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Classical 101

Mozart Minute: Going Dutch - Mozart's 'Musical Gibberish'

color image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
Catch The Mozart Minute every Friday at noon during the Amadeus Deli, and subscribe to The Mozart Minute podcast at wosu.org/podcasts.

In a previous episode of The Mozart Minute, the Mozart family’s stay in the Netherlands almost turned tragic. But not only did everyone survive, the young Mozart actually thrived in Holland, making himself popular with Dutch royalty and composing a clutch of new musical works.

On May 16, 1766, the 10-year-old Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote the family’s Salzburg landlord, Lorenz Hagenauer, from Paris. The letter recounted the family’s stay two months earlier in The Hague, where they had participated in festivities for Prince of Orange. The family of the Prince of Orange had asked Mozart to compose a set of six violin sonatas, some arias and music for a concert for the prince. The same letter says Mozart also composed two sets of keyboard variations on existing tunes.

Leopold told Hagenauer that, in composing the second of these variations sets, “little Wolfgang” had “dashed off hurriedly on another melody which everybody all over Holland is singing, playing and whistling.” (Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson)

That melody came from the Dutch political song Willem van Nassau – today the Dutch national anthem. No sooner had Mozart finished composing his Seven Variations on Wilhelm van Nassau than were they published in The Hague.

Leopold Mozart called both sets of variations “trifles,” and that they may be. Young Wolfgang saw more potential in the Willem van Nassau tune – enough so that he used it again in his Galimathias Musicium (K. 32) –  Musical Nonsense, a quodlibet in which Mozart brought together a number of existing tunes, sometimes to humorous effect. Mozart used the Willem van Nassau tune as the subject for the final fugue of Galimathias Musicum, a fugue that Mozart composed with Leopold’s guidance.

This fugue may well have been Mozart’s very first, but it certainly wasn’t his last. And in its whimsy, the Galimathias Musicum shows the sanguine and effervescent Mozart also just getting started.

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.