation with the idea of ‘travel’.

Cliff Eisen

* Anton Raaff (1714-1799) was a famous German tenor. Mozart had first heard him sing in the Mannheim Opera in 1777, when Raaff was at the summit of his career. The title role of ‘Idomeneo’ (1779) was written for him.

** Alan Walker Tyson (1926-2000) was a British musicologist who specialized in studies of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. One of his most celebrated publications was Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores, whose chapters detailed the study of watermarks in Mozart's autographs as a method of dating the scores.