The Music Division is home to some magnificent Mozart manuscripts, from his Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, to a handwritten letter from 14 year-old Wolfgang to his sister Nannerl, to his revered Gran Partita. In addition to these (fully digitized!) Mozart manuscripts, our collections also feature reflections and commentary on the master from other great musical minds. Take, for instance, Aaron Copland’s writing “At the Thought of Mozart,” or Leonard Bernstein’s script for his Young People’s Concerts episode entitled “What Is Classical Music?” where he describes Mozart’s music as he contextualizes the various eras of classical music. We even hold Clara Schumann’s holograph cadenzas for the first and last movements of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, K. 466.
On Mozart’s birthday, I’m eager to share a completely different Mozart-related item that relays as much about Mozart’s personality as it does his musicianship. Mozart started displaying raw musical talent at just three years old and was touring Europe with his father and sister Nannerl by the age of six. By the time the child prodigy was performing in London at eight years old, he was simultaneously attracting massive attention and sparking controversy among contemporary skeptics, as certain doubters questioned the boy’s true age and quality of talent. English lawyer, naturalist, and Friend of the Royal Society Daines Barrington (1727/28-1800) responded to said skeptics when he famously observed an eight year-old Mozart on the boy’s 1764 travels to London and reported his “scientific” findings to the British scientists of the Royal Society on February 15, 1770. In the Library’s collections resides a small book in Barrington’s hand; the spine of the clamshell box reads “Barrington – Memoirs of the life of the late George Frederick Handel.” Barrington actually copied out the Handel memoir, the work of his contemporary John Mainwaring (Mainwaring, an English theologian, was the very first biographer of Handel). Bound with his copy of Memoirs, however, one will discover a fun surprise: a manuscript copy of Barrington’s aforementioned report on, in Barrington’s words, “Little Mozart,” — in the author’s own hand!
His report, entitled Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician, documents Barrington’s various rounds of testing that involved sight-reading newly-composed, never before seen music as well as improvising material that conveyed specific emotions (such as love and rage). The sight-reading, it must be pointed out, was composed by “an English gentleman to some favourite Words in Metastasio’s Opera of Demosoonte,” written in five parts (two violins, two vocal parts, and a basso). What’s more remarkable, however, is that Barrington points out “that the parts for the first and second voice were written in what the Italians stile the Contralto cleff.” (I’d like to see an eight year old do this on Youtube!) Aside from detailing the immense difficulty of this assignment, Barrington notes Mozart’s masterful modulation skills and amazing execution, especially considering that “his Little Fingers could scarcely reach a Fifth on the Harpsichord.” Of course, one of the reasons for Barrington’s study was a growing public doubt of Mozart’s real age; Barrington addressed this specific point and at the same time provided us with a charming visual picture when he wrote, “…he had not only a most childish Appearance, but likewise had all the Actions of that Stage of Life. For Example, whilst he was playing to me a favourite Cat came in, upon which he immediately left his Harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable Time. He would also sometimes run about the Room with a Stick between his Legs by Way of Horse.”
We know Mozart was a child prodigy, and we know his humor tended toward the immature and playful; however, these specific retellings of his childish reflexes paint a particular portrait of the eight year old Wunkerkind that can’t help but make the modern reader smile. In addition to the Barrington book, take note of two illustrations: 1) an engraving of seven-year-old Mozart at the keyboard from our iconography collections (left), and 2) “Mozart als Knabe von sieben Jahr” (“Mozart as a child of seven years”) pasted into a first edition copy of his Six Sonates pour le Clavecin, composed when he was just eight years old (below).
So, today, of course listen to Mozart (his Requiem, a concerto, an opera – what have you!) and savor his masterful music, but also take a moment to reflect on the human side of “little Mozart” and celebrate the tremendous life that he brought to music history.
Happy birthday, Wolfie!
Great blog, Cait! How I miss looking at those manuscripts — there’s a great story about Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon walking through the reading room when someone was looking at the Gran Partitta Ms and saying, “Ah, yes, a piece of the true Cross.”
Wow! What fun! There’s nothing like primary sources. And I love that a cat so quickly and thoroughly got the kid’s attention.