Monday, January 31, 2022

A Mozart pilgrimage

[Ivory miniature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his older sister Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) by Eusebius Johann Alphen c.1765]

It's a fascinating and mouthwatering glimpse into the past reading about Vincent and Mary Novello's visit to Salzburg in 1829, twenty-eight years after Mozart's death, to visit two people intimately connected with their musical idol: Mozart's sister, Nannerl, and Mozart's widow, Constanze. The sensation of reading Vincent Novello's diary feels strangely contemporary, as if their Mozart quest could have taken place just yesterday. In truth the Novellos are barely any closer to our age than the Mozarts were, yet it doesn't stop me boggling at the thought that Vincent and Mary Novello were meeting the two most important women in Mozart's life as late as the dawning era of Chopin and Liszt and so called romanticism! It's a sad reflection on the paucity of our own artistic age that so much remarkable creativity took place within such a short time span: barely 50 years is needed to cover the period from mature Mozart, through all significant Beethoven, the entire lives of Schubert and Chopin, to the dawning era of Brahms. In today's age that same time span would only take us as far back as 1970. Perhaps I'm also fascinated by the Novellos' idol-seeking quest because I've done similar things myself: in 1992 I travelled from London to New York for the sole purpose of meeting Gershwin's sister Frankie and Gershwin's girlfriend Kay Swift, as part of my own hero worship of Gershwin (who like Mozart also died tragically young) and my search for anyone with a close connection to the composer.

But the Novellos only just made their trip in time. Mozart's sister, Nannerl, now 77, was dangerously ill and close to death. Since 1819 Nannerl and Mozart's widow Constanze had been close neighbours, though their relationship in the past had been quite strained. Constanze and her second husband Georg Nikolaus von Nissen had moved to Salzburg from Copenhagen to facilitate the writing of the first authoritative biography of Mozart. Sadly Nissen died before the project could be completed, but the biography was eventually published, under Constanze's watchful eye, a year before the Novellos' 1829 visit.

Coincidentally, at the exact same time as the Novellos' visit to Salzburg, Chopin was making his way to Vienna, his first ever visit to the city. Two weeks after his arrival at the end of the July, he made his Vienna debut, on 11 August 1829 at the Royal and Imperial Opera House. Before returning to the Novellos' Mozart quest I think it's interesting to briefly pause for this contemporaneous event in nearby Vienna. Chopin has left us a detailed account of the trials leading up to his Viennese debut in this letter to his close friend Titus Woyciechowski:

"The orchestra kept scowling at me during rehearsal, the main cause being that, having scarcely arrived, I had the nerve to play my own compositions. Well, I began the rehearsal with your Variations which were to be preceded at the concert by the Krakowiak Rondo. They went well, but I had to begin the Rondo a couple of times and the orchestra got frightfully mixed up and blamed my bad writing. The cause of the confusion was that the rests were written differently above and below the stave, but it was agreed that only the top ones should count. It was partly my fault, but I had expected that they would understand. All the same this inaccuracy infuriated them, for these gentlemen are themselves virtuosi and composers. Anyhow they made such cutting remarks about me that I felt almost like falling ill in preparation for the evening's performance. However, Baron Demmar, the director, noticing this little prejudice on the orchestra's part (by the way, Würfel insisted on conducting and they don't like him — I don't know why) proposed that instead of the Rondo I should improvise. When he said THAT, the orchestra opened their eyes very wide. I was so worked up that in despair I accepted, and who knows but what my bad temper and the risk I was running did not spur me on to a better performance in the evening. Anyway, the sight of the Viennese public did not put me out in the least, and as it is the custom for the orchestra to stay in their usual places [down below] instead of being on the stage, I sat down, pale, with a young man wearing rouge to turn over the pages (he boasted that he had done the same for Moscheles, Hummel, Herz, etc., when they were in Vienna), in front of a superb instrument, perhaps the finest then in Vienna, made by Graff. Believe me, I played out of sheer desperation. The Variations produced such an effect that although they applauded after each one I had to come out and take another bow at the end. In between, Mlle Veltheim sang; she is Kammersängerin to the King of Saxony. At last the moment came for me to improvise. I don't know how it all happened, but it went so well that the orchestra began to clap and I was again called back to the stage. So ended my first concert." [Chopin, letter to Titus Woyciechowski, Vienna, 12 September 1829]

The Novellos visited Vienna as well as Salzburg during their Mozart pilgrimage in that summer of 1829, but sadly I haven't come across any record of them hearing the 19-year-old Chopin. And how sad to think that Mozart's widow and sister could potentially have heard Chopin that night. Mozart's sister would have been too infirm to make the almost 200 mile journey, but Constanze could have been up for it, and after all, she knew Vienna well, home to her and her sisters Aloysia and Sophie before and after she married Mozart. All three sisters were now widowed, and all three were now living close to one another in Salzburg. Had they even been aware of Chopin, and attended his Vienna debut, one work on the programme, which Chopin was premiering that very night, would have sounded very familiar to them: his Variations on Là ci darem la mano from Mozart's Don Giovanni!

[Pencil drawing of (1829), by Princess Elisa Radziwiłł]

Meanwhile, back in Salzburg, the Novellos were charmed by Constanze Mozart Nissen, who always referred to her first husband as "her Mozart" and "her one true love". She told the Novellos that one particular portrait she had on display (by Joseph Lange) was the best likeness of her husband.

[Unfinished portrait of Mozart at the piano (1789), by Joseph Lange]

The Novellos also remarked on the touching portrait of the Mozart children, Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver, hand in hand. Mozart had proudly taken his 7-year-old son Karl Thomas with him to the first performances of The Magic Flute in 1791 ("My taking Carl to the opera caused him no small joy" Mozart wrote to Constanze on 14 October 1791). Franz Xaver was only a 5 month old baby when Mozart died so sadly would have had no memories of his father.

[Portrait of the two surviving children of Wolfgang and Constanze Mozart, Franz Xaver and Karl Thomas (1798), by Hans Hansen]

Constanze also shared other intimate details of the Mozarts' homelife with the Novellos. She told them that Mozart was always composing, irrespective of place or circumstances. She told them that his Quartet in D minor K.421 was written when she was at the height of labour, giving birth to their first child Raimund Leopold (who tragically died 2 months later). Constanze said that the baby's unrest and her own cries can be heard in several passages of the music, particularly in the minuet [its trio]. Constanze even sang some of the passages to the Novellos to demonstrate!

[Minuet & trio from Mozart's Quartet in D minor K.421, played by the Alban Berg Quartett]

For the Novellos in 1829 it must have felt that they were so close, yet still tantalisingly distant, from their musical hero. Vincent Novello kept an autograph album and on his travels in 1829 invited Mozart's widow to sign it, which she happily did with the following inscription:

La misère des pauvres, le bonheur des riches,
La gloire des héros, la Majesté des Rois—
Tout finit par: Ci-gît

Salzburg ce 15 Juillet 1829
Souvenez vous Monsieur et Madame de votre très humble Servante Constance de Nissen Veuve Mozart

Constanze also presented the Novellos with a number of gifts, including a sample of Mozart's handwriting cut from an envelope Mozart had addressed to his father, and some manuscript fragments including Mozart's keyboard reduction of two of his minuets from K.176.

[Minuet no.3 in E flat K.176 performed by the Vienna Mozart Ensemble conducted by Willi Boskovsky, preceded by the composer's own reduction for keyboard, played by Martino Tirimo. The featured manuscript is Mozart's autograph, which his widow Constanze gave as a gift to Vincent Novello during his visit to Salzburg in 1829]

Constanze also presented Vincent Novello with a copy of the aria Al desio di chi t'adora, written as a replacement for Deh vieni non tardar for the August 1789 revival of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart is said to have used this copy to accompanying his wife, and on the last page, under a vocal cadenza, Constanze has written the words:

"Questa e la Scritura di mio defonto Marito Mozart chi ha fato per me e che il signor Novello aver la bonagrazie de prendere da mie, Constanze Nissen, Salisburgo il 3 Augusto 1829"

"This is the writing of my deceased husband Mozart who created it for me and which Signor Novello has the good grace to take from me, Constanze Nissen, Salzburg, 3 August 1829"

[The last page of Al desio di chi t'adora from the 1789 revival of The Marriage of Figaro, with an inscription by Mozart's wife, Constanze Nissen, under a cadenza written in Mozart's own hand]

[Detail of Constanze's inscription to Vincent Novello on the last page of Mozart's aria Al desio di chi t'adora, pointing out the cadenza in Mozart's own hand]

Mozart had previously written many arias for his wife's high soprano voice including, most notably, the Et incarnatus est from his C minor Mass K.427 of 1783. You can hear the complete Al desio di chi t'adora aria from The Marriage of Figaro here:

[Al desio di chi t'adora from the 1789 revival of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, sung by Cecilia Bartoli, with the Wiener Kammerorchester conducted by György Fischer]

Constanze not only had an influence on her husband's vocal writing but also played an important rôle in encouraging his interest in polyphony, according to the words of Mozart himself:

"I composed the fugue [of the Fantasy and Fugue, K. 394] first and wrote it down while I was thinking out the prelude. I only hope that you will be able to read it, for it is written so very small; and I hope further that you will like it. Another time I shall send you something better for the clavier. My dear Constanze is really the cause of this fugue's coming into the world. Baron van Swieten, to whom I go every Sunday, gave me all the works of Händel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me (after I had played them to him). When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Händel and Bach. Well, as she has often heard me play fugues out of my head, she asked me if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me roundly for not recording some of my compositions in this most artistically beautiful of all musical forms and never ceased to entreat me until I wrote down a fugue for her." [Mozart, letter to his sister Nannerl, 20 April 1782]

When the Novellos arrived in Salzburg in July 1829 they also had with them a gift they wished to deliver to Mozart's sister, a sum of money (£63) raised from well-wishers in England for relief from poverty (in actual fact Mozart's sister was not as destitute as people thought, but the gesture was gratefully received nevertheless). It's worth quoting Vincent Novello's diary at length as he paints such a vivid portrait of his visit to both Mozart's sister and widow. His descriptions of Mozart's sister are very poignant, as she was clearly very close to death (she died just three months after the Novellos' visit, on 29 October 1829):

"Monday, July 15th. — A still more delightful day, if possible, than yesterday — Mozart's son [the Mozarts' youngest son Franz Xaver] came to me at about 11 to conduct us to his aunt Sonnenberg [Mozart's sister Nannerl] — after a little chat we accompanied him to her house, which was within a few yards of where we resided. It seems that she had passed a very restless and sleepless night for fear we would not come to see her, and had repeatedly expressed her regret that we had not been admitted when we first called. On entering the room, the sister of Mozart was reclining placidly in bed — but blind, feeble, and nearly speechless. Her nephew kindly explained to her who we were, and she seemed to derive much gratification from the intelligence we conveyed to her. During the whole time, I held her poor thin hand in mine, and pressed it with the sincere cordiality of an old friend of her brother. She appeared particularly pleased that the little present we had brought her should have arrived on her own Saint's day (St. Ann, the 26th of the month). Her own birthday is on the 30th, on which day she will have completed her 78th year. Her voice is nearly extinct, and she appears to be fast approaching 'that bourn from whence no traveller returns'. Her face, though much changed by illness and drawn by age, still bears a strong resemblance to the portraits that have been engraved of her; but it was difficult to believe that the helpless and languid figure which was extended before us was formerly the little girl represented as standing by the side of her brother, and singing to his accompaniment. Near the bed was the original painting of which Madame Nissen [Constanze, Mozart's widow] has a small copy, and which has been engraved in the Biography, representing Mozart and his sister playing a duet on the piano, the likeness of Mozart's mother in a frame, and the father leaning on the piano with a violin in his hand" [Johann Nepomuk della Croce's Mozart family portrait, c.1780].

[Mozart family portrait: Maria Anna ("Nannerl"), Wolfgang, Anna Maria (wall portrait, already deceased when the portrait was painted) and Leopold Mozart (c.1780) by Johann Nepomuk della Croce]

"In the adjoining apartment, over the sofa was the print which his son told me was generally considered the best likeness after that in Madame Nissen's possession (in which opinion he himself coincided). Around the room was hung a very numerous collection of portraits of the greatest painters, amongst whom I particularly noticed those of van Dyck and Rembrandt. In another part of the room was a miniature of herself; another of her son (who had some resemblance to Leigh Hunt); and another likeness in miniature of Mozart. In the middle of the room stood the instrument on which she had often played duets with her brother. It was a kind of clavichord — with black keys for the naturals and white ones for the sharps, like our old English Cathedral organs — the compass was from F1 to F6, and had evidently been constructed before the additional keys were invented. The tone was soft, and some of the bass notes, especially those of the lowest octave C3 to C2 were of a good quality; at the time it was made it was doubtless considered an excellent instrument. You may be sure that I touched the keys which had been pressed by Mozart's fingers, with great interest. Mozart's son also played a few chords upon it with evident pleasure; the key he chose was that of C minor; and what he did, though short, was quite sufficient to show the accomplished musician. On the desk were two pieces of music, the last which Mozart's sister had ever played, before she took to her bed, six months ago. They were the 'O cara Armonia' from her brother's opera of the Zauberflöte ["Das klinget so herrlich" from the Magic Flute], and the Minuet in his Don Giovanni [from the finale of Act I]; — this, to me, was a most touching proof of her continued sisterly attachment to him to the last, and of her tasteful partiality for his inimitable productions. About two days before we arrived she had desired to be carried from her bed, and placed at the instrument. On trying to play she found that although she could still execute a few passages with her right hand, yet with her left hand she could no longer press down the keys, and it was but too evident that her powers on that side were entirely gone. On leaving this estimable and interesting lady, both Mary and myself could not refrain from kissing her weak and emaciated hand with tender respect, convinced as we were that we should never again behold her. I fear that she cannot continue much longer in her present exhausted state; but whenever that hour arrives which no one living can ultimately avoid, I can only hope that it will not be attended with the least suffering, and that she will calmly cease to breathe as if she were merely sinking into a tranquil sleep. I was particularly charmed by the respectful and kind cordiality with which Mozart's son behaved to her; calling her repeatedly "Meine leibe Tante," and exerting himself to the utmost to ascertain and fulfil all her wishes."

In a subsequent undated entry from the same July 1829 diary Vincent Novello also says more about Constanze:

"After supper I had the gratification of seeing Mozart's widow and her sister safe home. They had brought their servant with them, to save my doing so, and would fain have persuaded me there was not the least necessity for my accompanying them home; but (as I told her) it was not every evening that I could enjoy the society of so rare a companion as one who had been the companion of Mozart, and she politely gave up the little friendly contest, and at once took my arm as cordially as if I had been her own brother. There was a beautiful moon shining on the distant mountains, and illuminating both the old Gothic church of the convent and the ancient fortress above. The interesting conversation which took place, and the enchanting beauty of the surrounding scenery, rendered this one of the most romantic and delightful walks I ever enjoyed. On our arrival at the house I was at last obliged to take my leave; when Madame Mozart once more shook hands with me most cordially, and assured me (after renewing her promise to write to me) that our visit altogether to Salzburg had been one of the most gratifying compliments which had been paid for several years both to herself and to the memory of "her Mozart". I need not say what a crowd of interesting associations, curious thoughts, and singular reflections, passed through my mind in the course of my solitary walk back to my Inn."

[Mozart's O cara Armonia ("Das klinget so herrlich") from The Magic Flute & Minuet from Don Giovanni (from the finale of Act I), the last two pieces of music Mozart's sister Nannerl ever played]

[Portrait of Constanze Mozart (1802) by Hans Hansen. Hansen met his future wife, Jørgine Henriette Liewhile, while painting this portrait, and when their first child was born they named him Constantin in honour of Constanze, who became the boy's godparent (Constantin, like his father, became a well-known Danish painter).]

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

"Practice, practice, practice" comes the answer, in this well-known old joke. In the light of my own recent experience this adage needs to be amended. When I first played at Carnegie Hall many years ago I was proudly shown a letter by the hall administration from Gershwin, thanking Carnegie Hall for their help. Carnegie Hall had witnessed the premiere of An American in Paris in 1928 and in September 1935 Carnegie Hall was the location chosen for a private rehearsal of his opera Porgy and Bess, the first full orchestral run-through without cuts. Prior to its Boston and New York premieres this was the very first time the opera had ever been heard in its entirety, and aside from the performers the only others present in the vast auditorium were a few friends and family. Ira Gershwin described the occasion thus: "Until then only George knew what it would sound like. I couldn't believe my ears. That wonderful orchestra and the full chorus on the stage. I never realized it would be like that. It was one of the great thrills of my life". Ann Brown, who sang Bess in the opening production, has also left us an evocative description of that first Carnegie Hall run-through: "When the echoes of the last chords of Porgy and Bess had disappeared into the nearly empty hall, we were – all of us – in tears. It had been so moving."

In the late spring of 2019 I was deeply honored to be asked to play again at Carnegie Hall in the autumn of 2019 for an event that was described to me as celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and America (with in attendance a sea of specially invited guests from embassies, consulates, the UN and so forth). I had been asked to contribute the music of two composers who are central to my repertoire, Chopin and Gershwin, ending the evening with the latter’s Rhapsody in Blue. In addition I would be working with the soprano Angel Blue in extracts from Porgy and Bess (Angel Blue was about to open in the lead role of the New York Metropolitan Opera's first production of Porgy and Bess in 30 years). Also invited to take part was the Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, and other distinguished artists, and in addition I would be working with soloists from the Polish National Ballet on a specially devised choreography of my own authentic Gershwin repertoire. It sounded like a dream concert and one I was only too happy to be a part of. The fact that I had yet to be told the name of the organisation behind the concert was odd, but in the light of the artists I would be working with it seemed unimportant at the time.

Fast forwarding a few months (and bear with me in this change of direction) at the end of July 2019 I was reading troubling reports from the BBC of a Polish weekly magazine called Gazeta Polska, who were offering printed stickers to their readers declaring LGBT-free zones using a chilling symbol of a black X superimposed on the rainbow flag [Poland court bans 'LGBT-free zone' sticker from sale]. Further reading led to an equally chilling editorial from the Gazeta Polska's editor Tomasz Sakiewicz describing LGBT as "an ideology that has all the features of a totalitarian one", justifying the statement with nefarious comparisons with the tactics of the Communist and Nazi regimes.

Imagine my shock only minutes after reading these reports when I turned to the Carnegie Hall website and for the first time discovered that the concert I was due to take part in on October 24 was being "presented by the Gazeta Polska Community of America". I immediately requested clarification from my contact in Warsaw, as well as from friends in the Polish community, and it quickly became apparent that there was no disguising the close affiliation with the Gazeta Polska magazine in Poland. The Carnegie Hall event had been benignly billed as "From Chopin to Gershwin" and I imagined that without any media scrutiny most New Yorkers would probably remain unaware of the anti-LGBT propaganda that lay behind a concert soon to be promoted throughout the city.

Needless to say I had no choice but to withdraw from the concert after discovering the link. It was not a decision I took lightly, but I could not with good conscience take part in an event that had connections to an organization that expressed views that I regarded as abhorrent and which were in opposition to everything I stood for. I also felt it my duty to let the other performers involved know the nature of the organisation behind the concert. After contacting both Charles Richard-Hamelin and Angel Blue and informing them of the activities of Gazeta Polska, they both had no hesitation in withdrawing from the event as well. And thus it was that I found myself in the unhappy position of dismantling what had at first seemed like a dream concert at Carnegie Hall. I was glad to read on 25 August 2019 that the latest artist caught in the Gazeta Polska trap, the pianist Paul Bisaccia, has also wisely withdrawn from the event – not an easy thing to do given the allure of Carnegie Hall.

The sad aspect of all this is that music, more than any other art form, has the extraordinary ability to bring people together, to rise above prejudice, welcoming everyone, regardless of our differences, to its enchanting harmonies. On 26 July 2019, the day I withdrew from the Carnegie Hall concert after learning of the Gazeta Polska connection, I wrote a Facebook post on the remarkable Astolphe de Custine. Astolphe de Custine was one of Chopin's most ardent supporters and contained within his correspondence are some remarkable letters to Chopin, including an extraordinary one written after Chopin’s last public performance in Paris in 1848, containing these memorable lines: "Art, as you understand it, is the only thing that can unite mankind divided by the hard realities of life. One may love and understand one's neighbour through Chopin." Astolphe de Custine had good reason to write such words, having been persecuted for his homosexuality, at one point beaten and left for dead, and subject to the most vile homophobic attacks in the press; his remarks could not be more apposite here.

So, to return to my opening remark, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well apparently it helps if you DON'T use a moral compass.

* * * * *

Further reading

Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda

For further reading, here is a harrowing personal account from a march in Białystok, Poland in July, translated by my dear friend Antonia Lloyd-Jones [warning, the account contains strong language that some may find offensive]: The struggle for LGBT equality: Pride meets prejudice in Poland

[Marian Anderson singing at Carnegie Hall on January 5th 1947]