Mozart and the Enlightenment


Professor Cliff Eisen, Music Department, King’s College, University of London

19 October 2015


Eduard Mörike’s 1856 novella Mozart on the way to Prague begins with a revelation. Mozart and his wife Constanze stop their coach and venture into the Bohemian forest:
'They stepped arm in arm over the roadside ditch, and so at once deep into the gloom of the fir-wood, which soon deepened into a darkness pierced only here and there by a shaft of sunshine striking vividly down on the carpet of velvet moss… ‘Good God! How glorious!’ he cried, gazing up at the lofty boles. ‘One might be in a church! I feel as though I had never been in a forest, and now I see for the first time what manner of thing it really is – this whole population of trees ranged side by side! No human hand planted them, they grew up all of their own accord, and here they stay for the simple reason that it is fun to be alive and carry on the business of life together… How many strange and beautiful things there are in the great world beyond, and how many here at home, of which I know simply nothing yet, in the shape of natural wonders, sciences, arts and useful crafts…’

The point of this passage seems clear enough: Mozart’s awakening to nature signals his importance to Mörike – and more generally to the earlier nineteenth century - as proto-Romantic. Yet it also raises, especially with respect to biography, both historical and historiographical problems. The story – the life it recounts - is set in in the Age of Enlightenment.  Yet Mozart is distinctly ‘unenlightened’, unacquainted with the world around him, uncritical and disengaged: ‘How many strange and beautiful things there are in the great world beyond, and how many here at home, of which I know simply nothing yet, in the shape of natural wonders, sciences, arts and useful crafts.’ In short, Mozart, at least before Don Giovanni, belongs nowhere – he is not yet Romantic but certainly not enlightened.

This presumed lack of fundamental engagement on Mozart’s part with everyday life, with intellectual currents of the time, even with physical objects, informs virtually every account of the composer from his time to ours. To be sure, he is sometimes portrayed as an Enlightenment artist: The Marriage of Figaro – rightly or wrongly - is frequently read as symptomatic of his pre-Revolutionary sympathies, and The Magic Flute as emblematic of his Enlightenment sensibilities, sensibilities that found expression more generally in his Freemasonic associations and activities. But on the whole these are isolated instances, biographical anomalies that run counter to a grand narrative of persecution, rejection and disengagement. Even more striking, in traditional Mozart biography, none of this was his fault. His is a story of blamelessness, full of villains: his overbearing father Leopold, his insensitive and mean-spirited employer Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, his unsuitable wife Constanze, and a fickle Viennese public. So it’s no wonder – so the story goes - that he withdrew almost exclusively into a world of musical imagination, where, implicitly or explicitly according to most accounts, he made good the deficiencies of his everyday life. He was, to return to Mörike and to quote the Beatles, a ‘Nowhere Man’.

Mörike was hardly the first to suggest Mozart’s fundamental lack of engagement with the world around him.  Indeed, the persecution leitmotif, and all that follows from it, was firmly in place by 1798:                                                  ‘Among the illustrious individuals’ Thomas Busby wrote in the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1798, ‘who by their superior abilities have ornamented and improved the world, how few have dared to defy the obstacles which envy, arrogance and contending meanness opposed to their progress! Or indignantly to break the shackles which indigence imposes, and dart through that obscurity too well calculated to scatter and quench the rays of genius!  To how small a number have their own country proved [a] beneficent protectress… This has formed the complaint of every age, and will continue to excite the murmurs of suffering merit . . . The shade of the great Mozart, whose sublime productions have astonished and still continue to delight, all Europe, awakens these reflections - accompanies me in my progress - revives the complaints of neglected genius - and demands redress.’

Given the pervasive view of Mozart as distant from everyday life – a view that also inflects the way his music is heard and analyzed and understood, not only now but historically – we may wonder if Mozart’s was an Enlightenment life at all.

In discussing Mozart and the Enlightenment, my point of departure is a traditional one, the family correspondence, nearly 1000 letters written between 1755 and 1791. But my reading of them is not the traditional one, which by and large takes into account only those passages that relate directly to Mozart’s performances and commissions, his compositional practices, his aesthetic outlook, and his relationship with his father. Rather I want to take as my point of departure those passages that are usually dismissed as little more than extraneous social commentary or eighteenth-century travel journalism, and in particular the letters written on the Grand Tour of 1763-1766. There are, I think, some possible musical implications in this account, implications that to my mind arise out of a consideration of a particular kind of object: souvenirs.

For Leopold Mozart, the Grand Tour of 1763-1766 – to Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, England and Switzerland – was more than a musical tour, more than a chance to show off his children. It was a cultural adventure. His letters to Salzburg are full of precise and detailed information about the places he visited, the people he met, politics, war, and local customs and practices. When he was in Paris Leopold wrote to Salzburg: ‘In winter the women wear not only clothes trimmed with fur, but collars and neckties, and instead of decorative flowers to pin in their hair, they wear the same things made from fur . . . but the most remarkable sight is the sword-band that’s fashionable here and that’s wrapped round and round with fine fur: it’s a good way of stopping the sword from freezing.’ (letter of 1 February 1764) In another letter he noted that ‘In Germany people believe mistakenly that the French are unable to withstand the cold; but this is a mistake that is revealed as such the moment you see all the shops open all winter. Not just the businessmen etc. but the tailor, shoemaker, saddler, cutler, goldsmith… in a word, all kinds of trades work in open shops and before the eyes of the world… year in, year out, whether it’s hot or cold’ (letter of 22 February 1764).

The family’s arrival in London in April 1765 elicited from Leopold a poetic outburst, a palpable demonstration of his exhilaration:                                                                                                                                                                        'To see English people in Germany is nothing to write home about; but to see them in their own country and by choice is very different.  The sea and especially the ebb and flow of the tide in the harbor at Calais and Dover, then the ships and, in their wake, the fish that are called porpoises rising up and down in the sea, then – as soon as we left Dover – to be driven by the finest English horses that run so fast that the servants on the coach seat could scarcely breathe from the force of the air – all this was something entirely strange and agreeable… our arrival overwhelmed me with so many new things' (letter 28 May and 28 June).

Leopold Mozart

During their 15 months in London Leopold reported in detail on virtually every aspect of everyday life in the city, and described many of the physical objects that he encountered there for the first time. ‘The pavement in front of the houses is paved with large flat square stones,’ he wrote, ‘so that walking is very easy; the roads, by contrast, are calculated to break your neck. All the houses have their main apartments below ground, the 2nd you enter at ground level, and rooms 1 and 2 are up to 3 floors up. The apartment below ground is light, it has the biggest windows, and smiths and locksmiths and all the other artisans generally have their workshops down there. That is why there are grills of iron or wood outside all the houses, so that no one falls down them.’ (letter 28 May)

Clothing in particular interested him: when it came to hats he wrote that ‘No woman goes out into the street without wearing a hat on her head, but these hats are very varied; some are completely round, others are tied together at the back and may be made of satin, straw, taffeta etc. All are decorated with ribbons and trimmed with lace.’ (letter 28 May)  And he was sensitive to the social and jingoistic implications of local fashion. ‘Whenever the street urchins see anyone decked out and dressed in a vaguely French way, they immediately call out: Bugger French! French bugger! The best policy is then to say nothing and pretend you haven’t heard.’ (letter 28 May) I suspect that Leopold learned this particular lesson the hard way, for later in the same letter he writes: ‘We left there [in Paris] . . . 2 beautiful new satin dresses, one ruby-coloured with white trimmings belonging to my wife and one blue dress with white trimmings belonging to my little girl, as well as all the accessories that go with them and many other things besides. The expensive dress that I bought my little girl in Paris – it has a pale yellow background, with flowers and broad gold stripes, and is very beautiful – I brought with me to England.’ (letter 28 May)

Technology interested Leopold too - one of the recurring themes in his letters is engineering.  In a letter of 8 December 1763 he wrote from Paris to his Salzburg landlord, Lorenz Hagenauer, how struck he was that the city – unlike Salzburg – had no walls [image of Salzburg walls]. So when, in 1766, it came to engineering  a tunnel through the Mönchsberg that would increase access in and out of Salzburg – the so-called Sigismundtor or Neutor [image] - Leopold put forward his own ideas – ideas reminiscent of his experiences in Paris and elsewhere (9 June 1766):

I have entirely different idea [from what has been proposed]: namely, I picture to myself that the entire wall [that marks the boundary to the gate] be removed and the gate constructed in a such a way that when one enters the city, the fountain is directly in front of him and he goes around it, left or right. This seems to me more open, easier to navigate, more attractive and more impressive.

Similarly, in London he made special note of the Chelsea waterworks, incorporated in 1723 and by the time of the Mozarts’ visit to London, supplying water to Hyde Park, St James’s Park, throughout Westminster and, from 1755, to near the Buckingham House garden wall. Indeed, not just engineering, but water – in some way, whether mechanical or social, often both at once – is another theme of the letters. Leopold writes about water carriers in Paris (8 December 1763) as an economic phenomenon closely tied to public health – that is the pollution in the Seine – the efficacy of traveling by canal boat through Holland, and new-fangled French toilets (4 March 1764), writing rather delicately to Frau Hagenauer: “Have you ever heard anything about – with your permission – privies? – – You find these in almost all the hôtels here. On both sides there are water pipes, which one can turn round after the execution. One pipe directs the water downwards, one sprays the water, which can also be warm, upwards. I do not know how I can explain it to you in more detail in polite and respectable words, you must imagine the rest or ask me when the time comes. These closets, by the way, are the most beautiful one can imagine. The walls and also the floors are commonly of porcelain, in the Dutch style. On some surfaces, set up for the purpose and either lacquered or of white marble or even alabaster, the chamber pots stand, made of the most beautifully painted porcelain with gilded rims; on other such surfaces, some people place glasses with sweet-smelling waters, or else large porcelain pots filled with sweet-smelling herbs.”

At this time, it was Leopold who exclusively reported on the family’s activities and interests: Mozart was too young to write letters, barely eight years old, so there is no direct testimony from him as to what he saw or thought. But his sister Nannerl was then thirteen, and shortly after the family’s departure from England, she made an entry in her travel diary that communicates the same kind of enthusiasm for everyday life, for the cityscapes, and the new and unimagined technologies and objects that she and her brother saw in London: “I saw the park  and a baby elephant, a donkey with white and coffee-brown stripes, so even that they couldn’t have been painted [on] better,  [George Stubbs]  . . . the Royal Chelsea Hospital, Westminster Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Vauxhall, Ranelagh, the Tower, Richmond, from which there is a very beautiful view, and the Royal [Botanical] Garden, Kew, and Fulham Bridge; the waterworks and a camel; Westminster Hall, the trial of Lord Byron, Marylebone; Kensington, where I saw the royal garden, the British Museum, where I saw the library, antiquities, all sorts of birds, fish, ungezifer und plants; a particular kind of bird called a bassoon,  a rattlesnake, ein schleyer von baumrinde und harr von den gefrantz von baumrinde [need to check this: the best I have so far is something made of bark and hair . . . from bark]; Chinese shoes, a model of the Grave of Jerusalem; all kinds of things that live in the sea, rocks, Indian balsam,  terrestrial and celestial globes and all kinds of other things; I saw Greenwich . . . the Queen’s yacht, the park, where there was a very lovely view, London Bridge, St Paul’s, Southwark, Monument, the Foundling Hospital. Exchange, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Garden, Templebar,  Somerset House.”

To judge by this entry, the family’s visit to the British Museum in July 1765 seems to have made a particularly strong impression on Nannerl. And a number of the objects that she saw there are still on display, so it is possible – however remotely – possibly to put ourselves in the children’s shoes and try to imagine what it must have been like for Wolfgang and his sister to see such exotic objects from around the world. It seems likely, for instance, that what she described as the ‘Grave of Jerusalem’ is a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now on display in the Enlightenment Gallery  [image]. This particular example was part of the Museum’s original collection, bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753; made of wood, it is inlaid inside and out with mother-of-pearl quatrefoils, rosettes and geometric patterns; the tower and both domes as well as the roof panels are detachable to reveal the interior. The model seems to have been made in Lebanon, Jordan or Israel at the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth centuries.

Other items mentioned by Nannerl also survive although they cannot always be identified with certainty. The Chinese shoes are listed in Sloane’s catalogue of his holdings, which also includes shoes from India, China, Japan, Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere. In a portrait from 1773, Sir Joseph Banks wears a Tahitian cape made of bark cloth, a form of felted cloth, used for garments and bedding, that was made by beating out the inner bark of a tree, mostly that of the paper mulberry.

But the Mozarts did not just look, they bought as well. Leopold Mozart’s estate inventory – the basis for a public auction of his goods in Salzburg on 15 September 1787 - included ‘2 fine lacquered English cups’ (considering other items at this point in the sale presumably coffee or tea cups), ‘a pair of English bellows’, ‘an English machine for cutting quills, made of brass’, ‘An English clock in an enamel case’ and ‘An English corkscrew made of copper.’

Among the more expensive items owned by Leopold – items that represent his lifelong interest in optical equipment – were ‘a composite microscope with all appurtenances, made by Dollond of London’, ‘an excellent solar microscope with all appurtenances . . . made by Dollond’, and ‘an achromatic tubus of three feet in length with double objective glass made by . . . Dollond.’  The fact that Leopold had such a telescope, puts him in the forefront of scientific inquisitiveness and modernity among Salzburgers; as far as I know no instrument of this sort was known in his home town at the time. The achromatic telescope – which eliminates chromatic aberration by using a combination of two lenses made of differing kinds of glass, thereby correcting differences in the refractive indexes for different wavelengths of light – was perfected in London only in the 1730s, and the first patent for such a device, Dollond’s, dates only from the late 1750s. [image of Dollond advert] Leopold’s interest in scientific equipment not only marked him out as a ‘modern’ man – and incidentally this is how he described his own music as well, ‘modern’ – but it also had practical social benefits: it was a possible point of contact between him and George III, who was similarly interested in what was then described as ‘experimental philosophy’. Presumably then, the Mozarts’ relationship to the royal family – and possibly to the nobility and intelligentsia elsewhere, to those engaged with Enlightenment ideas - was based on more than the traditional model of patron and patronized musical prodigy or genius: it was based at least in part on shared interests in the world around them.

Some of the items that the Mozarts saw in the British Museum were souvenirs. The model of the church of the holy sepulcher, for example, had its origin in the discovery and excavations of Christian sites, as result of which Jerusalem became a focus for pilgrimage, tourism, and commercial ventures. And some of the items that they collected on tour were also souvenirs. Among those that survive, the most extensive is a collection of topographical engravings from London, Paris and Italy. In her travel diary, Nannerl noted the family’s visits to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, Richmond, Fulham Bridge, the Foundling Hospital and Somerset House. The engravings they brought home of all these places still survive in the library of the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg.

Nor was it the case that the Mozarts merely collected souvenirs: they were no strangers to producing them as well. When the family arrived in Paris at the end of 1763, Leopold had a family portrait done by Louis Carrogis, known as Carmontelle [image], a portrait that he then arranged to be engraved in copper by a M. de Mechel [Wolfgang plays the harpsichord, I’m standing behind the seat and play violin, and Nannerl leans one arm on the harpsichord. In her other hand she holds a piece of music as if she were singing’ (letter of 1 April 1764)]. This engraving, a souvenir of the family and in particular of Wolfgang, became a staple sales item, a money spinner, for the Mozarts for at least a decade. In London in 1765 Leopold wrote to his landlord in Salzburg, ‘M. Grimm sponsored the portrait and in Paris it sells for 24 sols, so more than 30 kreuzer. If you like, when you get them [here Leopold refers to a packet of engravings Grimm was supposed to send to Salzburg], you can send 30 to Herr Lotter, printer and music dealer in Augsburg, and 30 to Frau or Herr Hafner, lute maker in Nurnberg, and let them know that they can sell them for 15 kreuzer apiece.’ As late as 1778 Leopold wrote to his son, then in Mannheim, ‘I see that there are no more of the engravings and sonatas which I gave to Hummel in Amsterdam, Gesner in Zurich, Stattschreiber in Winterthur, Seul in Berne, and to an engraver in Geneva, as well as Scherer in Lyon.’ Leopold might have added London to the list as well. A version was produced for sale in London and widely distributed. It is listed, for example, in several late eighteenth-century London estate inventories or in catalogues of sales or collections of engravings and portraits.  A second version – limited to Wolfgang - was produced to accompany Daines Barrington’s ‘Account of a very Remarkable Young Musician’ published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Mozart even produced a musical souvenir while in London: during their visit to the British Museum, Leopold presented the Trustees not only with copies of the engraved editions of Wolfgang’s early sonatas, but also a music autograph, the motet ‘God is Our Refuge’.  According to Leopold, the work was written specifically at the request of the museum, to house among its collections, as a memento of the family’s visit.

Musical souvenirs were not new to Leopold. During the eighteenth century, Salzburg was considered a prime travel destination, even if it wasn’t on all of the well-established, direct routes between major Grand Tour destinations. In 1767, Thomas Nugent wrote that ‘Those who chuse the shortest way [from Nuremberg to Augsburg and Venice] have no occasion to go to Munich or Saltzburg; but such as aim at pleasure and improvement, should by all means see both those cities.’  About the same time, the anonymous New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels noted that ‘Saltzburg is a fine city . . . the palace is magnificent, abounding with fine pictures, tables of inlaid marble, and superb stones of all colours, and adorned with statues. . . In the cathedral all the altars are of beautiful marble of different kinds; under the cupola are four altars with an organ, the fifth and finest organ is over the main entrance. . . The roof of this church is covered with copper, the gallery betwixt the cathedral and the palace, is of white marble; and nothing in the world can make finer musick than the chimes of this cathedral.’ 

One of the chief tourist attractions in Salzburg was a mechanical organ, the so-called Horwerk at the Hohensalzburg fortress. First constructed in 1502, and intended to wake the town inhabitants at four in the morning, it consists of more than 120 pipes activated by bellows and a wind box. As an open-air instrument, the Hornwerk  frequently required repair and in 1753 the Salzburg court organ maker, Rochus Egedacher, was commissioned to renovate and expand the mechanism. Egedacher built a new barrel with twelve pieces, one for each month of the year: five of them were composed by the court music director, Ernst Eberlin, and the rest by Leopold Mozart, then a court violinist. Tourists to the city made a point to hear it, one visitor, in 1798, writing that: “In the morning we woke to the most wonderful sounds, floating through the air. . . Three times the sweet melody ended, and three times it began again. It was the organ in the tower across from the Residenz which regularly at seven and eleven in the mornings, and at six in the evenings, played a well-chosen melody. We tried, as often as we cold, to listen in the square.”

Leopold Mozart published the pieces in 1759. But the publication was not merely a printed music edition – it was a souvenir. For unlike virtually all editions of printed music produced in Germany in the eighteenth-century, this one included a lengthy prefatory text, a potted history of Salzburg, seemingly a clear sign that it was also intended as a memento, as a keepsake of a visit to the city.

W.A. Mozart in maturity

As a souvenir, then, the Hornwerk edition served not only practical music making but also – in Enlightenment terms – as an engagement with memory and feelings. According to Grimm’s Wörterbuch, the word ‘souvenir’ was not used in German until about 1800: before that the idea was rendered as ‘andenken’ – to think about - or ‘äuszeres zeichen’ – outer sign [of something inside]. This broadly corresponds with the more nuanced definition of souvenir in the Encyclopedie: “MÉMOIRE, SOUVENIR, RESSOUVENIR, RÉMINISCENCE. . . These four words express equally the repeated attention of the mind to ideas it has already perceived. But the different nuances attached to them [in the points of view accessory to them] gives these words distinctive meanings. . . Memoire and souvenir express the attention of the mind to ideas it does not forget, although those ideas no longer occupy it: the ideas have made permanent [durables] impressions; one casts a glance at them by choice, it is an action of the will . . . Memoire however is concerned only with the ideas of the mind; it is the action of a faculty subordinated to intelligence, it seeks to enlighten. Souvenir, on the other hand, is concerned with ideas that interest the heart; it is the action of a faculty necessary to the sensibility of the soul, it seeks to arouse.”

As an idea, souvenir finds musical expression in settings of texts throughout the eighteenth century: Mozart’s ‘Dove sono’, from Le nozze di Figaro, is only one example. But can this idea also find expression in untexted music, could it inform the way Mozart’s works might be, even might have been, heard and understood?
In 1789 and 1790, just a few years before his premature death, Mozart composed three quartets, the so-called ‘Prussian Quartets’. Frequently dismissed as inferior to his six quartets dedicated to Haydn and composed between 1782 and 1785, they have made critics ‘uncomfortable’: by and large they are seen as reflecting Mozart’s decline, his poor health and unpopularity, his slide into oblivion, a portent of his premature death, all signs that he did not ‘fit’ with the times. The great French Mozartean, Georges de St Foix, described the first movement of the last of the quartets, K590, in this way:

Curiously, in this last quartet . . . despite the strength of the craftsmanship, despite a tendency more and more towards thematic unity, there is in the first movement a feeling of discomfort, as if it is knocking up against something unforeseen. This is apparent, for example, in the first two bars when there is a sudden forte. The development, so remarkable in other respects, is another example of this ‘new spirit’: and that is, in the second part, the brusque and violent eruption of counterpoint – the point of departure for which is precisely the opening measures [ie. the sudden eruption]… this gives an impression of primitiveness, even savagery.

What is the discomfort St Foix hears in the work? Given his description not only of this quartet but others in the set as well, it would seem to be an expressive emptiness, a common complaint (nowadays) against many of the composer’s last works. And from an analytical or descriptive point of view, there is reason to characterize the quartet in this way: as St Foix notes, the first movement begins with a three fold statement of the main theme that blossoms on successive iterations, from a unison in all the parts, to an answering phrase that begins unison but after the first measure includes a chordal accompaniment, to a final statement that finally launches the movement on its way, fully ‘classical’ in its melody and accompaniment, with hints of free counterpoint, rhythmic and metrical clarity, and cadential drive. But this is juxtaposed, in the development section, by music that can quite literally be described as empty: for at least eighteen bars virtually nothing happens, the cello (and later the first violin) articulate downbeats, the second violin and viola fill out the harmony in steady quavers, and the first violin (later the cello) provide what can only be described as a tag, a four note chromatic line that does little more than mark time in the second half of each measure – there is no melody, a motoric uniformity of rhythm and substance and a wandering sense of harmonic direction with few downbeat root position chords: the passage is disembodied, in a way ‘absent’ by any standard reckoning of what constitutes the ‘classical’ style. And as if to show just how empty the passage is, it is followed by the densest stretch in the entire movement, an outburst of counterpoint that includes virtually every ‘stylistic’ element that is missing in the previous bars and that, in overabundant fashion, builds to the dominant and then to the recapitulation. St Foix hears the savagery, but does not describe the stark emptiness that precedes it, the musical representation, perhaps, of absence and presence – perhaps even souvenir. And in the end, for all of the seeming recapturing of stability, and the repetition of the relatively unproblematic opening, it is absence – of a sort fundamental to the idea of souvenir, as an object or an idea or a feeling of the spirit from the past - that remains. For the movement concludes with a coda that seems to suggest that recapturing ‘fullness’, as the movement apparently does, is at best chimerical. Indeed, in a sense the ending is doubly souvenir: because it recalls and prioritizes material heard considerably earlier in the movement, material that in its original context could already be characterized as empty or absent, it is itself a recollection of absence, a sign of a sign.

Possibly, then, even an instrumental work such as K590 encapsulates, at least in part, some central Enlightenment ideas  - and makes Mozart’s an Enlightenment life, and an Enlightenment art, after all.

Professor Cliff Eisen, King’s College, University of London

Portrait of Mozart by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange