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Exploring Music: Charming

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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In 1763 Leopold Mozart and his Frau set out in their carriage to bump slowly across Europe and see what kind of profit they could turn by ex­ploiting their two talented kids. Nan­nerl was 11, Wolfie just seven. After hitting German centers from Munich to Aachen, they spent six weeks in Brussels, then five months in Paris, before embarking for London in April of the next year, to stay until late Ju­ly 1765.

Contrary to popular opinion, King George III seems to have been a nice man in many ways. He adored his children and enjoyed playing the harpsichord. Having just admitted defeat by his former transatlantic col­onies and having been shocked by the loose living of his eldest son who, at 21, had also recently declared his own independence, George was in need of cheering up, and welcomed the Mozarts. Wolfie played at sight dif­ficult pieces by the king's favorite composers and accompanied Queen Charlotte's singing. The family was suitably rewarded and its members were thrilled when, a week later, the king opened his carriage window to wave at them in St. James Park. Later Wolfie wrote a set of keyboard-and­-fiddle sonatas for the queen who sent him 50 guineas (and a partridge in a pear tree) in return.

Probably more importantly Wolfie won the friendship of the queen's of­ficial music master, the childless Mr. John Bach (formerly Johann Chris­tian). Bach was delighted with the precocious little boy and played keyboard duets with him. It is now doubted that Bach gave him formal lessons, but he certainly exerted a strong musical influence on him. He may have overseen some of the pieces in the so-called London Sketchbook,K. 15.

That winter Leopold came down with what Marcia Davenport terms "quinzy" and what Leopold himself called "a sort of national disease ... which is called a cold." It laid him low for a while, and on medical advice he went to recuperate in a suburban paradise named Chelsea (or Caelichyth a thousand years earlier). It is now in the heart of Lon­don. There Wolfie amused himself writing out 43 little pieces on two staves of a manuscript notebook.

The notebook resurfaced about 100 years ago. In view of the format, it was published in 1909 as a collection of little piano pieces (dances, sonata movements, and abstract composi­tions). It, or most of it (three pieces are incomplete), has been several times recorded by pianists. But pre­sent thinking is that little Mozart had an instrnmental group or orchestra in mind, and it is on this notion that Eric Smith has acted here.

Mr. Smith, who is the son of the late conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, has applied to the notebook pieces a purely Mozartian instrumentation, and has grouped several of them in three "divertimenti," which Mozart probably did not envision; but at the very worst, none of this does any harm to the subject matter. And, let's face it, you need have no fear of the calorie content of this music, which Marriner's Merry Men play charming­ly. Smith has included 27 pieces and adds, scored for flute and bassoon, a 1767 contredanse that Mozart jotted down on a concert-flyer that has somehow survived.

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