Mozart’s London Odyssey – A Contributor’s Perspective Back

Criticks Music editor, Hannah Templeton, reflects on a documentary to which she contributed. A version of this report was first published on Hannah’s blog

Taking part in BBC Four and Lucy Worsley’s Mozart’s London Odyssey as both researcher and contributor has been an entirely new and enjoyable experience for me. It was very satisfying to see the finished product when it aired last week.

I am now nearing the end of four years in which I have worked exclusively on the Mozart family’s fifteen months in London: I am due to submit my PhD dissertation next month. Inevitably, I watched the documentary with minute attention to detail, reflecting on the narratives that were brought to the fore, and how these compare to accounts of the family’s stay that already dominate Mozart scholarship.

Among the programme’s many positive features was its treatment of Leopold Mozart. Too often, Leopold is presented as a mercenary individual, dissatisfied with his own career and intent on profiting financially from his talented children. It was refreshing to see him contextualised as a successful, educated musician, composer and theorist, whose motivations for the European tour stemmed largely from his strong Catholic faith and desire to give his children a stellar musical education.

There were times when Mozart’s London Odyssey couldn’t help but indulge in the usual caricature of Leopold. Take, for example, the reference to Wolfgang’s ‘freedom from his father’s controlling presence’ during Leopold’s illness. Leopold’s letters often contain touching accounts of his children’s wellbeing. Other documents from the time unanimously present him as both an excellent father and teacher. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that biographers began to portray him as an egotist. However, Mozart’s London Odyssey managed to provide considerably better context to our image of Leopold than many existing TV and radio representations.

Impressive too were the many small moments where we were better able to ‘get inside’ the Mozarts’ London experience. Fashion historian Amber Butchart’s contribution really succeeded in bringing Leopold Mozart’s letters to life. Most published English editions of his letters only include music-related extracts. Butchart’s discussion of clothes the Mozarts may have worn, written about in depth by Leopold, provided a small insight into his absorption in many and varied aspects of English culture.

Likewise, the emphasis on the music Mozart composed in London was a delight. The musicians of Classical Opera were, as ever, outstanding. Wolfgang Mozart’s early compositions are somewhat neglected in any case, but including music by his contemporaries such as Thomas Arne afforded us a glimpse into the London sound world that had such a significant impact on the young Wolfgang. Indeed, perhaps one of the most important points made by Mozart’s London Odyssey is that the family’s travels were just as much an intellectual and educational voyage of discovery as they were a commercial ‘tour’.

We are always keen to apply an overarching narrative to the Mozarts’ time in London. In the case of Mozart’s London Odyssey, a brilliant beginning to the family’s stay is followed by a precipitous decline: from the ‘thrill’ of a royal performance to a ‘sideshow to a boozy lunch’ when the Mozarts performed at the Swan and Hoop Tavern. The incomplete nature of eighteenth-century source material means that there will always be room for multiple interpretations of particular events. I want to take a closer look here at the Mozarts’ tavern appearances.

I have discussed the tavern appearances in greater depth in my blog. For me, it is the most significant point of contention in accounts of Mozart in London. How we view this final week of performances affects how we understand the whole fifteen months. Was it, as was implied in the documentary, a last ditch attempt to scrape together money for the homeward journey? Or was it actually the result of Leopold’s more sustained engagement with this area of London?

The Swan and Hoop was opposite the Royal Exchange, situated in a passage between Cornhill and Lombard Street. Guidebooks from the time describe Lombard Street as ‘the most rich Street in the World’ (Joseph Pohl, 1763). Wealthy merchants, bankers and goldsmiths frequented the area every day, and Leopold lists some such people in his London address book (Reisenotizen). The hours at which the Mozarts performed (1 until 3 o’clock) were the Exchange’s peak trading hours. Leopold had visited the area as early as November of the previous year – possibly on his way to the bank or post office – and noted the hundreds, sometimes thousands of people coming and going during these hours.

It is also difficult to compare the Mozarts’ appearances with previous concerts at the tavern; there are few surviving references to it from around this time. However, we do know that a glass harmonica player, Marianne Davies, performed there frequently. Indeed, she gave concerts of a similar format to the Mozarts’ for a week in the first summer the Mozarts were in London. The Davies family, also Catholics, were friendly with the Mozarts by the year 1771, and although we don’t know the exact date of their first meeting, it is likely that it took place in the summer of 1764 when both families were in London. We can assume the tavern appearances were successful for Marianne Davies, because she frequently returned in the years to come.

The story behind the Swan and Hoop tavern is evidently more complicated than we might imagine. Personally, I think it was a calculated and sensible move from Leopold, ever the astute entrepreneur. Viewing the tavern appearances in this light requires us to rethink our existing narrative of the tour’s success. As we saw in the documentary, the tour certainly had its ups and downs. But I think we should be wary of suggesting that the fifteen months ended in failure.

It is rare for an hour-length documentary to be devoted entirely to the Mozarts’ childhood travels, and Mozart’s London Odyssey offers a rare chance both to hear some of Wolfgang’s earliest music and to learn more about the family’s day-to-day life in London. Ultimately, though, it leaves the central Mozart myth intact: Wolfgang Mozart the child prodigy, touted around London to a paying public who soon tired of him. Despite the evidence to the contrary, this narrative persists, allowing Wolfgang to triumph over gruelling conditions and a fickle public. It remains enticing because it mirrors accounts of the composer’s later life: the eternal child so well known from Amadeus, his music enduring in the face of adversity.

Mozart’s London Odyssey was first broadcast on BBC 4 on 21st June 2016. It is available for UK residents to view on BBC iPlayer until 21st July.