Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart's Thematic Catalogue
British Library Zweig MS 63, ff.28v-29
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No other great composer kept so detailed a chronological list of their works as the catalogue compiled by Mozart during the last eight years of his life. It was begun in 1784 to bring order to his increasingly busy schedule of composing and performing. Mozart’s meticulous notebook provides unique insight into the creation of some of history’s most celebrated music. Empty staves on its final pages stand as silent witnesses to the composer’s sudden and tragic death, aged just 35.
Who was Mozart?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is widely acknowledged as a musical genius. He was born in Salzburg in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a composer and violinist who recognised – and exploited – his son’s extraordinary talent from an early age. By the time he was five years old, Mozart had complete mastery of keyboards and violin, and had written his first five compositions. At six, he toured Europe as a child prodigy; by 16, he’d already written three operas and 25 symphonies.
Mozart’s adult life was a financial and emotional rollercoaster. His happy marriage produced six children, of whom only two survived. Despite his problems, Mozart composed at astonishing speed, achieving a remarkably prolific output. Even through the ill health that dogged his last years, he wrote as if driven by his muse.
Towards the end of 1791, Mozart was commissioned to compose a requiem mass by a patron who insisted on remaining anonymous. Just after midnight on 5 December, suffering from a feverish illness, Mozart died, leaving the requiem unfinished. With very little money to his name, his body was buried in a communal grave with not a word of ceremony, still less the sombre majesty of his ‘Requiem’.
What is a thematic catalogue?
It was not unusual for composers to keep a list of works as they were written, accompanied by musical sketches of their opening bars, known as ‘incipits’ from the Latin word used in medieval times to signify ‘here begins’ at the start of a poem or treatise.
These lists were already being called thematic catalogues by 1768, when Leopold Mozart, as a proud father, compiled a “Catalogue of all the things that this 12-year-old youngster composed since his seventh year…” Wolfgang’s own thematic catalogue covers his work from 1784 until his death in 1791.
How did Mozart record his works?
He began on 9 February 1784 with his entry for the E-flat piano concerto. A label pasted on the front cover reads “Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke vom Monath febrario 1784 bis Monath – 1 –”. The triple blank for the ending year suggests Mozart thought it might take him until at least 1800 to fill the catalogue’s pages.
In general, each opening covers five works. On the left-hand page, Mozart gives the date of composition, its title and, more often than not, the instruments for which it was scored. Entries for pieces including voices, especially operas, usually name the singers who gave the first performances. Mozart writes his notes in German or Italian, according to the language in which the works were sung.
Facing pages are ruled with five pairs of musical staves on which Mozart wrote the incipits for each composition. These opening bars are often written in short score, that is, a reduction of the full orchestral score to a simplified treble and bass stave version.
Mozart’s widow, Constanze, later wrote that “the catalogue was, from its inception, kept so accurately by Mozart, that he carefully entered even the small things he wrote on his journeys…” In fact, some compositions were omitted. It’s possible Mozart meant these to be private pieces written for friends, not for public performance. Conversely, the catalogue does include entries for some works that have now been lost.
So what do these two pages tell us?
These are the last five notes Mozart entered in his catalogue, but they cover only four works. ‘Die Zauberflöte’ (‘The Magic Flute’), has two entries as its writing was interrupted by another opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’.
‘La Clemenza di Tito’ is noted as written “for the coronation of his Majesty the Emperor Leopold II. Abridged by Signore Mazzola from a true account.” Evidently composed at short notice, the opera tells of the judicial and merciful exercise of royal power by the Roman Emperor Titus.
Returning his attentions to ‘Die Zauberflöte’, Mozart notes that he wrote the overture and a priests’ march to complete the opera on 28 September. It was performed in Vienna just two days later. The earlier entry gives the cast list. Madame Hofer sang the bravura soprano role of the Queen of the Night, and Mademoiselle Gottlieb played Pamina. Papageno was performed by Herr Schikaneder, who is also credited as author of the libretto, the opera’s words.
The fourth entry is the A-major Clarinet Concerto. Accompanying instruments are noted as “2 violins, violas, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and basses.” Mozart’s note dedicates the concerto to Anton Stadler, who was principal clarinettist in the court orchestra. It was written for a concert planned for October in honour of Stadler, who was the leading exponent of both the clarinet and basset horn in Mozart’s day.
Mozart had started to sketch the work two years earlier, apparently with the basset horn in mind. Stadler had recently worked with an instrument maker to extend the bottom range of the clarinet to give it some of the sonorous depth of the basset horn. This new ‘basset clarinet’ was the instrument for which the Clarinet Concerto was written.
Ending the catalogue is the short Masonic Cantata, composed for the dedication of the Masonic lodge to which Mozart and Stadler both belonged. The note was entered on 15 November 1791, three weeks before Mozart died.
How did the catalogue come to the British Library?
After his death, Mozart’s music began to attract the recognition it had previously been denied. In 1799, the publishing firm of Johann André in Offenbach bought up all Mozart’s surviving manuscripts from his widow, Constanze. On the death of the publisher’s owner, they were divided among his heirs.
On 12 October 1929, the thematic catalogue was among a group of Mozart’s manuscripts that came up for auction, and had a reserve price of 36,000 marks. It was not a good time to sell. In Germany the economy was spiralling out of control. Across the world markets were depressed in the wake of the infamous ‘Wall Street Crash’.
The catalogue was eventually sold privately in 1935 to the German writer Stefan Zweig. Being Jewish, Zweig was forced to leave Austria in 1934, under threat of Nazi persecution, and settled first in London, then in Bath. In 1932 Zweig had written the libretto for an opera by Richard Strauss, due to be premiered before Adolf Hitler. When Strauss refused to remove Zweig’s name from posters for the opera, Hitler refused to attend and the opera was banned after only three performances.
Zweig’s exile took him on to England, America and finally Brazil. In 1942, despairing of the cultural and political fate of Europe, Zweig and his wife took their lives in a suicide pact. His heirs deposited Mozart’s catalogue on loan to the British Museum in 1957. Thirty years later, it was presented to the British Library, together with the rest of Zweig’s magnificent collection of literary and musical manuscripts.