Mozart in London Festival Weekend Back

After the final applause at the very end of Classical Opera’s Mozart in London Festival Weekend, artistic director Ian Page addressed the audience and his first word was ‘phew’! This was said with good reason: Page had just overseen the performance of some five symphonies, three overtures, a concerto, and forty-seven concert arias, alongside a lecture-recital on Mozart’s London Notebook, three lectures and a roundtable discussion. The subject of the weekend –part of the organisation’s ambitious Mozart 250 project – was the Mozart family’s extended stay in London. It was the first real taste of the momentous scale of Mozart 250. Page had previously stated, at the end of their January concert ‘1765: A Retrospective’ that there was ‘no going back now’. Indeed, Classical Opera now have a very long but very exciting road ahead.

On April 23rd 1764, Leopold Mozart, his wife Maria Anna, and his children Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), aged twelve, and Wolfgang, aged eight, arrived in England’s capital as part of their three year ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which had begun the previous July and would end with their return to Salzburg three years later, in November 1766. The Mozarts resided in London for fifteen months, until July 1765, during which time the young Wolfgang became well known amongst the English musical elite, and composed some of his first orchestral, keyboard and vocal works. Classical Opera aimed to provide a thorough musical exploration of these months through a series of talks, lecture-recitals and concerts. The weekend was both intellectually stimulating and enjoyable and Page, chief executive Debbie Coates, and the entire Classical Opera team are to be congratulated on their success. Also to be congratulated are the musicians and speakers, for delivering consistent, high-quality performances throughout.

Traditional narratives surrounding the Mozarts’ London months are based upon only a few sources. These include select translations of Leopold Mozart’s letters to his landlord Lorenz Hagenauer in Salzburg, and newspaper reports documenting the family’s appearances or the young Wolfgang’s musical abilities. This has resulted in widespread perceptions of Leopold Mozart exploiting his children for his own financial gain; the Mozart children themselves as performing monkeys, expected to play music on demand to a curious public; and a belief that the family misjudged the level of public interest and overstayed its welcome.

Actually, the letters from London that currently exist in English translation are only small excerpts that focus on music related matters, or on Wolfgang Mozart himself; almost everything else has been excluded from translation. When considered in their entirety, then, Leopold’s twelve London letters paint a very different picture. With music featuring comparatively little, they instead provide fascinating descriptions of London food, fashion, architecture, customs and more. They confirm the Mozart family’s engagement with, and understanding of, many different aspects of London cultural life.    

Professor Cliff Eisen (King’s College London) opened the weekend with an introduction to Mozart in London, where he encouraged the audience to free themselves from any biographical preconceptions they may have brought with them. Eisen convincingly made the case for the London visit as part of a broader educational journey for the family, of which the children’s musical activity was undoubtedly a significant, but by no means the sole, focus. In addition to an overview of musical contacts, activities and performance locations, Eisen drew the audience towards a consideration of some of the more unexpected people the Mozart family met, such as Lady Margaret Clive (wife of Clive of India), Hans Moritz von Brühl (ambassador for Saxony and keen astronomer) and William Hamilton. He also introduced us to Leopold Mozart’s interest in science and technology (for example, Leopold purchased two microscopes and a telescope from Dollond of London), and Nannerl’s travel diary – a list of all the places and things she saw including, to name a few, the British Museum, Queen Charlotte’s zebra, the Foundling Hospital and the Royal Exchange. Eisen suggested this wider, more contextualised perspective as a lens through which to approach the weekend.

In the first concert, a series of read extracts was interspersed with the music to further ‘set the scene’. Read by actress Diana Quick, these included John Bancks’s Description of London (1738) and part of Leopold’s letter to Hagenauer of 28th May 1764. The audience appreciated these interludes, although the thick German accent Quick adopted for Leopold’s letter was perhaps a little unnecessary. The focal pieces of the first concert were, predictably, Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K.16, composed while the family were staying in Chelsea, and Symphony No. 4 in D major, K.19, which has been dated to 1765. The programme notes, written by Page, stressed the audible influences of Bach and Abel in these early symphonies. 

A definite highlight of this concert was Stephen Devine’s superb performance of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D major, Op.1 No.6. Dedicated to Queen Charlotte, the Allegro moderato was a set of variations on Thomas Arne’s God Save the King. It was also interesting to hear a selection of music by Arne and composer and castrato Tenducci, both of whom the Mozarts met. These included songs performed at Ranelagh Gardens, and a selection of airs from Arne’s Judith and Artaxerxes, performed variously by Anna Maria Labin (soprano), Helen Sherman (mezzo-soprano) and Robert Murray (tenor). Particularly striking was Arne’s ‘No more the heathen shall blaspheme’ from Judith, on account of the unusual scoring for tenor, cello duet, bass and harpsichord.

The second day began with a roundtable discussion chaired by the BBC’s Andrew McGregor, with Eisen, Page and Dr David Vickers (Royal Northern College of Music). The conversation was another effective way of contextualising the weekend’s music, and particularly useful was a discussion of London’s musical scene. The panel explored the sheer variety of musical styles the Mozarts became acquainted with; this was facilitated primarily by the fact music making in London was not controlled by the court as it was in other European centres. Public concerts were largely the result of individual entrepreneurship and public demand. Again, there was a refreshing emphasis on the cultural education Leopold gave his children through the tour, but other topics discussed included the public expectations of a child prodigy, the local reaction to Mozart, the variety of potential musical influences on the young Mozart and Nannerl’s abilities as a keyboard player.

Interestingly, none of Mozart’s music was performed on this day; the afternoon was divided into ‘English Opera in Mozart’s London’ and ‘Italian Opera in Mozart’s London’. The former could be heard either at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, or the Covent Garden Theatre. Page included arias from George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers, Michael Arne and Jonathan Battishill’s Almena, William Bates’s Pharnaces, Thomas Arne’s The Guardian Outwitted and Artaxerxes, and various songs from the pasticcio The Maid of the Mill. This time, Rebecca Bottone (soprano), Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano), and Samantha Price (mezzo-soprano) joined Robert Murray on stage. A nice touch to Page’s programme notes was that the contemporaneous singers were given in brackets next to the works they premiered, although a note of explanation about this would have been useful.

The evening concert of Italian opera featured arias by Matthia Vento, G.B. Pescetti, Bach and Davide Perez from the pasticcio operas Ezio, Berenice and Solimano, and select arias from Bach’s Adriano in Siria, and Vento’s Demofoonte, sung by Price, Martene Grimson, and Anna Devin (sopranos).  We know that the Mozarts were certainly acquainted with some of these works: Leopold mentions Ezio, Bernice and Adriano in Siria in his letter to Hagenauer of 8th February 1765, and a copy of Pescetti’s ‘Caro mio bene, addio’ survives in Leopold’s hand. The evening concert was preceded by a lecture on opera in eighteenth-century London, given by cultural historian Dr Daniel Snowman. Rather unfortunately, Snowman clearly subscribes to the traditional narrative of the London visit that Eisen had encouraged us to move away from in his introduction and the roundtable. Very similar (often the same) slides on the PowerPoint were used to convey a very different picture. At least the audience members who attended both lectures can now decide which view, if either, they subscribe to.  

Professor John Irving (Trinity Laban) opened the final day with a fascinating lecture recital exploring Mozart’s London Notebook, K.15a-ss. Irving gave a fine performance, and his discussion, often dealing with aspects of interpretation (for example, liberties taken with texture, sections omitted), was interesting. Irving linked Mozart’s Notebook to Daines Barrington’s report on Mozart’s genius – Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician (1769) – suggesting that it offers an insight into the kinds of compositional techniques Barrington may have witnessed at the Mozarts’ lodgings. Particularly illuminating were the ‘ethical’ questions Irving raised over how and whether the Notebook should even be performed. It is likely that its contents simply represent Mozart’s ‘private compositional record-book’, never intended for public performance. However, Irving then proceeded to give the performance on a copy of a Viennese fortepiano – an instrument not available to Mozart in London. Although Irving explained that the fortepiano was appropriate, both for exploring Mozart’s textural range and for the practicalities of a modern concert space, his choice seemed like rather a large leap in light of his discussion. Historian Lucy Inglis followed this with a talk on Georgian London. Although this provided an interesting perspective on the London the Mozarts would have known, it was rather unfortunate that she made reference to Leopold having to manage as a single parent in London. Maria Anna Mozart did not accompany her family on every tour, but she was certainly part of this one.

The Festival Weekend was brought to a close with music of Bach, Abel and Mozart, including Mozart’s Symphony in F major, K.19a (only rediscovered in 1981) and Abel’s Symphony in E-flat, Op.7 No.6, for a long time believed to be by Mozart on account of a surviving copy in the young composer’s hand. Singers Eleanor Dennis (soprano) and Ben Johnson (tenor) performed arias by Bach and Mozart, including Mozart’s ‘Va, dal furor portata’, K.21, his earliest surviving concert aria. What struck me over the course of the whole weekend was the considerable amount of reconstruction from original manuscripts that must have gone into this weekend. Many of the songs and arias especially are rarely (if ever) performed, and it would have been interesting to make more of a feature of this – perhaps in the form of a further programme note essay.

In my review last month of Classical Opera’s ‘1765: A Retrospective’, I emphasised the importance of considering Mozart’s early works within their appropriate historical context, and the Mozart in London Festival Weekend provided a unique opportunity within which to do this. The weekend as a whole was fascinating, and those who attended the three days in their entirety will have learnt a lot. There are two more instalments of this year’s Mozart 250 that are not to be missed: the last of the British Library Lecture Series, this time with Eisen and Devine, and Classical Opera’s production of Bach’s Adriano in Siria.

Classical Opera’s Mozart in London Festival Weekend, part of Mozart 250, took place at the Barbican’s Milton Court from 20th-22nd February 2015.