Mozart's later years: Don Giovanni, Figaro and the Freemansons (1784 - 1790)

Did Mozart meet Beethoven? What was the deal with the freemasons? And would The Marriage of Figaro solve Mozart's financial problems?

1784 - Mozart catalogues his work

Mozart and Constanze, childless again, moved from their flat in Judenplatz to a new place in the Trattenerhof area of Vienna. As both a sign of his growing confidence and with an eye to posterity, Mozart set himself a new task. From 9 February onwards, he would begin to compile the name and the date of every work he had ever written into a thematic catalogue. Or as he put it, his:

"…list of all my works from February 1784 to the month 1…, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, by my own hand."

In this title to his catalogue, Mozart left the end date blank, save for the first digit, the “1”, and many a scholar has reflected on the fact that, at this point, no one would have foreseen that the next number entered would also be a 7, meaning that this great talent would be snuffed out before the end of the 18th century. In this catalogue, Mozart jotted down a brief theme of each work alongside the date and title and, in some cases, the performers.

During the Lenten season of 1784, Mozart performed a series of 17 concerts by means of subscription. Subscription was a popular way of self-promoting a concert, which meant that the composer was not out of pocket. Interested parties were persuaded to part with a set amount of money each — often in return for a score of the work performed, often out of pure philanthropy — and the composer or performer would use this money to cover his costs.

In August of this year, Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, was married, to Johann Baptist von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, a local magistrate. Much as it might have been nice for her to “pull a few strings” and use some of her brother’s music for the wedding, Mozart was unable to attend, because of commitments in Vienna. As Mozart said in his letter to her:

"Sorry we can’t be there at the wedding. But we should be able to visit you in St Gilgen in the spring. Our only sadness is that dear father is now left so totally alone!"

The same month, while attending an opera by the composer, Paisiello, in Vienna, Mozart was struck down with an attack of colic during the performance. His doctor, Sigmund Barisani, was called and quickly diagnosed rheumatic fever. Mozart suffered similar attacks for 4 days on the trot and was ill with a fever until September, when he started to make a good recovery.

He was better just in time, too — because rheumatic fever would not have been good for a baby. On 21 September, Constanze gave birth to their second child, Carl. Unlike his brother Raimund, Carl would live to the ripe old age of 74. Very early in his life, his parents moved house, again. This time it was to the much more salubrious Domgasse. And salubriousness brought with it expense, with the flat costing the Mozarts a staggering 450 gilder a year.

The close of 1784 saw Mozart being invited to join a masonic lodge. His friend and loyal patron, Otto von Gemmingen, was the master of a lodge called “Beneficence” and he put forward Mozart’s name as a suitable candidate for membership. It would not be long before Mozart had introduced both his father and his friend, the composer Haydn, into freemasonry Indeed, certain parts of his musical output would begin to reflect his membership of the lodge, culminating in the completely masonic opera, The Magic Flute, in the year before he died. For now, though, it was quartets that were on Mozart’s mind and, in the New Year, he proudly played his latest ones to Haydn at his house in the Domgasse. Today, many musicians regard Haydn as the absolute master when it came to composing for quartets.

1785 - Leopold visits and Mozart meets Lorenzo Da Ponte

The New Year brought a new visitor to the Mozart household in Vienna. Leopold upped sticks from Salzburg to visit his son in his plush pad on the Domgasse. He was in time to witness Mozart giving the first of a series of 'Friday Concerts', where he played his stunning Piano Concerto No. 20. Things were going well for Mozart. He was giving concerts left right and centre — five in February, six in March — and his writing had taken on a fresh insight.

Mozart’s piano concertos, more than any other type of work he wrote, highlight his development as a composer. They are often said to form the backbone of his output: he wrote his first when he was just 17 and continued composing new ones right up to the year he died. Some musicologists also believe that you can see his mastery of the orchestra develop more easily in his piano concertos than you can by listening to his symphonies. Generally, his piano concertos were written for him to perform himself and the early ones, while displaying flashes of genius, reveal someone very keen to show off his keyboard skills. By the time we reach the later concertos, Mozart’s musical thinking is on a whole new level.

Eventually, in early April, Leopold himself was initiated into his son’s masonic lodge, and, as if by way of thanks, Mozart wrote the cantata Die Maureifreude. It was set to a libretto by Franz Petran that praised Emperor Joseph II for his kind treatment of the masons. The key of its setting, E Flat, would have signified 'wisdom' to Mozart and his fellow masons.

In fact, 1785 was really the year in which all things masonic kicked off for Mozart. When his father returned to Salzburg at the end of April, Mozart went on to perform more lodge music later that year, in both November and December. As well as relying on the significance of musical keys, Mozart also highlighted certain instruments with masonic links, such as the basset-horn.

Mozart began an important commission in October 1785, for an opera with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, called The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart and da Ponte chose to base their work on a play that had already scandalized half of Europe. Indeed, it was actually banned in Germany. Da Ponte was forced to hold meetings with the emperor personally to assure him that he had taken out any bits that might offend too much. Today, it is very easy for us to say what composers would and would not write if they were around in the 21st century, but it is worth noting that if he were alive today, parts of Mozart’s output would have been seen as cutting-edge stuff that pushed back the boundaries.

It certainly looked as if life was going swimmingly for Mozart back in 1785. With his prolific rate of composition and concert performance coupled with the influential company that he now kept he would be able, as Leopold had revealed to his sister in a letter earlier in the year, "to bank 2000 gulden. The money is definitely there."

The year drew to a close with yet more good news: Mozart’s portrait was to be included in two new calendars being published in Vienna. So, while he was still in his twenties, Mozart had the potential to be both rich and famous. Surely then, things could not possibly all go wrong?

And yet, before this year had the chance to end, Mozart was already writing a letter to his friend and fellow mason, Franz Hoffmeister:

"I beg you… can you help me out with just a little money? At the moment, I’m in dire need."

It was to be the first of many such letters.

1786 - The Marriage of Figaro is premiered

Despite already working on The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart had taken on a new opera commission in the January of 1786. His decision was no doubt influenced by the request coming from the emperor himself, in honour of the emperor’s sister.

When the emperor said "Compose!"… Mozart composed. The same wordsmith who was behind The Abduction from the Harem provided Mozart with the libretto. Emperor Joseph II himself provided him with the welcome sum of 50 ducats. In turn, Mozart provided everyone with an opera called The Impresario. It premiered in the Orangery of Schonbrunn Castle on 7 February, and later transferred to the Karrnerthortheater for a further three performances. Add to this a repeat performance of his opera Idomeneo at the palace of Prince Auersperg and concertgoers had the perfect warm-up season for the main event in the Mozart calendar of 1786. This came on I May, the date of the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro at Vienna’s Burgtheater:

"The Marriage of Figaro will be performed for the first time… It’s going to be important, if it succeeds, because it’s well known that there are incredibly strong factions against it. Salieri and his cohorts will try to move heaven and earth."

So wrote Leopold to Nannerl on 18 April of this year. He need not have worried. The Marriage of Figaro was a huge success and the future of the Mozart name looked set to be golden. However, this was not quite the case where his father was concerned. Leopold had begun to realize that Mozart would soon bankrupt himself if he continued with his lavish lifestyle. Earlier in the year, he had written to Nannerl:

"As you can imagine, your brother's flat is decorated exquisitely, with all mod cons — as befits somewhere costing 480 gulden."

It had not gone unnoticed by Leopold that his son’s rent constituted a rise of 300% on one of Mozart’s previous homes. As a result, relations between Leopold and Mozart were at a bit of a low ebb. Bearing this in mind, it was unsurprising that, when Mozart was considering a trip to England around this time, Leopold refused point blank to agree to a request from his son and daughter-in-law to look after baby Carl while they were away. Some scholars have presented this decision as one of the great “what ifs?” of Mozart’s final years. What if Leopold had agreed to care for Carl? Would Mozart have made money on the tour of England, as Haydn did so famously, just under 5 years later?

In October, Constanze gave birth to a third child, Johann, but, sadly, he survived for only a month. Mozart took his mind off yet another tragic loss by setting up arrangements to visit Prague, for the planned premiere there of The Marriage of Figaro. As Leopold explained to Nannerl:

"Your brother and his wife will be in Prague by now. So successful was The Marriage of Figaro that the [Prague] orchestra and a group of distinguished connoisseurs… sent him a letter, inviting him."

In early January 1787 Mozart and Constanze travelled to Prague, where the opera repeated its Viennese success. If anything, the reception surpassed anything he had previously been accorded. He took with him a new symphony, which was completed just a month earlier, especially for his visit to the city. His Symphony No. 39 became known as The Prague Symphony. Music lovers in the city appeared to hold a soft spot for Mozart and his work. He soon agreed with the Prague impresario, Pasquale Bondini, that he would start work almost straight away on a new opera, again with da Ponte as the librettist, based on the story of Don Juan.

1787 - Mozart meets Beethoven?

On 7 April 1787 a 16-year-old composer arrived fresh in Vienna. By all accounts, he was already familiar with Mozart’s music and was minded to meet up with him. It’s said he played music with him and even, possibly, had some lessons from him. The young composer’s name was Ludwig van Beethoven. He was yet to settle in Vienna full time, but was eager to make his mark.

For Mozart, though, this was a tricky time because his financial problems were beginning to catch up with him. He was forced to move his family out of their beautiful, but cripplingly expensive Domgasse apartment to a much cheaper place in the Landstrasse, which was further away from the city centre. Mozart became unwell again. It is not exactly clear what was wrong with him, but it was enough for him to call out Barisani again, this time to his Landstrasse fiat. Despite his own personal health and money problems, Mozart still found it in himself to loan around 300 gulden to a close friend in need. The money was never paid back.

Tragically for Mozart, though, he was about to come into money in a manner in which he would rather not. On 28 May 1787 Leopold Mozart died. When all his affairs were taken care of, Mozart received 1000 gulden from his father’s estate. It was a much-needed financial boost. In October, Mozart and Constanze set out on their journey to Prague, to oversee rehearsals for the new opera, Don Giovanni. By his own account, it was a gruelling period for Mozart:

"I’ve been writing this letter for eleven days now… whenever I can, I grab a moment to pen a few more lines, but I don’t often get very long. I’m too much at the beck and call of others, and too little at my own… not a state of affairs I would choose of my own accord. The opera will be premiered next Monday, the 29th. The following day, I’ll tell you how it went."

It was duly premiered on 29th October, with Mozart himself conducting four performances. It was a staggering success. By the time he returned to Vienna, he had been given a new job: Kammermusicus to the Emperor’s court. The job did not require much from one so great as Mozart but it did guarantee him 800 gulden as a regular income. Constanze gave birth to a baby girl, Theresia, in December, so Mozart had one more mouth to feed. By this time, he had already written several begging letters to his friend and fellow mason, Michael Puchberg, and he was very much in debt. To be fair, Mozart’s problems with money were more to do with cash flow than lack of earnings but, nevertheless, by this time, he was in quite some financial disarray.

1788 - Don Giovanni premiers, financial troubles worsen

For Mozart, 1788 was not a very good year. In May, Don Giovanni received its premiere in Vienna, after its huge success in Prague. Amazingly, for the opera that many consider not only to be Mozart’s best, but also a contender for the title of history’s best, Don Giovanni failed. In an attempt to make money, Mozart decided to publish three quintets, by subscription, but not enough subscribers were found and the initiative left him further in the red. To bring his dire financial straits to a head, a lucrative series of concerts he had been giving in Vienna also came to an end.

No doubt all these financial woes paled into insignificance against the news of 29 June. Mozart’s daughter, Theresia, died aged only 6 months. Despite infant mortality being commonplace at the time, each death was no less distressing for the parents. As the year wore on, the bulk of Mozart’s surviving correspondence consists of letters to people such as his friend Puchberg, along the lines of this one:

"If you could possibly be kind enough to lend me around one or two thousand gulden, over one or two years, at a suitable rate of interest, you really would be doing me a favour."

Or this one:

"I haven’t the heart to be in your company because I’d be obliged to admit that I can’t possibly pay you back what you’re owed, and I beg you to be patient with me. I’m so sorry."

1789 - Leipzig and tragedy strikes again

There was no end to Mozart’s financial predicament. In April 1789 he wrote this letter to a friend who was a judge:

"I'm taking the liberty of writing, with no airs and graces, to ask a favour. Can you lend me 100 gulden until 20th May — that’s when I get paid, and I’ll be able to give you it back."
It is heartbreaking to think that Mozart, the great composer, was reduced to writing letters that were so desperate. Between April and June this year, Mozart accompanied Prince Lichnowsky on his travels to Germany. They stopped at various places en route, including Dresden, Leipzig, Potsdam and Berlin. In Dresden, Mozart had his portrait painted, but found the women not all he might have hoped for:

"It was a big group, consisting entirely of ugly women, but they make up for their lack of beauty here by virtue."

In Leipzig, he played the organ of St Thomas’s Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach previously worked. In Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm II offered him the post of chief Kapellmeister, on a salary that might almost certainly have meant an end to his financial problems. Mozart’s response was to turn it down. He wrote to a friend:

"I do like Vienna… the Emperor is good to me and I’m not particularly bothered about money."

Back in Vienna, he was reunited with Constanze, who had been prevented from accompanying him to Germany because she was pregnant once again. Another daughter, Anna Maria, was born in November but, again, she did not survive.

It was reportedly around this time, on his return to Vienna, that Emperor Joseph II suggested that Mozart get together with da Ponte to work on another opera. This time, he suggested, they should write on the subject of two men who test the faithfulness of their wives. Da Ponte created a completely original libretto that was not based on any other play or book. Mozart set to work writing the music. Whether the subject matter of what was to become Cosi fan tutte was preying on his mind is hard to tell, but it was around this time that Mozart had a rare occasion to reprimand his wife, for what he perceived to be her 'too compliant' behaviour:

"I’m glad you’re happy — obviously — but I just wish you wouldn’t sometimes make yourself so cheap!"

It was a rare moment of discontent in an otherwise loving and devoted series of letters. December saw the premiere of the Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, which was performed a few days before Christmas at the Viennese Society of Musicians. And on New Year’s Eve, Mozart found a small way of rewarding Puchberg by inviting him to the first, private rehearsal of his new opera, Cosi fan tutte, alongside his great friend Haydn.

The main rehearsals began at the Burgtheater on 21 January. Again, Haydn and Puchberg were invited. The opera went well and the premiere was a success. Despite this, Cosi fan tutte received relatively few performances during Mozart’s lifetime beyond its original first run.


On 20 February 1790 Mozart’s words in Berlin must have been ringing in his ears. Back then he had told a friend, "The Emperor is good to me and I’m not bothered about money." Tragically, on 20 February Emperor Joseph II, the man who had personally suggested the subject matter for Mozart’s last opera, died. He was replaced by his brother, Leopold. Mozart applied for a better job at court — second Kapellmeister. Amidst the upheaval, he was hopeful that he might be successful. By then, his letters to Puchberg had taken on an added significance:

"Stick with me, as much as you can. You can imagine how my present circumstances would ruin my chances of my application to the court, f anyone found out."

So Mozart was now not only reduced to borrowing money, but also to begging his lender not to let anyone know that he was doing it. So far as it is possible to tell, Puchberg, already a true friend to Mozart as a moneylender, continued to be a good friend as a confidant, too. Sadly for Mozart, news eventually came through to him that he had not got the job.

In June Mozart himself was given the task of conducting his most recent opera, Cosi fan tutte, in a rerun at the Burgtheater. He was given some more work by another of his sometime patrons, Baron von Swieten, who was putting on his own summer concert series. Mozart was hired to adapt some oratorios by Handel for the performance.

In September he, like many others, travelled to Frankfurt, for the coronation of Leopold II. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, Franz Hofet, a one-time violinist at St Stephen’s and now a court fiddler. While he was away travelling, Constanze was forced to move with Carl into a yet smaller, less expensive fiat. Once in Frankfurt, in October, Mozart gave a concert, but it was poorly attended and did little to fill the coffers. He continued his mini-tour on to Mannheim, where he witnessed a German performance of The Marriage of Figaro. From there, it was on to Munich in early November, where he played in front of the king of Naples. Despite what must have been increasing concerns about money, he managed some moments of fun and frivolity in a letter to his wife:

"Catch — an amazing number of kisses are flying about! I can see a whole host of them, too. I’ve Mozart approached the year 1791 as he had done just snatched three… mmm, delicious!"
There was no inkling of what was to come in 1791. but, at the same time, he tended to be optimistic about life in general. And the dawning of 1791 gave him no cause to think there was any reason to change. He was more or less at a creative peak, he was in good health and he was very happily married. True, he did not have the ideal job, but in his heart, he always believed that this was just around the corner.