By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hostile Asylum : How Mozart's Vienna Oppressed Him When He Was Alive

As mentioned in the preceding blog, although I normally avoid reading thought-provoking books in areas in which I am interested as a writer  --  for fear of letting any of them adversely affect the flow of my own original ideas  --  I do sometimes feel tempted to graze in the forbidden fields. 

Of course, my worst fears do come true sometimes ;  but there are occasions when some books contain insights which give me fascinating glimpses of some unfamiliar scenarios, and I am glad to share them with my readers by quoting significant passages verbatim  --  as I did in the following essay : 

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19 January 1992


Mozart's Vienna

Several months ago the Austrian Embassy in New Delhi sent me a booklet entitled "Mozart's Almanac 1991 - Vienna", containing a calendar of the music-oriented events scheduled to take place in Vienna during 1991, the bicentenary year of the passing away of the great composer.  This almanac, published by the Vienna Tourist Board, listed a staggering number of performances dedicated to Mozart's music, spread throughout the year.  It also gave details of various related exhibitions, film festivals, guided tours and collections of stamps, coins and medals.

In this publication, which acquired historic value at the end of the year, the city of Vienna proudly takes credit for the hospitality extended by it to Mozart, who hailed from Salzburg.

"Two hundred years ago, in April 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, already a celebrated personality, submitted a petition to the city of Vienna,"  the almanac says, and quotes him :-
"Most honourable and most learned Municipal Councillors of Vienna,  Most worthy gentlemen,  When Kapellmeister Hoffmann was ill, I thought of venturing to apply for his post, seeing that my musical talents, my works and my skill in composition are well known in foreign countries, my name is treated everywhere with some respect, and I myself was appointed several years ago as composer to the distinguised Court of Vienna . . .

"Kapellmeister Hoffmann, however, has recovered his health ;  and in the circumstance  --  for I wish him from my heart a long life  --  it has occurred to me that I might be of service to the Cathedral . . . if I were to be attached for the time being as an unpaid assistant to this . . . worthy man . . . thus gaining the approbation of our learned Municpal Council by the actual performance of services which I may justly consider myself peculiarly fitted to render, on account of my thorough knowledge of both secular and ecclesiastical styles of music . . ."    

The almanac adds, laconically and with obvious satisfaction :  "His request was granted."  Mozart died on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35.  So then, for all of eight months (or perhaps even less) the city of Vienna honoured him as an unpaid apprentice to a court conductor, and thus covered itself with glory for ever  --  so that 200 years later, when the whole world celebrated Mozart's memory in a special way, it could claim to have recognised his credentials when he lived.

Terminal travails

How did Vienna treat one of the greatest musicians just a few weeks before it bestowed this remarkable municipal munificence on him?   Here is an extract from the book "Mozart" by W. Hildescheimer (English translation, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1983).  The author begins by quoting a public announcement made a few months before Mozart's death :

"Herr Bahr, Chamber Musician presently in the service of His Imperial Russian Majesty, will have the honour of being heard playing several pieces on the clarionet, at a grand musical concert on Friday next, on March 4, in Herr Jahn's hall, at which Madame Lange will sing and Herr Kappellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano . . . "

Hildescheimer comments :  "Herr Jahn was a restaurateur whose establishment happened to be very near Mozart's apartment.  Mozart had only to go round the corner for his last performance as a soloist . . .  [to be] overshadowed by the artistry of Herr Bahr." 

And how did Vienna treat the master a few months later?  To quote from the same source :  "His very last official appearance was as conductor of of the first two performances of Die Zauberflote on September 30 and October 1,  1791.   But that was not in the city center, and did not count as a first-class event in the imperial city's musical life . . .

"The composition rendered by Mozart in this concert was none other than his own last piano concerto, which he had just completed and which is acclaimed today as his finest work.  As for Die Zauberflote, it happened to be Mozart's valedictory musical drama which ushered in the very era of German opera.  When one connects all these relevant facts, one can see the excruciating irony of the situation." 

Endless struggle 

How had Vienna treated this genius during the ten years since 1781 when he lived there?  Let us borrow a thought from the book "Mozart" by the eminent German musicologist Alfred Einstein (English translation, Cassell, London, 1946).  The author quotes Mozart's own perception of the musical scene in Vienna when he went to live there :  "It is perfectly true that the Viennese are apt to change their affections, but only in the theatre, and my special line is too popular not to enable me to support myself . . ."

And Einstin observes :  "Considering the fact that as a composer Mozart had a far greater passion for opera than for keyboard music, perhaps he was being over-optimistic.  In any event, things did not work out the way he had imagined.  He did have a certain measure of success in the beginning, but thereafter languished in the city even as a pianist for several years till he died, increasingly ignored by the nobility and the bourgeoisie alike  --  perhaps never losing hope altogether, but never properly rewarded.

"Mozart's failure to prosper in Vienna was all the more frustrating because he had consciously chosen that city as an asylum from a hostile world which included his native city Salzburg.  Whichever way he turned during his short lifetime, he could never find a way of earning an adequate income which would enable him to lead a life which was both secure and dignified.

"Wherever in Europe he tried to find some gainful employment without surrendering his artistic liberty  -- Salzburg, Mannheim, Munich, Florence, Bologna, Paris, and finally Vienna  --  his efforts were mercilessly thwarted by the wealthy and powerful patrons of art.  The high-sounding designation of Royal and Imperial Court Composer in Vienna, which Mozart did obtain in 1787, carried only a small honorarium which hardly sufficed, and involved only very trivial tasks like composing routine music for ballroom dancing.

"His astonishingly varied and prolific output of brilliant compositions -- orchetsral and chamber music, operas and church music, adding up to more than 600 works -- could not fetch him a reasonable income."

Oppressive asylum

There is a significant comment in an essay written by Dynelly Hussey in the book "The Music Masters" (Cassell, London, 1948) :  "The contrast between his easy successes as child and the harsh difficulties he encountered as a man may well have aroused in him the bitterness which embroiled him with authority.  But it was not with authority alone that was in perpetual conflict.  There was no abiding rapport between and the public where he happened to live, in spite of the continent-wide sensation he had created as a child pianist-composer and the admiration expressed by some of the greatest men of his times  --  such as Haydn and Goethe  --  for the fabulous creativity of his adult life."

The following incisive observations which lie scattered across Hildescheimer's book cited earlier  --  and which I have arranged in a sequence appropriate to this essay  --  reveal the true nature of Mozart's ordeal in the city which he had so mistakenly visualised as his ultimate sanctuary.

"After 1790, Mozart was not only overlooked, but subdued . . .  Vienna closed the door to him . . .  put him off as if waiting for his death . . .  It had scorned what he offered, quashed his aspirations, and rejected his applications . . .  And yet in an inexplicable way he remained true to it, no doubt bound by debts and miserable obligations . . ."

Well, that was Mozart's Vienna when he actually lived there two centuries ago!  The fact that he continued relentlessly to create music of transparent nobility in such an oppressive environment is a measure of his absolute commitment and great fortitude.  A few weeks before he collapsed due to a mysterious illness, Mozart composed his famous Clarinet Concerto.  This work, which consciously avoids virtuosic effects and ornamentation, has a crystalline beauty which transcends all artistic and spiritual barriers and chokes the sensitive listener's heart wherever it is heard in the world.  In some passages the solo instrument sounds as if it weeps for the composer, as all Vienna weeps for him today.

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PostScript, 2016

Memorable readings

I remember playing an LP record of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto over and over again as I wrote the above essay, and I actually wept after finishing it  --  just as I am hearing the same composition on YouTube right now (Sabine Meyer, Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major Kv 622), and could feel my heart bleeding as I keyed in the same text again after 24 years.

I had another memorable experience almost 30 years ago, reading the book "Essays On Music" by Alfred Einstein, the same German scholar quoted in the Mozart saga.  I recalled that in the following twin blogs  -- perhaps you may like to read them if you hadn't done so earlier, or refresh your memory if you had :

The Legend Of Lord Rama Condensed In A Capsule! 

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