In 1778, when Mozart was twenty-two, he went to Paris for six months, accompanied by his mother, leaving his father and sister in Salzburg. It turned into a difficult time for him: his mother became ill and died, which he hesitated to reveal to his father, staging the news gradually in a letter that described her illness as dire even after she was dead. Most on Mozart’s mind, however—judging from his correspondence—were his efforts to make an impression on the French musical public. In a letter to his father, Mozart vented his fury at being asked to play the piano for the Duchesse de Chabot in a cold room without a fireplace, where the artistically inclined duchess and her guests were engaged in drawing. Mozart despised their perfunctory compliments (“O c’est un prodige, c’est inconcevable, c’est étonnant”), but then the duke arrived, “sat down next to me and listened to me very attentively and I—I forgot the cold and the headache and played in spite of the wretched clavier—the way I play when I am in the best of spirits.” Everything depended upon his rapport with his audience, even an audience of one—for if the listeners were “people who do not connect with me and my playing…I will lose all joy in performing.”
The letter reflected the raging indignation and unequivocal self-importance of a frustrated genius. Mozart blamed the entire French nation: “The French are by far no longer as Polite as they were 15 years ago; their manners now border on rudeness [Grobheit], and they have become terribly conceited [hoffärtig sind sie abscheulich].”
Fifteen years earlier, at the age of seven, Mozart had been at the height of his renown as a child prodigy, and had been brought by his father to Paris and Versailles, where he had spectacular success. Even as a child he sometimes performed his own compositions, but he was above all famous for his piano playing. Mozart at twenty-two, wistful for the celebrity of his childhood and railing against French rudeness, still believed that the route to success was performance.
Simon Keefe’s Mozart in Vienna: The Final Decade emphasizes Mozart’s sense of himself as a performer and how he calibrated his work as a composer to the effects his music would have in performance. The “final decade”—from 1781 to his early death at thirty-five in 1791—comprised almost the whole of Mozart’s mature artistic life, and Keefe notes that the ever-increasing appreciation of his genius across the centuries and around the globe would have magnificently gratified the vexed young man in Paris in 1778. His posthumous fame, of course, has little to do with Mozart as a performer, but rather as a composer, and Keefe thus hopes to show how performance and composition were fully integrated during the final decade.…
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