Measure by Measure

Mozart in Sun and Shadow

A novella imagines a day with the great composer

By Sudip Bose | August 23, 2018
Roman Boed/Flickr

For the longest time, my only knowledge of the German writer Eduard Mörike was via Hugo Wolf, who, during a few fertile and frenetic months in 1888, set 53 of the poet’s lyrics—a song-cycle for the ages. Only recently have I begun to read more about Mörike, who was born in 1804 in the city of Ludwigsburg, not far from Stuttgart. He received a theological education, becoming a Lutheran pastor and then a vicar, though he eventually quit the clergy, embarking upon a fruitful second career as a professor of German literature. All along, he wrote accessible poems that were ecstatic, funny, and sad, many of them inspired by nature. The lyrics won him numerous admirers. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, urged Bertrand Russell to read Mörike, who was, in the estimation of the older philosopher, “really a great poet and his poems are among the best things we have … The beauty of Mörike’s work is very closely related to Goethe’s.”

He wasn’t only a poet. Indeed, Mörike’s most important work might well be his 1855 novella Mozart’s Journey to Prague, which I discovered not long ago in a translation by Leopold von Löwenstein-Wertheim. It describes a day in the life of Mozart and his wife, Konstanze (here rendered as Constance), as they travel from Vienna to the Bohemian capital for the premiere of Don Giovanni. It opens in gentle fashion on a warm day, with the Mozarts engaging in pleasant repartee as their coach bears them through a stretch of charming woodland. Stopping to go for a walk, they are immediately “plunged into the shade of the fir-trees, which became denser and deeper, until only an occasional sunbeam pierced the darkness to light up the velvety moss underfoot.” This contrast of light and dark is important, for it underscores Mozart’s state of mind at this particular moment of his life, in the autumn of 1787. He may “feel as young and well as ever and … in the mood to do a thousand things,” but he is also conscious of time passing, of life slipping by in terrifying fashion. After all, this is a man who spends his days giving lessons and attending to rehearsals and a legion of other commitments, then composing late into the night, taking relief when he can in various entertainments—the parties, masquerades, games of billiards, and festivals that keep him away from home. When Mozart is at home, he often sits alone, brooding on “the sad idea of death.” His health deteriorating, he suffers “periodic attacks of depression which tormented him. …  Sorrow of every kind and description, including the sense of remorse, had given a tang of bitterness to his life.”

Arriving at an inn, the Mozarts stop for lunch. With Constance resting in an upstairs bedroom, Mozart goes for a walk on the grounds of the adjacent castle. Coming to a fountain surrounded by several orange trees in tubs, spaced amid oleanders and laurels, he then does a curious thing:

With an absent smile, he reached for the nearest [orange], savouring its exquisite rounded shape and juicy coolness in the hollow of his hand. Entwined with the scene from childhood which this had evoked, a long-forgotten musical memory rose before him and for a while his mind dreamily followed its uncertain trail. … Immersed in his thoughts, he again touches the orange, which this time comes off the branch into his hand. He is so far away in his artistic remoteness that he sees but does not notice what he has done and, humming to himself almost inaudibly the beginning or middle of a melody, he twirls the scented fruit under his nose. Instinctively he brings out of his side pocket an enameled box from which he takes a small knife with a silver handle and slowly begins to sever the golden globe from top to bottom.

Watching this episode the whole time is a gardener, who now angrily accosts Mozart. The castle, we learn, is the home of a prominent local count and the orange trees (with their fruit intact) are to be a wedding present for his niece Eugenie. Mozart is embarrassed, but what promises to be a thorny situation is resolved soon enough when the castle’s residents learn that the interloper in their midst is none other than the great composer from Vienna. The Mozarts are invited to lunch at the castle, commencing a day’s worth of amusements, with Eugenie, an accomplished singer who knows Mozart’s music by heart, performing an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Delighted by the performance, Mozart himself agrees to play, before the party of 11—including the Count, the Countess, their son Max, Eugenie, and her fiancé—heads to the dining room for a long and lavish lunch.

The mood continues to be celebratory and gay, with much drinking, dancing, and merriment, though as night falls, the mood darkens once again. With the candelabras lit, Mozart begins to talk about Don Giovanni, explaining the plot and playing several excerpts on the piano, he and Constance singing what they can. He describes how he had come to write the graveyard scene, bringing about Giovanni’s damnation, and how he let loose in the work’s closing moments “a whole legion of terrors,” a scene “in which even the most matter-of-fact listener is carried to the limits of human imagination and beyond”—the statue of the Commendatore imploring Giovanni to repent, and Giovanni obstinate in his refusal, “struggling, resisting, writhing helpless under the ever-increasing powers of Hell.”

All are moved by this performance, but none more so than Eugenie, who is “motionless as a pillar and so transported by the music that, during the short intervals when the others expressed their approval by subdued applause or involuntary murmurs of admiration, she could hardly respond to the remarks which her fiancé addressed to her.” It doesn’t matter that she is entirely happy, on the cusp of marrying a man she dearly loves. She can’t help being gripped by a deep foreboding:

She had a conviction, an absolute conviction, that [Mozart] would rapidly and inexorably be consumed in his own flame, that his presence on earth was fleeting and ephemeral because this world was, in truth, not capable of enduring the overwhelming riches which he would lavish upon it. This and many other things weighed on her heart after she had gone to bed that evening, while the echoes of Don Giovanni continued to ring confusedly in her head. Only towards daybreak, exhausted, she fell asleep.

The novella ends, the following day, with the Mozarts on their way and with Eugenie still in an unshakable melancholy, as she looks over the pages of a Bohemian folksong, “bitter tears” falling down her cheek. Despite all the dappled sunlight that touches this work—and it is often bright and effervescent—Mörike ends in a minor key. Only upon finishing the story did I realize that all of its happy moments were connected to the past, to some pleasant memory or nostalgia; in the contemplation of the future, all is uncertain or bleak. At any rate, Mozart’s Journey to Prague may not be on a par with Death in Venice or The Kreutzer Sonata, as George Steiner declares it to be on the book’s cover. It is, however, an utterly enchanting entertainment.

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