Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

telling tales

the praguers understood him

May 04, 2011

Prague is a beautiful city with a rich cultural history. Prague became an imperial capital in the fourteenth century, when Charles IV reigned as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles ordered the building of the Charles Bridge—called the “Stone Bridge” in his day—which is still in use today as a pedestrian walkway. Charles also founded Charles University and ordered construction to begin on the St. Vitus Cathedral, a brilliant example of Gothic architecture. In the sixteenth century, another Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, lived in Prague, and the city attracted the greatest artists and thinkers of the time.

Over hundreds of years, Prague has experienced hardships both man-made and natural, but it has always endured, maintaining its identity, even among political difficulties. In the early twentieth century it was chosen as the capital of Czechoslovakia after the First World War, but in 1939, the Nazis occupied Prague, forcing the multi-ethnic Jewish population to flee. The city itself sustained serious damage during bombing raids from the United States Army Air Forces. During the Cold War, Prague was behind the Iron Curtain, and its architectural and cultural treasures were cut off from most of the world. After the tumultuous political events of 1989 and the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe, Prague was declared capital of the new Czech Republic, a parliamentary republic, in 1993.

Mozart had a special connection to Prague. Even when the Viennese public seemed to forget about him, Prague was always there to make him feel welcome. In 1786, Mozart presented Le Nozze de Figaro in Vienna, and it was well received. However, when the opera opened in Prague, it caused a sensation. Lovers of the opera conspired to bring Mozart to Prague where he was treated as a celebrity everywhere he went. While there, he gave a performance of the Symphony in D major, which of course came to be known as the “Prague” Symphony. The experience was so overwhelmingly positive that Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni, had its world premiere in Prague. Although Mozart received an offer to stay, he ended up returning to Vienna, where the public’s opinion of him continued to run hot and cold.

One must wonder why Mozart went back to Vienna after being treated so well in Prague. Mozart is even supposed to have said, “My Praguers understand me.” So why leave? There are a few possible reasons. One is that Christoph Willibald Gluck, Kapellmeister in Vienna, passed away in late 1787, and Mozart wanted to replace him. He returned to Vienna in order to get the job. Also, it is rumored that Mozart wasn’t fully satisfied with the skill level of the musicians in Prague. Remember too, that Mozart relied on the patronage system to make a living, and although there were many aristocrats who called Prague home, many of those aristocrats spent time in Vienna.

Emperor Joseph II ended up offering Mozart Gluck’s old job. It was only a part-time, however, and it seems that Joseph gave him the position to keep Mozart from leaving Vienna. It wasn’t a generous offer by any means, but it was just enough to keep Mozart tied to the city. Mozart passed through Prague on his way to Berlin in 1789, but didn’t make a significant visit until 1791. Prague was celebrating the coronation of Leopold II as the King of Bohemia, and the impresario Domenico Guardasoni commissioned a work from Mozart for the occasion. (The story goes that Salieri — Mozart’s rival in the film Amadeus — was Guardasoni’s first choice, but he turned down the commission.) The deadline was tight, but Guardasoni paid Mozart double his usual fee, and La Clemenza di Tito premiered in September of 1791. It was popular, but not universally appreciated. Many critics felt it wasn’t up to Mozart’s usual standards, however, the opera has earned some major champions over the years.

While Mozart was in Prague for the premiere, he became ill, and he did not fully recover. He was well enough to return to Vienna and to conduct the first performance of The Magic Flute, but soon after, he relapsed, and on December 5, 1791, Mozart died. He was thirty-five years old.

Mozart’s short visits left their mark on Prague. If you traveled there today, you could visit the Mozart museum in Bertramka. The theater where Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito premiered, the Estates Theatre, is still there. And if you are a music lover, there is even more to do. You can see the Prague Symphony Orchestra or the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play. Perhaps you can see a production of The Marriage of Figaro performed by the Prague State Opera. Now as in Mozart’s time, Prague is a city of culture and of music lovers. It’s no wonder Mozart felt at home there.

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