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Susan’s Bookshelves: Mozart in Italy by Jane Glover

I knew just two things about Mozart’s travels in Italy: First, that he was commissioned to write an opera for Milan when he was only 14. Second, that he heard the Allegri Miserere in the Sistine Chapel, returned to his lodgings and wrote it down from memory thereby “spoiling” a Vatican secret and enhancing his own reputation.

There was, obviously, much more to his three tours of Italy between 1769 and 1773 than that. Jane Glover, who subtitles her excellent book “Coming of age in the land of opera”, is able to detail those three gruelling trips in exquisite detail because so many letters have survived along with the writings of contemporaries such as  Dr Charles Burney. The first tour involved the whole family –  Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, his mother Maria Anna and his older sister Nannerl. Thereafter it was just Leopold and Wolfgang to the chagrin of the women left behind in Salzburg but those separations at least meant there were many more letters than there might otherwise have been. Wolfgang’s letters to Nannerl are sparky and often silly thus revealing a lot about the jokey, sibling affection between them

Leopold was something of a mixed blessing as a parent. He was an assiduous cultivator of “useful” contacts, a calculating organiser and his attitude sometimes alienated people. He also had a somewhat cavalier attitude to his court post in Salzburg seeming to think that he could walk away from it for long periods and still be paid. Glover describes the tone of a letter he wrote to his employer in 1777 as “By turns petulant, bossy, self pitying, rebellious, recriminatory and always seeking to inhabit the higher ground of moral superiority”. Of course, as Wolfgang grew up he and his father – from whom he seems to have inherited the inability to manage money – didn’t always see eye to eye. Nonetheless, Wolfgang was devastated by Leopold’s death in 1788.

Glover argues that Mozart fell in love with opera in Italy where he saw many productions, wrote three commissioned operas (and many other compositions) and worked with the finest singers in Europe.  His opera Lucio Silla (K135) ran in Milan for 26 performances despite the opening show starting three hours late because of the delayed arrival at the theatre of the Archduke and Archduchess. Returning home and writing for singers in Austria and Germany was a disappointment because standards were much lower. And he always wrote for specific voices. Once Mozart met a singer and learned what he or she could do the music was tailored accordingly.

It took days to travel between one city and another in the eighteenth century. Coaches were uncomfortable and roads very uneven. When the going, quite literally, got rough Wolfgang took refuge in composition. Glover asserts that he could “remove himself from uncomfortable, or even harsh, reality, and escape to another realm in his imagination, where his creativity blossomed and bore fruit.” I love the idea, for example, that he wrote a string quartet in Bolzano in late September 1772, en route from the Brenner Pass to Milan. They were delayed by heavy rain, and it was a town detested by both Leopold and Wolfgang.  The composition was probably K155 which I’ve played many times. There are six of these, known as the Milanese quartets written in his spare time on that tour. They are all, of course, delightful and beloved of amateur string players.

Glover argues that although he never returned to Italy, after the third trip, it had taught him much at the most receptive time of his life. Thereafter  he would  “bring Italy with him whenever he wrote for an opera house or for exceptional singers”. The 1780s brought new opportunities and Glover traces the influence of all Mozart’s great operas back to his Italian experience.

Of course I have been familiar with Jane Glover’s work as a conductor and music educator (TV and radio) for decades. She is a multi-talented woman. This book is as beautifully written as it is informative. It’s also accessible. You don’t need a music degree to enjoy this one.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Wives of Halcyon by Eirinie Lapidaki

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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