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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Thompson

a month with the Mozarts

I've been doing a fun personal multimedia history project for the last few weeks, reading the letters of the Mozart family in the old Emily Anderson edition of 1938 (which is available online, so I didn't have to go to the library). Anderson is a fascinating figure, by the way: she was from Galway, became a professor of German, & was a codebreaker for the UK during both World Wars. As translations, they are delightful, & they collect both sides of the conversation, with letters by Leopold (often abridged, as he was a voluminous writer), Anna Maria, & Nannerl to give an impression of the whole family's rapport. (Fabulous that Anderson was a codebreaker, since the letters feature some games & codes, like simple replacement ciphers or passages where letters spelling out a name are underlined!)

The multimedia aspect is that I'm looking at pictures of the palaces & opera houses they mention (thanks to the copious wealth of the internet!) & playing through or listening to music by the people they mention in the letters. And forming my own judgments, of course. Not to call him opportunistic, but there are patterns to the people Wolfgang likes, & he often turns on people when he realizes they're not going to do him any favors: notably, Grimm in Paris. In general, the Mozarts have a cool regard for their colleagues' abilities, but they are often more charitable when they feel a friendship with a certain colleague might turn in to a personal advantage, so they stay on good terms with people in authority, even if they think they're useless. There's a great deal of funny grumbling on Leopold's part about his boss the Archbishop's terrible taste in music. (These passages were transmitted in code or by innuendo, since the Mozarts seemed to think that the Archbishop's staff read Leopold's letters!) But some colleagues are treated with genuine admiration, especially if talent & success are combined with a generous disposition: Wolfgang's admiration for J C Bach, for example. This makes me glad: I regard J C (my favorite Bach) as a kind of spiritual uncle.

Cannabich, whom Wolfgang respects more (after all, he is rich) is of course seriously underrated, as is Holzbauer, whom Wolfgang considered a little old-fashioned but extremely good. (This makes sense as W's style evolved & he began to incorporate more retrospective, pre-galant features into his music). Leopold's judgment is extremely secure & businesslike: as marvelous as Michael Haydn ("our Haydn") was as a composer, Leopold does consider him a bit of a terrible old drunk. Leopold mentions in particular the first performance of MH's Missa Sancti Hieronymi, with its unusual scoring for wind band. It is sometimes apparent that the family's regard for the whole person — & often, the extent to which a person with a prestigious appointment, ahem, can offer Wolfgang some advantages on the job hunt — colors their appreciation for the music.

In the hopper:

  • Mozart & von Beecke: an interaction that fascinates me

  • Anna Maria & Marie Anna Mozart & how they made themselves small to accommodate the men in their family

  • Leopold's hatred of French music

  • the Mozarts & Burney (both traveling in the 1770s)

  • the 'lost generation' (from the point of view of your music history survey)

  • how to make money out of music in the 18th century

So the first few posts on this blog will probably have a lot to do with the mid-18th century (I don't live there, musically, but I like to visit). I'll also be engaging with Gjerdingen's work on galant formulae in order to reckon with a massive quantity of music that has been completely discarded. However, in the long run, get ready for some serious seventeenth century content as soon I work through my powder & snuffboxes phase.

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