Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Tchaikovsky Research
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Austrian composer (b. 27 January 1756 [N.S.] in Salzburg; d. 5 December 1791 [N.S.] in Vienna), born Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Tchaikovsky and Mozart

For Tchaikovsky, Mozart's music was like an incarnation of divine beauty in a human form that inspired love, rather than awe (as was the case with Beethoven), and in a remarkable diary entry of 1886 (quoted below) he described Mozart as a "musical Christ". This adoration of Mozart had its origins in Tchaikovsky's childhood, for when he was not yet five he was moved to tears when he heard the orchestrion that his father had brought from Saint Petersburg play excerpts from Don Giovanni, especially Zerlina's aria "Vedrai, carino". Little Pyotr was so fascinated by the latter melody, even coming from a 'lifeless' mechanical instrument, that his mother showed him how to play it on the piano. Listening to Mozart's music awakened in him a "passionate worship for that genius" which lasted all his life, as his brother Modest observed in his biography of the composer [1].

However, as Tchaikovsky himself admitted in his brief Autobiography (1889), there was a period in his early adolescence when his enthusiasm for Italian bel canto opera, combined with his lack of exposure to the classical canon of German music, had made him suspicious even of Mozart. It was then that at the age of 16 or 17 he happened to attend a performance of Don Giovanni almost by chance. As he recalled in this Autobiography: "It was a pure revelation to me. It is impossible for me to describe the enthusiasm, the delight and intoxication which I was seized by. During several weeks I did nothing but play this opera through from the piano score; even as I fell asleep I could not part with this divine music, which pursued me long into my happy dreams [...] Amongst the great masters, Mozart is the one to whom I feel most attracted; it has been so ever since that day and it will always be like that" [2]. This "revelation" of the music of Don Giovanni on the threshold of adulthood was a crucial factor in his decision a few years later to leave behind him the security of a career in the civil service and to aspire to become a composer. As he later confessed to Nadezhda von Meck in a letter from 1878 (quoted in more detail below): "The music of Don Giovanni was the first music which produced a tremendous impression on me. It awoke a holy enthusiasm in me which would later bear fruit. Through this music I entered that world of artistic beauty inhabited only by the greatest geniuses [...] It is to Mozart that I am obliged for the fact that I have dedicated my life to music. He gave the first impulse to my musical powers and made me love music more than anything else in the world" [3].

In his music review articles during the 1870s, Tchaikovsky shared with readers his admiration for many works by Mozart, but the one which he invariably dwelt on most enthusiastically was Don Giovanni, "the greatest of all operas". Moreover, as Herman Laroche would later recall, Mozart was for Tchaikovsky "the ideal musician and artist in all aspects" [4] — in particular, he admired Mozart for his spontaneous creativity, which did not, however, exclude a professional attitude to work and allowed Mozart to write a lot of his music to commission, as Tchaikovsky also did. As he put it in an interview in 1892 with a reporter who expressed his surprise that Tchaikovsky could bring himself always to work six hours a day, no matter what: "Young people nowadays wait for inspiration to come to them, but I consider that to be utterly wrong. I mean, would Mozart, who died so young, have managed to write so many wondrous works if he had constantly been waiting for inspiration?" (TH 325). Similarly, the child-like goodness and lack of envy or spite in Mozart's character were qualities which Tchaikovsky himself aspired to, and it is not surprising that he was so interested in reading about Mozart's life, especially in Otto Jahn's famous biography, which, according to Laroche, never left Tchaikovsky's table.

In 1875, Tchaikovsky translated the libretto of Le Nozze di Figaro into Russian for a student performance at the Moscow Conservatory, and this translation was eventually published by Jurgenson in 1884, together with the vocal-piano reduction of the opera (see TH 188). Tchaikovsky liked Figaro very much and went to hear it at least three times during his stay in Paris in 1883. In a letter to Sergey Taneyev, who was also an admirer of Mozart, he recorded his impressions of one of these performances: "My God! how divinely beautiful this music is in its unassuming simplicity!" [5]

The 100th anniversary of the premiere of Don Giovanni was due to be celebrated across Europe in 1887, and already a few years earlier, in the summer of 1884, Tchaikovsky was considering writing an article, in collaboration with Laroche, to pay tribute to Mozart. This article was never written, but Tchaikovsky's determination to contribute something to mark the centenary of Don Giovanni was spurred on by a memorable meeting with Pauline Viardot in Paris on 12 June 1886 [N.S.], when she showed him the original score of the opera in Mozart's own hand! From letters to Taneyev it seems that Tchaikovsky had been intending to contribute three 'gifts' for this notable centenary the following year: a Mozart suite, a translation of the libretto of Don Giovanni, and an essay. In the end only the first of these projects came to fruition: the Suite No. 4 ("Mozartiana") [6].

During his first visit to Prague in February 1888 as part of his concert tour of Western Europe, Tchaikovsky went on an excursion to the Villa Bertramka on the outskirts of the city and saw the room in which Mozart had stayed many times [7]. Later that year, when Tchaikovsky had settled into his new house in Frolovskoye, his publisher Jurgenson asked him whether he would be willing to undertake a translation into Russian of Aleksandr Ulybyshev's three-volume Nouvelle biographie de Mozart (1843). Tchaikovsky made a start on this, but, in view of the enormity of the enterprise and his own limited time, he suggested to Jurgenson that the commission be transferred to his brother Modest, and that he would simply go through the text to ensure that all the musical terms were rendered correctly [8]. He also offered to write a preface to the first volume. Modest duly worked on this translation over the following years, but in the end it was Laroche rather than Tchaikovsky who supplied the preface [9]. As a Christmas present at the end of 1888, Jurgenson secretly arranged for the Breitkopf & Härtel edition of Mozart's Complete Works to be sent to the composer in Frolovskoye. Tchaikovsky was overjoyed and wrote to his publisher of his "enthusiastic gratitude for the best, most valuable and most wonderful present I could ever have hoped to receive. Aleksey carried out everything as you had instructed him, that is, he set up the Christmas tree as a surprise, and around it lay my god, my idol, represented in all his divine works. I was as glad as a child. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!" [10].

When Vladimir Nápravník was the composer's guest at Maydanovo in February 1892, Tchaikovsky would often ask him in the evenings to sit at the piano and play on his own (instead of playing piano duets): "Pyotr Ilyich 'worshipped' Mozart and once, while listening to the Andante from his piano fantasia No. 4, he said that out of this work one could make a splendid vocal quartet" [11]. Tchaikovsky eventually realised this idea the following year, adapting that section of the Fantasie et sonate in C minor, KV 475, into a quartet for singers which he entitled Night, and for which he wrote the verses himself. Tchaikovsky attended the first performance of his quartet at the Moscow Conservatory on 9/21 October 1893. Also present on this occasion was his friend Nikolay Kashkin, who would write in his obituary of Tchaikovsky barely a month later: "There at the Conservatory he also said to me that the beauty of that melody by Mozart was a mystery for him, and that he himself could not explain the irresistible charm of the simple melody of that quartet. Of course, it did not occur to any of those who were present at the Conservatory then that this would turn out to be a valedictory meeting, and that little over two weeks later the bright hope of Russian music would be no more, and that we would never again see this hale and hearty man who, on taking leave from us, had said that he hoped to see us all soon again because he definitely wanted to attend the symphonic concert [in Moscow] on 23 October [O.S.]" [12]. Another good friend of the composer's, Laroche, would later observe how significant it was that at the last concert he conducted before his death (the concert took place in Saint Petersburg on 16/28 October 1893), Tchaikovsky acquainted the audience not just with his Symphony No. 6 but also with the dances from Mozart's Idomeneo, which he had recently discovered for himself [13]. This at first glance so strange decision to pair such a stirring work as the Pathétique with these stylized, baroque dances may perhaps be read in the light of what Tchaikovsky had once said in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck on 11/23 January 1883 about how Mozart always had a "beneficial influence" on him.

Arrangements and Editions by Tchaikovsky

  • Ave Verum Corpus, motet (KV 618) — arranged for orchestra as the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, Op. 61 ("Mozartiana") (1887).
  • Eine kleine Gigue for piano (KV 574) — arranged for orchestra as the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, Op. 61 ("Mozartiana") (1887).
  • Fantasie in C minor (KV 475) — music used in Tchaikovsky's quartet Night (1893).
  • Idomeneo , ballet music from the opera (KV 367) — alterations to the Chaconne and Gavotte for a concert performance (1889).
  • Le Nozze di Figaro, opera buffa in 4 acts, KV 492 (1786) — Tchaikovsky translated and edited a new Russian edition of the score (1876).
  • Menuett for piano (KV 355) — arranged for orchestra as the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, Op. 61 ("Mozartiana") (1887).
  • Variationen für Klavier über "Unser dummel Pöbel meint" aus Gluck's "Die Pilger von Mekka" for piano (KV 455) — arranged for orchestra as the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4, Op. 61 ("Mozartiana") (1887).

General reflections on Mozart

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 262 — Tchaikovsky praises Mozart's mastery in "musical and dramatic characterization", especially in his "immortally beautiful" opera Don Giovanni.
  • TH 266 — refers to Mozart's facility in composing, but emphasizes that this did not stop him from working hard to polish the six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn.
  • TH 276 — emphasizes again how Mozart was unsurpassed as an opera composer.
  • TH 284 — compares Mozart as the archetype of a "spontaneously creating artist" with composers like Wagner and Dargomyzhsky who had been "corroded" by reflection and various theories of dramatic veracity.
  • TH 305 — compares the "simplicity" and "inexhaustible richness" of Mozart's music to the "bombastic" style of Liszt.

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

Why don't you love Mozart? With regard to him we clearly disagree with one another, my dear friend. I not only love Mozart – I worship him. For me, the best opera ever written is Don Giovanni. With your fine musical sensitivity, you surely ought to love this ideally pure artist. True, Mozart did expend his energies far too liberally and very often wrote not following his inspiration but out of necessity. However, do read his biography which has been excellently written by Otto Jahn, and you will see that he had no choice but to do so. Besides, Beethoven and Bach, too, wrote lots of weak works which are unworthy of standing alongside their masterpieces. Such was the force of circumstances that they sometimes had to turn their art into a trade. But take Mozart's operas, two or three of his symphonies, his Requiem, his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn, and the C minor quartet. Do you really not find anything beautiful in all this? True, Mozart does not grip one as profoundly as Beethoven; his sweep is not as broad. Just as in life he was a carefree child to the end of his days, so in his music there is no subjective tragedy of the kind which reveals itself so strongly and powerfully in Beethoven. However, this did not prevent him from creating an objectively tragic figure, indeed the most striking and powerful human figure ever portrayed through music. I mean Donna Anna in Don Giovanni [...]

For God's sake, do read the bulky but very interesting book on Mozart by Otto Jahn. You will see from it what a wonderful, irreproachable, infinitely kind, and angelically pure nature he had. He was the incarnation of the ideal of a great artist who creates because of an unconscious stirring of his genius. He wrote music as the nightingales sing, i.e. without pausing to think, without doing violence to himself. [...] Everyone loved him; he had the most marvellous, cheerful, and equable temperament. There was not a whit of pride in him. Whenever he met Haydn, he would express his love and veneration for him in the most sincere and fervent terms. The purity of his soul was absolute. He knew neither envy nor vengefulness nor spite, and I think that all this can be heard in his music, which has reconciling, clarifying, and caressing properties [...]

I could go on talking to you forever about this radiant genius for whom I cherish a kind of cult [...] Apart from you, I have met a few people before who had a fine understanding of music and loved it passionately, but who at the same time would not acknowledge Mozart. In vain I tried to open their eyes to the beauty of his music, but never before have I so wanted to win over someone to the ranks of Mozart's admirers as I would like to win you over now. Of course, in our musical sympathies it is very often accidental circumstances which play an important part. The music of Don Giovanni was the first music which produced a tremendous impression on me. It awoke a holy enthusiasm in me, which would later bear fruit. Through this music I entered that world of artistic beauty inhabited only by the greatest geniuses. Before that I had only known Italian opera. It is to Mozart that I am obliged for the fact that I have dedicated my life to music. He gave the first impulse to my musical powers and made me love music more than anything else in the world.

I have just returned from the Opéra-Comique [in Paris], where I have heard Le Mariage de Figaro twice, and if any more performances are scheduled, I will carry on going to them. I know that my veneration for Mozart surprises you, my dear friend. In fact, I, too, am surprised that such a broken, morally and mentally not quite sound person as myself has managed to preserve the ability to enjoy Mozart, who does not have the depth nor the strength of Beethoven, nor the warmth and passion of Schumann, nor the splendour of Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Wagner, etc. Perhaps this is because Don Giovanni was the first opera which served as a spur to my musical feeling and opened up before me a whole hitherto unknown horizon of the highest musical beauty? Mozart does not overwhelm or stagger me — instead, he captivates me, gives me joy and warmth. When I listen to his music, it is as if I am doing a good deed. It is difficult to convey what exactly his beneficial influence on me consists of, but it is undoubtedly beneficial, and the longer I live, the closer I get to know him, the more I love him.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Diary entry for 20 September/2 October 1886, in which Tchaikovsky first considers his attitude to Beethoven:

I bow before the greatness of some of his works, but I do not love Beethoven. My attitude towards him reminds me of how I felt as a child with regard to God, Lord of Sabaoth. I felt (and even now my feelings have not changed) a sense of amazement before Him, but at the same time also fear. He created heaven and earth, just as He created me, but still, even though I cringe before Him, there is no love. Christ, on the contrary, awakens precisely and exclusively feelings of love. Yes, He was God, but at the same time a man. He suffered like us. We are sorry for Him, we love in Him His ideal human side. And if Beethoven occupies in my heart a place analogous to God, Lord of Sabaoth, then Mozart I love as a musical Christ. Besides, he lived almost like Christ did. I think there is nothing sacrilegious in such a comparison. Mozart was a being so angelical and child-like in his purity, his music is so full of unattainably divine beauty, that if there is someone whom one can mention with the same breath as Christ, then it is he. [...] It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music. Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has [...] In Mozart I love everything because we love everything in a person whom we truly love. Above all I love Don Giovanni, as it was thanks to this work that I found out what music is. Until then (till the age of 17) I had known nothing apart from pleasant Italian semi-music. Of course, whilst I do love everything in Mozart, I won't claim that every minor work of his is a masterpiece. No! I know that any one of his sonatas, for example, is not a great work, and yet I love every sonata of his precisely because it is his – because this musical Christ touched it with his radiant hand.

Views on Specific Works by Mozart

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • Die Zauberflöte, opera, KV 620 (1791) — see TH 305
  • Don Giovanni, opera, KV 527 (1787) — see TH 262, TH 276, TH 284; Letter 790 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 March 1878 (quoted above several times).
  • Le Nozze di Figaro, opera, KV 492 (1786) — see Letter 2253 to Sergey Taneyev, 1/13–3/15 April 1883, quoted above.
  • Requiem, KV 626 (1791) — see TH 279
  • String Quintet in G minor, KV 516 (1788) — letter 790 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 March 1878:

In his chamber music Mozart captivates one by the charm and purity of his facture, by the amazing beauty of his voice leading, but sometimes one does come across things which bring tears to your eyes. I would like to point out to you the Adagio from the G minor quintet. Nobody before or after has expressed so beautifully in music feelings of resigned, helpless grief. When Laub played this Adagio, I would always hide in the remotest corner of the hall so that no one could see what effect his music had on me.

  • Symphony No. 41 in C major ("Jupiter"), KV 551 (1788) — 'TH 300


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Notes and References

  1. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 41.
  2. See also Tchaikovsky's interview with the newspaper Odessa News (Одесские новости) in January 1893: "I was sixteen when I first heard Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was a revelation to me. I am not capable of describing the overwhelming power of the impression that I experienced. It is because of this fact, perhaps, that of all great composers, it is Mozart for whom I feel the most tender love". Quoted from The Tchaikovsky Handbook. A guide to the man and his music, vol. 1, p. 524, note 9.
  3. Letter 790 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 March 1878.
  4. Quoted from Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p.237.
  5. Letter 2253 to Sergey Taneyev, 1/13–3/15 April 1883.
  6. See Čajkovskij und Mozart. Ein Leserbrief von 1881 (1998), p. 538, which deals with Tchaikovsky's Letter 1857a of 17/29 September 1881 to the editor of Signale für die Musikalische Welt.
  7. Diary entry for 3/15 February 1888. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1923), p. 196.
  8. See Letter 3583 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 1/13 June 1888.
  9. The first volume of A New Biography of Mozart (Новая биография Моцарта) was published by Jurgenson in 1890; the second in 1891. Both these were translated by Modest Tchaikovsky, but the translator of the third, which came out in 1892, was Laroche's daughter Zinayda.
  10. Letter 3754 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 4/16 January 1889.
  11. Мой воспоминания о Чайковском (1949). Quoted from Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1979), p. 260-261.
  12. Nikolay Kashkin's obituary of Tchaikovsky (published in the 6 November 1893 [O.S.] issue of the Russian Register) is quoted here from Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1979), p. 426-427.
  13. Herman Laroche's (Foreword) to Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898). Cited here with reference to P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxix.