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© Hana Smejkalová

Prague Stars of the musical firmament

“My Praguers understand me” or “My orchestra is in Prague”. These sentences about the Czech capital and its inhabitants were delivered by one of the greatest composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And his declarations were no exaggeration. Czechs have always loved music, and Prague has always welcomed with open arms all the great musicians who have ever visited here.

At the peak of his creative powers, Mozart experienced success in Prague which he could only have dreamed of in Vienna at that time. His first trip to Prague was undertaken enthusiastically after hearing reports about the warm acceptance in Prague of The Marriage of Figaro in January 1787. The opera was received rather dismissively in Vienna, partly due to the machinations of Mozart’s enemies.

Last night our great and beloved musical artist Mr. Mozart arrived here from Vienna. We have no doubt that in honour of this man Mr. Bondini will perform his popular work of musical genius, The Marriage of Figaro, and that our renowned orchestra will not fail to provide new evidence of his art. Praguers, renowned for their taste, certainly are attending the performance of the work in large numbers, however often they have already heard it. We would also like to be able to admire the playing of Mr. Mozart himself.”
Prager Oberpostamtszeitung (Prague Imperial Post Office Newspaper), 13 January 1787

On 17 January, Mozart himself conducted a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Nostitz (today Estates) Theatre. In gratitude for the appreciation that was expressed, two days later he organized at the theatre of the Academy of Music the first performance of his Symphony No. 38 in D Major, known since that time as the Prague Symphony. He also performed two piano recitals and even improvised at many social occasions. He left Prague in late February with the intention to compose a new opera for Prague, which would launch the new season at the Nostitz Theatre.

He returned to Prague in August of that year, bringing with him an unfinished score of the promised opera – Don Giovanni. This time he would rehearse the prepared premiere himself and personally study with the soloists and with the orchestra. A testament to his great interest in a perfect performance and the success of the work is that during the rehearsals he reworked the entire opera, making subtractions and additions. The world premiere of Don Giovanni took place on the 29th of October, and the opera enjoyed enormous success. It had many reprises before Mozart left Prague in November, and it was performed very often for a long time after his departure. Mozart recalled his experience with satisfaction: “I did not regret the work, or the pleasure, to be able to write something excellent for Prague.”

On Monday the 29th, the Italian Opera Society was given the eagerly awaited opera Don Giovanni, or The Stone Guest, by Master Mozart. Connoisseurs and musicians say that there has never been its equal in Prague. Mr. Mozart conducted it himself, and when he entered the orchestra he was greeted with triple the jubilation, which was repeated also upon his exit. The execution of the opera is also extremely difficult, and everyone is amazed that, despite this, the performance was good after such a short rehearsal period. Everyone, the singers as well as the orchestra, put forth every effort to repay Mozart with a good performance.”
Prager Oberpostamtszeitung (Prague Imperial Post Office Newspaper), 3 November 1787

On his second stay in Prague, Mozart spent his free moments in the narrow circle of his Czech friends at the summer residence of the Dušeks, Bertramka, where he had the peace of mind he needed to work.

On his last visit to Prague, Mozart arrived seriously ill and exhausted; it was barely three months before his death. The opera La Clemenza di Tito, which he composed largely for financial reasons, did not meet with great success, and its premiere at the Nostitz Theatre was a flop. The failure of the opera distinctly did not bother him – perhaps he was consciously directing his attention to the nearing completion of Requiem. He never returned to the city where he experienced his greatest fame and success at the height of his career.

Even today, Praguers understand “their” Mozart, and you can encounter his music in many concert halls, for example during one of the numerous festivals held in this music-loving city.

 

Mozart, Mahler, Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikovsky

Other greats of world music also experienced moments of glory and happiness in Prague, such as Joseph Haydn, Gustav Mahler and Carl Maria von Weber, who conducted at the Estates Theatre for several years. At the end of the 18th century, Ludwig van Beethoven stayed here twice and even led the performance of his works several times. Prague also made a big impression on the great Russian Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He, like Mozart, appreciated that Praguers recognized his brilliant talent during his lifetime. He did not even hesitate to declare the Czechs as the most musical nation in the world, and he later recalled Prague, where he conducted Eugene Onegin, as a place which gave him “a moment of absolute happiness”.

The German musical giant Richard Wagner also loved Prague. He visited the city on the river Vltava, where his sisters Rosalie and Clara had a theatre engagement, for the first time in 1826. Not quite forty years later, he conducted his Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) at Žofín Palace in a way which until then would have been unimaginable – with his back to the audience. Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky also personally presented their works at the same concert hall.