Saturday, April 03, 2010

Mozart in Paris

When the 22 year-old Mozart arrived in Paris in March 1778 he had high hopes of making a name for himself. However he discovered Parisian society to be fickle, inconsiderate and exploitative; Spring-time in Paris was not a happy affair for the young Mozart. He found himself disrespected, treated indifferently and worse of all, his honour and pride as a musician wounded. He described such treatment in a letter to his father-

A week went by without any news whatsoever. However, she had told me to call after the lapse of a week so I kept my word and presented myself to her. On my arrival I was made to wait half an hour in a great ice-cold unwarmed room, unprovided with any fire-place. At length the Duchess de Charbot came in, greeted me withe greatest civility, begged me to make the best of the clavier since it was the only one in order, and asked me to try it. "I am very willing to play" , said I, "but momentarily my hands are numb with cold," and begged she would at least conduct me to a room with a fire. "Oh , oui monsieur, vous avez raison, " was all the answer I received, and thereupon she sat down and began to sketch, continuing for a whole hour in company with a party of gentlemen who sat in a circle round a big table. The windows and the doors stood open, and not only my hands, but my whole body and my feet were chilled. My head began to ache...I did not know what to do for cold, headache and tedium. I kept on thinking, "If it were not for Monsieur Grimm I would leave this instant". At last to be brief I played the wretched, miserable pianoforte. Most vexing of all, however, Madame and her gentlemen never ceased their sketching for a moment, but remained intent upon it , so that I had to play to the chairs, tables and walls.Under these vile conditions I began to lose patience.....

In the same letter to his father, Wolfgang describes the difficulties of establishing himself socially in Paris and his problems living in the City-

You write that I ought to be assiduous in paying visits to form new acquaintances and revive the old ones. But this is not possible. The distances are too great for walking - or else the roads too dirty, for the filth of Paris is indescribable. As to driving - one has the honour of expending four to five livres a day - and all in vain; people return your compliments and there's an end. ...At first I wasted money enough in this way - and often entirely in vain, for i found the people from home. If one were not here one could not believe how hopeless it is ! Altogether Paris is greatly changed. The French are not as polite as fifteen years ago. Their manners border on coarseness and they are terribly discourteous. Letter dated May 1 1778

Ever hopeful, a month later he breaks some potentially good news to his father-

I am not merely to write an act for an o
pera, but an entire one in 2 acts. The poet has completed the first act. Noverre with whom I dine as often as I please, managed this, and indeed, suggested the 'idea' April 5 1778

Hope of collaboration with Noverre in a large-scale theatrical production was still in the air another month later, as he informed his father-

I shall soon, I believe, get the libretto for my opera en deux acts and shall first of all have to show it to the director Monsieur de Huime, for his approval. there is not a doubt of that, however, for it comes from Noverre and De Huime has Noverre to thank for his new post. Noverre is about to design a new ballet and i am to compose music for it. Letter dated 14 th May 1778

The ballet-master Jean-George Noverre (1727-1810) had already written his major treatise upon dance in 1760. In it he argues that consideration for movement of the dancer is essential. Any costume which restricted the movement of the dancer was discouraged, the ballet d'action was first and foremost to be centred upon displaying the skills of the dancer ; furthermore the story-line was to engage in simple, clear, unambiguous emotions, assisted by appropriate music which empathized with setting, dance and action. Noverre's treatise effectively paved the way for the birth and development of modern ballet as we know it today.

When Noverre met the young Mozart in Paris he was nearly thirty years the young composer's senior and wise to the fickleness of the Parisian audience. Its not improbable that while dining with the young Mozart the well-traveled Chevalier may have recollected his travels, including his years resident in England, 1754-56 when resident at London and Norwich. Noverre may well have witnessed the completion of the latest building by Thomas Ivory, architect of his Norwich home, now the Assembly Rooms and one-time Noverre cinema. Ivory's architectural masterpiece was however, the Octagonal chapel at Colegate, Norwich-over-the-water which was completed in the year of Mozart's birth, 1756. Its Neo-classical facade and geometrical architecture would not be incongruous as the back-drop to a Mozart opera; its Octagonal shape and imposing entrance a fitting setting for the Masonic rituals of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute.

It's still very much the same tune from Wolfgang in a letter to his father 3 months later-

'Noverre, too is soon to arrange a new ballet, for which I am to write the music. July 3rd 1778

The resultant fruits of Mozart's collaboration with Noverre was a Suite of Ballet-music entitled Les Petit Riens K299b. It was performed just six times without mention of the composer's name in either billing or programme. The Symphony in D major K.297 now known as the "Paris" symphony was a greater compositional achievement and concert-hall success. Written in the festive and civic social key of D major in an easy-pleasing style and scored with the added luxury of 2 clarinets, a pungent air of the flamboyant, the vigorous and athletic pervades its mood. The Wood-wind scoring in particular of a rich harmony due to the addition of a pair of clarinets, the first time Mozart had written for the relatively new instrument. After a successful performance Mozart celebrated with a walk in the park and a Sherbet after having said his rosary.

But it was also during his Paris visit that personal tragedy was to strike the young composer . On the night of the 2nd/3rd July 1778, after a short illness, his mother died.

From this bereavement came the composition marking the emotional rite-de-passage, his Sonata for Violin and pianoforte K 304; the only time Mozart wrote in the key of E minor. There's a real traumatized, heart-wrenching grief of the recently-bereaved expressed in the sobbing opening bars of this sonata; its second movement is calmer, more like grief in reflection upon the memory of his departed mother. Paris had produced fruits in composition, but not how Mozart had imagined in the form of opera. Half a year since his arrival in Paris , Mozart had the measure of how his talent was vulnerable to time-wasting exertion without economic reward, writing to his father-

I ought to write an opera now (having said that I am going away), but I said to Noverre, "If you will guarantee me its production as soon as it is finished and will tell me exactly what you will pay me for it, i will stay another three months and write it". they did not agree to these terms , however, and I knew before-hand that they would not and could not, since they are not according to usage here. Here, as perhaps you know, an opera is examined on its completion, and if the "stupid Frenchmen " do not approve of it, it is not given and the composer has written in vain.. Letter dated 11th September 1778

When Mozart left Paris he must surely have shook the dust from his feet and muttered 'Never again' under his breath; indeed he never returned to Paris. The six month sojourn had produced relatively few compositions, the manuscript of Le Petit Riens was lost, only to be 'rediscovered' in 1873; the Paris symphony marks one more rung climbed in symphonic development for the composer. There were also 4 flute concerto's and an insipid-sounding Flute and Harp Concerto in C major K 299 , composed during his stay, both were instruments Mozart cared little for.

The young composer returned to the service of Archbishop Colleredo in Salzburg. A position of servitude he endured for 3 more years, before a final break. He still however had one last laugh at his would-be Parisian sponsors. His prodigious musical genius shines through in his letter declaration en route to Salzburg to his father-

The result is that I am bringing no finished work with me save my sonatas - for Le Gros bought the two overtures and the symphony concertante . He thinks he has them all to himself, but it is not so - they are still fresh in my head and as soon as I am home I shall write them out again! -Oct 3 1778

There were greater compositions, greater concert-hall and theatrical triumphs awaiting the young composer in Vienna and Prague, but not in Paris.

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