Mozart's biography: early operas and Italy (1770 - 1773)

Find out what happened with Mozart's early operas, his shaky employment situation and the Mozart family's ever-evolving travel plans...

1770 - an early operatic success in Milan

Mozart’s time in Italy continued with sightseeing in Naples, before he headed back to Rome to receive an honour from the Pope. He was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur in a ceremony which saw him dressed in full honours regalia. In late July, the father and son team arrived in Bologna. Leopold had a bit of an accident and they were forced to rest up at the estate of Count Pallavicini, just outside the city Despite the temporary hold up, Mozart’s reputation was moving on in leaps and bounds. The accolades continued in Bologna: he was admitted to the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica and given a diploma. No doubt the ailing Leopold would rather have had money and commissions than honours and diplomas. As he would later say: “Nice words, tributes and cries of bravo will pay neither the postman nor the landlord!”

When they arrived back in Milan, Leopold must have been heartened to see Mozart starting work on a commission for an opera. He put so much effort into it that it even affected his letter writing:

"I can’t write much, because writing so many parts of the opera has made my fingers painful."

It was the tradition at the time to write the recitatives first. These are the parts of an opera that are very wordy, often advance the plot and usually come before or after the actual arias. The arias themselves were often written a lot closer to the time of the premiere. This allowed the composer to write for the actual singers taking part in the first night of the opera. It was also another way in which a composer could guard their music from their competitors.

The closer to an opening night that you revealed your 'hit' songs, the less chance there was that someone might pinch them. Mozart started work on his recitatives in the October of 1770, much to the general scepticism of many in the Milan opera company. The doubters knew that he was prodigious, but giving him the job of writing an Italian opera for a proper, professional company? Surely not? They were soon singing from a different hymn sheet, though. As Leopold wrote home when the company came together to practise the new work:

"Since the first rehearsal night, all these people have been silenced, and they left without a word."

The opening night on 26 December at the Teatro Regio Ducal, with Mozart himself conducting, was an even better experience:

"Two things happened, unheard of in Milan. One of the soprano’s arias was repeated and, after almost every aria, there was amazing applause and shouts of 'Long live the Little Maestro!'"

The opera was called Mitridate, rè di Ponto. It is now overshadowed by Mozart’s later operatic work and as a result is rarely performed today.

1771 - the end of an employment

The taste of success continued into the new year of 1771. Just days before his 15th birthday, Mozart received yet more honours, this time a diploma from the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona. Italy, it seemed, was taken with Mozart.

February saw the Mozarts in Venice, sampling the carnival atmosphere and, of course, giving concerts. While they were there, Mozart found that the success of his opera l’Iitridate, rè di Ponto was starting to bear fruits. He received a commission for a new opera, which was also to be staged in Milan. The family returned home to Salzburg on something of a high on 28 March, having been away for 15 months. Just 4 months later, they needed to start packing again. They arrived in Milan on 21 August after a hot and sticky journey. Mozart wrote to his sister:

"The dust stifled us like mad — if we’d not been careful, we could have choked on it. It’s not rained in Milan for a MONTH (so they say) and, despite it spitting a little yesterday, the sun’s out again and it’s pretty hot… I’m huffing and puffing with the heat — I think I might burst!"

He was happy with the rooms where they were staying though:

"There’s a fiddler above us, another fiddler beneath us, a singing teacher giving lessons next door and opposite us an oboe player. It’s great for composing — it gives you lots of ideas!"

True enough, when he was presented with a libretto for a new opera, Ascanio in Alba, he was brimful of ideas and the rehearsals began within a month. The premiere took place at the Teatro Regio Ducal, by way of a celebration of the marriage of Princess Beatrice to Archduke Ferdinand. The archduke was clearly impressed and, so the story goes, was minded to offer Mozart a position. This was the closest Mozart had come so far to Leopold’s 'promised land' of a steady job.

Sadly, Princess Beatrice was not in favour of the idea and, when Mozart and Leopold returned to Salzburg on 15 December, Mozart was in his usual state — feted, yet jobless. One day later, though, their world was turned on its head. Schrattenbach, their prince, their archbishop and, more importantly their employer, died.

1773 - Mozart and Metastasio

New Year 1773 saw Mozart focused very much on Salzburg. A new prince archbishop meant a completely new start for the Mozarts. Nothing could be taken for granted — relationships needed to be forged, positions needed to be maintained. For the enthronement ceremony, Mozart set to music words by the grand old man of the libretto world, the 74-year-old poet, Metastasio. It wasn’t an opera, it wasn’t an oratorio, it was a 'dramatic serenade', was successfully performed at the enthronement on 1 May that year. Again, although it was undoubtedly of good quality and certainly important at that moment, it has not survived the test of time to claim a place in the general repertoire.

The new prince archbishop was called Colloredo. In the summer of 1772, he settled a few nerves in the Mozart household by confirming the 16-year-old composer in his job of Konzertmeister, on a yearly salary of 150 gulden. When their new boss granted them another leave of absence to go to Italy again, in October, the Mozarts could be forgiven for thinking that it was going to be business as usual, as far as the prince archbishop was concerned. It turned out that they could not have been more wrong.

Mozart and Leopold left for Milan in late October, arriving in early November. Their reason for travelling — apart from any excuse to leave Salzburg on Mozart’s part — was to start rehearsals for the new opera, commissioned the previous year. It was to be called Lucio Silla and it was premiered on Boxing Day. It did very well initially, notching up 20 performances in its first month.

Incidentally, the person singing the lead role in Lucio Silla was a castrato in his late twenties called Venanzio Rauzzini. Mozart was particularly impressed with him and wrote him a three- movement motet, 'Exsultate, jubilate', which these days is generally sung by female sopranos. The last movement was a bit of a show-off, for both composer and performer. Mozart gave himself the task of setting just one word, “Alleluia”, for the entire movement. With its fast- paced and incredibly catchy vocal line, Rauzzini must have loved it. It was first heard on 17 January; 1773 at Milan’s Theatine Church. Exsultate, jubilate is an important piece for Mozart and it is one of the few pieces he wrote before adulthood that has remained among his most popular works.

Discover Mozart's biography: tragedy strikes (1774-1778)