An excerpt from
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Prologue • June 1765
In a London Tavern
In July 1765, in a London tavern with the inviting name the Swan and Harp, in Cornhill, a district not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Leopold Mozart presented his two children, Maria Anna, called Marianne or Nannerl (who was fourteen) and Wolfgang (who was nine) to the public. In a flier written by their father the two children were presented as “Prodigies of Nature.” Both children played the harpsichord well, but little Wolfgang was astonishing. He could read any piece of music at sight, improvise on a theme suggested to him, and name any note produced by any instrument or even a bell, a drinking glass, or a mechanical clock. What is more, he was an elegant child, self-assured and charming. The father glowed with legitimate pride at the prowess of his son. Leopold had not only fathered the child, but had provided him with his musical training and taught him to read, write, and figure sums. In short, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart was his father Leopold’s biological and pedagogical masterpiece.
London was one halt in a trip throughout Europe that Nannerl, Wolfgang, and their parents had begun two years earlier. They had already played before bankers, dukes, princes, and sovereigns, among them Maria Theresa of Austria and Louis XV, the king of France. They had been in London for over a year and had been received at Buckingham Palace by King George III and his consort, Queen Charlotte Sophia. They had been received with honor in many aristocratic houses in London and had already given a concert with a paid admission set at half a guinea (10s. 6d.) in the Great Room of Spring Garden, near St. James Park.
Before the two siblings left England (never to return), however, they gave a concert in the Cornhill tavern for the bargain price of 2s. 6d., as stated in the announcement written by Leopold and published in the Public Advertiser of 8 July 1765. Wishing to earn money, Leopold Mozart had decided to turn to the middle class of shopkeepers, professional people, and craftsmen, declaring that the two child prodigies would play for several days from noon to three in the afternoon in that smoky London tavern. The announcement invited anyone who wanted to hear and admire them to hurry, and in fact by the end of July the entire Mozart family would leave England to return to the continent.
In the summer of 1765 Leopold was forty-five years old. He was a musician of solid training and a certain talent, employed by the small archiepiscopal court of Salzburg. He had published a useful manual for violinists, but his talents were not sufficient for a glorious career. We can presume that without the extraordinary resource of his children, he would have never have known success or traveled throughout Europe. He was an anxious man, often discontent and even depressed, but he was intelligent, and for years he had concentrated on refining Wolfgang’s and Nannerl’s talents. He realized that if he wanted to guarantee his own success and financial security, he needed to move swiftly to exploit his children’s gifts, since the magical appeal of the child prodigy soon dissipates.
This is why, after organizing the usual concerts before sovereigns, dukes, baronets, and London bankers, Leopold arranged to have his children perform in a much humbler locale, before the avant-garde of the new middle class and the emerging would-be middle class, who were beginning to have real money jingling in their pockets. London was the capital of England, the nation at the forefront of the emergence of a new industrial civilization. After ten thousand years of an agricultural economy, England—just at the time of the Mozarts’ visit—was in the lead in an economic and social revolution that later transformed the entire structure of society—including relations between musicians and their public. Few were aware of it, but the paid concert in the Cornhill tavern was already a sign of new times.
Nannerl, Wolfgang’s sister, was a graceful and obedient girl who played the harpsichord well. She had begun to play much earlier than her brother, which would rightly have led her to think that Wolfgang was so skilled because he had her example before him in the family home. Siblings can be highly competitive, even in their tender years, and this was very probably the case with the two little Mozarts. Nannerl had always provided a model and a point of comparison for Wolfgang. Almost as soon as he opened his eyes to the world, the younger brother could have observed that his sister was rewarded, praised, and indulged because she played so well, and he was probably motivated to do as well as she or even better. Both Nannerl and Leopold were Wolfgang’s teachers. By the time the family reached London, however, she had to watch her little brother triumph, stifling mixed emotions of admiration and jealousy, protection and envy, rivalry and self-confidence. The London public also applauded her, but it preferred him. Because he was younger? Or perhaps because he was the better musician?
Some time before, in Vienna, Count Karl von Zinzendorf had occasion to hear the two children, and the judgment that he noted in his diary was unequivocal: Nannerl played with expertise, but Wolfgang was absolutely astonishing. Probably Zinzendorf and many others who heard her play were careful not to humiliate Nannerl by explicitly proclaiming her inferior to her brother, but not everyone was so well-mannered and, in any event, the public’s applause was always louder and more spontaneous after Wolfgang played. Nannerl must have realized that she was less talented than her brother. As if that were not enough, after she turned fourteen she no longer belonged (even in theory) to the category of the child prodigy, even if Leopold attempted to keep her there by giving out her age as younger.
Wolfgang was small in stature, of slight build and a somewhat pale complexion, and he almost always looked serious, even austere. The public was struck, at times intimidated, by his appearance. Two years earlier, at Frankfurt am Main, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was fourteen at the time, had attended a concert given by the Mozart children. He stated later that he could “still quite clearly remember the little fellow with his wig and his sword,” already famous in many parts of Europe, who performed before an audience sitting perfectly erect. Little Wolfgang was aware of his celebrity and of the power that his musical talent gave him over the public. He already was familiar with the art of seducing and dominating an audience. He managed to do so without effort, with grace and a light touch, either in a great court before princes and sovereigns or in a London tavern playing for commoners. He was sure of himself: as Leopold wrote in a letter from London dated 8 June 1764, “My boy knows in this his eighth year what one would expect only from a man of forty.” This composure induced his father to display him like some sort of carnival attraction, playing flawlessly while blindfolded.
The fourth and final member of the family, the mother, Anna Maria née Pertl, was at the time forty-four years old, one year younger than her husband. She never left the family’s side, since her task was to take care of Leopold and the children. She attended the popular concert in London seated on a bench. We do not know much about her. She was not beautiful, her ways were simple and her culture limited. She made spelling errors when she wrote and played no instrument. She was gifted with common sense, however, and was good-natured, well-mannered, and discreet, thus providing exactly what was needed to soothe her agitated husband’s anxieties and attacks of nerves. For Wolfgang, his mother was a solid base; she provided an equilibrium without which he would have found it much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, to express his talent.
With hindsight, the 1765 concert in the Cornhill tavern seems significant not only for the reasons we have seen, but for two others as well.
First, it signaled the end, even for Wolfgang, of the magical stage of the child prodigy. As he approached the age of ten he was less stupefying than he had been four years earlier, when he played in Vienna before Empress Maria Theresa. This was precisely why his father, after exploiting wealthier circuits, decided to peddle him at a discount price in a tavern. After London, the Mozart family continued their vagabond life across Europe for several more years. They had other successes, but on the whole these were less prestigious and less memorable than in earlier years. When they returned to Salzburg at the end of 1766, Wolfgang was nearly eleven. In September 1767, when he left for Vienna, the stamp of the former child prodigy was not only of little help to him, but hindered him: many listeners still saw him as a child, failing to recognize in the twelve-year-old the qualities of greatness of the budding composer.
Second, the Cornhill concert is significant because it attests to the importance of the consumer market for Mozart, even as a child, and it was at the same time an early sign that the market value of a product can decline, a hard fact from which he was to suffer during the course of his life. We cannot exclude the notion that even the Cornhill tavern concert harmed him in the long run. The London aristocracy in fact reacted with indignation. Without realizing it, Leopold had perhaps committed an error of judgment and a discourtesy: with the aim of earning a little more money, he succeeded in irritating those who had already been generous to him. How is it possible, some aristocrats grumbled, that Mr. Mozart, after having obtained so much from us in the form of sumptuous receptions, pounds sterling, gold snuffboxes, jewels, other gifts, and exquisite attentions, should then offer his children to the petty bourgeois for pennies. And in a tavern! Showing them off like sideshow freaks! Leopold’s greed was judged disgraceful and an obvious discredit, and rumors began to spread to the courts of Europe. Several years later, in a letter dated 12 December 1771, Empress Maria Theresa advised her son, Archduke Ferdinand, not to take the Mozarts into his service, because “these people go about the world like beggars” ( “ces gens courent le monde comme des gueux”).
Throughout his life, Wolfgang was unable to rid himself of the stigma of being an unreliable wanderer, and if he never found the well-paid permanent court post that he yearned for and that almost all the better musicians of the age obtained, it was because the empress, her children, and other powerful lords of Europe denied it to him. He was to live primarily on the resources offered him by the consumer market, to which he in turn offered the treasury of experiences that he had stored up since infancy. If we think about it, this was not a misfortune. Perhaps it was precisely thanks to the market that Mozart became the sublime composer we know. In order to remain a viable market commodity, organize paid concerts, and obtain contracts, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, throughout his life, had to strike a balance between tradition and innovation; between his genius, which pointed him toward an avant-garde inventiveness, and a need to earn money, which urged him not to disturb the public with too many novelties. By not putting himself in the service of an old-style prince, he encountered a new and more modern prince, the public of consumers. A new prince and a new principle that were to furnish him with new stimuli, assure him greater liberty, and open the way to modernity in ways that enabled him to continue to occupy center stage on the musical scene even two and a half centuries after his death.