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Classical 101

Mozart Minute: “Long Live the Little Maestro!”

image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
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Leopold Mozart’s earlier tours to promote his musical children had gone so well that he repeated the experiment, taking Wolfgang alone on three trips to Italy. On one of those tours, father and son spent four months in Milan, where the 14-year-old Mozart composed his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto on commission to open Milan’s 1770-71 opera season.

On Sep. 29 1770, Leopold wrote his wife, Anna Maria, that earlier that day Mozart had begun composing the opera’s recitatives. Wolfgang himself confirmed the intensity of his work in a postscript to his father’s letter of Oct. 20: “I cannot write much,” Mozart wrote his mother, “for my fingers are aching from composing so many recitatives.” (Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson).

But young Wolfgang had bigger concerns than his aching fingers. Leopold‘s letters home paint a picture of a city teaming with envy of Mozart’s phenomenal talent and more than willing to bring him down. First, there was the episode involving an unnamed individual who had tried to persuade the prouction’s leading soprano, Antonia Bernasconi, to sing arias from Quirino Gasparini’s opera on the same libretto instead of Mozart’s arias. On Nov. 10, Leopold wrote that Bernasconi “… gave that wretch a flat refusal, and she is now beside herself with delight at the arias which Wolfgang has composed to suit her.”

Then there was the matter of the gossip that foretold Mitridate’s demise. On Dec. 15, Leopold wrote his wife, “Before the first rehearsal (which took place on Dec. 12) with the small orchestra took place, there were plenty of people who cynically described the music beforehand as miserable immature stuff and thus prophesied its failure, because, as they maintained, it was impossible for such a young boy, and, what is more, a German, to write an Italian opera or, great virtuoso that he might be, to grasp and apply the (dramatic nuance) which is necessary for the theatre. But since the evening of the first short rehearsal all these people have been silent and not uttered a syllable.”

The opera’s premiere took place on Dec. 26 to shouts of “Long live the little maestro!” Both Mozart and Leopold reported that Mitridate brought in full houses every night. On Jan. 5, 1771, Leopold wrote his wife, “Our son’s opera is still running, is still winning general applause, and is, as the Italians say, alle stele!  … everyone is eager to speak to the Signore Maestro and see him at close quarters.”

And even before Wolfgang and Leopold left Milan, Mitridate had already received international renown.On Jan. 12, Mozart wrote his sister, “Yesterday the (music) copyist called on us and said that he had orders to transcribe my opera for the court of Lisbon.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.