A prodigy in England: Lucy Worsley on Mozart’s London odyssey
In 1764, the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his family arrived in London, a city that held the promise of unrivalled musical opportunity. However, the trip was far from a storming success, as Dr Lucy Worsley explores in her new BBC Four documentary, Lucy Worsley: Mozart’s London Odyssey. Mozart faced the demands of a royal performance and a near-fatal family illness, and found himself heckled on the streets. BBC History Magazine’s TV editor, Jonathan Wright, spoke to Lucy Worsley about why the trip was such a formative experience for the young composer…
Q: What initially drew you to this subject?
A: I played the piano every day for 15 years when I was growing up, and my lessons taught me so much about music and beauty, but also a lot about discipline. My piano teacher gave me a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mozart. She always steered me towards him for piano exams, because my hands are quite small and my touch was quite light. I was reluctant, because what I really wanted to play was Chopin and gushy romantic music with lots of pedal, but she said I’d get the best scores with Mozart.
How times change! I don’t write off Mozart as prissy or buttoned-up any more. Now I can appreciate what a genius he was, and I can enjoy the easy airy beauty of his tunes.
Q: What did Mozart make of London?
A: Mozart was a musical child prodigy, and his parents took him and his sister on a tour of Europe to play for noblemen and royalty. His father, Leopold, would really have liked a permanent well-paid gig as a court composer, but instead the family had to survive from concert to concert, hoping for generous rewards. Leopold was very proud of both of his ‘prodigy’ children, and even lied about how young they were in order to make them seem even more impressive!
The family arrived in London when Mozart was eight years old, expecting a warm welcome. Instead his father fell dangerously ill and it was a troubling, difficult time for them all. It’s hard to say what the little boy thought about it all, but I think it was the making of him. While his dad was ill, little Mozart had some time off from the continual concerts and performances, so he sat down and wrote his first symphony.
Q: Can this breakthrough be attributed to his being in London in other ways too?
A: Georgian London was the place to go as a musician because it had a very vibrant, exciting musical scene. All the best musicians in Europe were attracted to the city because a new merchant class was emerging in London. This new merchant class had money to spend on music, and a great desire to show their friends and colleagues just how much taste and musical discernment they had. So there was lots of music-making going on for Mozart to listen to and join in with. It was a musical melting pot unique in Europe, and the young Mozart met performers he’d later work with into adulthood.
Dr Lucy Worsley in Georgian costume. (BBC/Matchlight/Matthew Hill)
Q: Can you tell us a little about the composition of his first symphony?
A: Well, the illness of Mozart’s father in London really looked like a dangerous moment: the family might run of money, the tour might end. He could even die, leaving his wife, daughter and son stranded in a foreign country. But, in fact it was a blessing in disguise: little Mozart was forbidden from performing or practising because his father needed quiet to recover. So he found a new way to entertain himself musically – by writing the music down.
That first symphony contains the seeds of so much of his later work: it’s simple, and in some ways naive, but it contains the most beautiful, daring, clashing harmonies that would prefigure much to come.
A portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austrian composer and pianist. (De Agostini/Getty Images)
Q: What about the public response to the piece?
A: When Mozart’s father, Leopold, recovered from his sickness, he managed to organise a big public concert at which he hoped to introduce this new composer to the world. But the concert was a commercial failure: the hall wasn’t full. London did not quite appreciate what a treat it was getting! Indeed, Leopold Mozart suspected that other musicians, jealous of his son’s talent, had organised a kind of cabal against the family. The disappointed Mozarts had to resort to playing in a down-market tavern in order to earn the money they needed to leave London.
Q: Is there evidence that London left scars on Mozart?
A: Well, the Austrian-born Mozart, who never came back to London after this childhood visit, later claimed to be a ‘dyed-in-the-wool Englishman’. This might totally sound implausible, but it’s completely true! I think that Mozart’s visit to Georgian London taught him a lot about the elusive nature of commercial success, resilience, composing and silver linings.
Q: We often see Mozart through the prism of [the 1984 film] Amadeus these days. How accurate or misleading is this?
A: The film tells such a strong story about an aberrant genius that it’s hard to remember how Mozart actually fits into the texture of his world. Of course he was a genius, but he was also a member of a family and a profession, and that explains some of his success.
What’s really missing from our picture of Mozart, I think, is his sister. She was just as talented a performer, but it was her destiny to get married and become a stepmother. Expectations were so different for girls then; it makes you wonder whether she really fulfilled her musical potential. I feel annoyed on her behalf!
You can find out more about Lucy Worsley: Mozart’s London Odyssey here.