When Mozart Went to Paris

Sometimes we think of Mozart as a great, untouchable master. But he was also a human being, and in the long-ago year of 1778, he was a young human being, just 22. He was bursting with energy and musical excitement, and had traveled from his home in Salzburg to Paris, a city which at that time was considered the musical capital of Europe.

He had a very simple goal in mind -- he wanted to make a career. He'd started life as a child prodigy, a musical marvel, and had been displayed as such by his father Mozart and His Familyin many of the European royal courts. He'd written and premiered an opera in Italy when he was only 14 (the musicians in the orchestra were very skeptical), and had won fame and glory, as well as earning quite a good living for his family. (At the piano, in the picture: Mozart and his sister Marianne at the piano, Mozart's father Leopold standing, and his mother Anna Maria shown in the portrait on the wall.).

But now things were different. He was on his own, and had to prove himself as an adult. Paris was one of Europe's great markets -- could he make it his own?

It's against this background that we can read a letter he sent to his father on July 3, 1778. He'd been asked to write a symphony for a prestigious Parisian concert series, and fulfilled the commission with what we now call his Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297/300a, also known as the "Paris" symphony. It begins with the music you might have heard when you opened this page (assuming you have a Mac, or a PC with a sound card, and had your speakers turned on). We'll see in a little while why it has two Köchel numbers. (For those who might not know, Ludwig von Köchel was the man who made the first complete catalogue of Mozart's works. The numbers he assigned to them -- running chronologically from the start of Mozart's life to the end -- have been known ever afterwards as "Köchel numbers.")

Here's the letter Mozart wrote, or at least the part of it about the symphony:

"I was exceedingly anxious at rehearsal, for never in my life have I heard a worse performance. You can have no conception of how they bungled and scrambled through it the first time and the second. Really I was quite frightened and would have liked to rehearse it once more, but there was so much else to rehearse [Mozart's symphony was being played along with many other works] that there was no time left. Accordingly I went to bed with fear in my heart, discontent and anger in my mind. I had decided not to go to the concert at all the next day; but it was a fine evening, and I finally resolved to go with the proviso that if things went as ill as at the rehearsal I would certainly make my way into the orchestra, snatch Herr Lahouse's instrument from his hand and conduct myself! ["Herr Lahouse" was the principal violinist of the orchestra. In those days, nobody stood in front of an orchestra to conduct with a baton. Performances were led either by someone at a keyboard, or by the principal violinist.]

"I prayed God it might go well, dedicating all to His greater honor and glory, and ecce! [behold] -- the symphony began! Raff [a famous singer who was friendly to Mozart] stood near me, and in the midst of the first allegro [the first movement] came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away -- there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last -- and then it came again, da capo! [An Italian expression, meaning that something is repeated.]

"The andante [the second movement] also found favor, but particularly the last allegro [the final movement] because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano [softly] for eight bars only, then forte [loudly], so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said "Sh!" and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.

"I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed -- and went home..."

This is in some ways a very sweet letter. Mozart was so nervous. His father later reprimanded him for his thought of seizing the violin to conduct. Next, there's Mozart's confidence in his own ability. All the last movements of symphonies in Paris, he writes, start a certain way -- and so, he writes, "I began with two violins only." That's his emphasis on the word "I"; he's delightfully sure of himself. And then, after the concert is over, he goes out and buys himself an ice! These aren't the words of a distant genuis. Instead, Mozart sounds like what he really was, a genuine -- and, often, genuinely adorable -- person.

But how could the audience applaud while the music was still playing?

Welcome to the 18th century, when classical music wasn't played with the reverence we bring to it today. Mozart's audience, hearing something they liked, immediately broke into applause -- and Mozart, quite obviously, considered that the natural way for them to react. He even encouraged it. He wrote music he thought they'd like, and made sure to repeat it, so they'd applaud more than once.

There's a little more to this story. For one thing, Mozart's father (looking stern in the picture) had been hounding him in letter after letter, urging him to make his music more accessible. These letters make odd reading today. We, with the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, know that Mozart was one of the greatest of all Leopold Mozartmusical geniuses. To his father, however, he was a talented young man who simply wasn't practical enough. So his father offered advice. "If you write anything for publication, make is popular and easy for amateurs." "Be guided by the French taste." "If you can win applause and get paid well, the devil take the rest!"

And, despite, the success of the "Paris" symphony, Mozart did run into one bit of trouble. Some time after the premiere, he encountered the man who ran the concert series -- and was told that the second movement was too complicated. Mozart obediently replaced it with another one (which explains why the symphony bears two Köchel numbers; the first one is for the three original movements, and the second is for the new second one.) Graciously, Mozart even said that his new second movement was better than the first. But throughout his adult life he had a problem. His music really was too complicated for many people in his audience. So, in a way, his father was right. He was an impractical son, who would never make a successful career if he didn't receive some good advice. Later on, when Mozart wrote some of his greatest masterpieces, he was plagued by a lack of full appreciation. When The Marriage of Figaro was premiered in Vienna, the emperor said it had "too many notes." And when Don Giovanni was triumphantly premiered in Prague, the critics -- while praising the depth and power of its music -- questioned whether any but a few connoisseurs could truly appreciate it. Some considered it a complex, cerebral work, without enough "heart."

One final detail of Mozart's Paris stay is especially sad. His mother had accompanied him on his journey (doubtless to keep an eye on him). But she had gotten very sick, and died just a few days after the successful symphony premiere. To me, that gives Mozart's joy at his success an unexpected edge. He badly needed a success, not just because he wanted to make a career, and not only because his father was telling him he didn't know how to please an audience. He must have been anguished at his mother's illness; the delight of the Paris audience was a ray of light at a particularly anxious time.

Returning to the symphony, however, there's one question nobody knows how to answer. Which passage in the first movement made the audience applaud?

Mozart doesn't say. So, for anyone who wants to play musical detective, I'm closing this little essay with three excerpts from the symphony. Each represents one person's guess about the passage the audience loved so much. The first guess comes from conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The second is from Stanley Sadie, a musicologist and Mozart expert who edits the multi-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music. And the third guess is my own.

Frankly, I think I'm right, because Harnoncourt and Sadie pick passages that are simply too quiet. Mozart, as it happens, said the Paris audience had no taste, which makes me even more certain that the part of the symphony they loved had to be loud, even noisy.

But what do you think? Click on the links below to hear the three possibilities, then decide which you think is right.