• U.S.

Music: Mozart Debuts at the White House

3 minute read
Michael Walsh

After 200 years, a lost symphony is performed

The crowd sweltering under a tent on the South Lawn of the White House last week had gathered at a great occasion. On a platform were Conductor Leonard Slatkin and, instruments at the ready, New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. In the audience: the President of the United States. But the real guest of honor was the shade of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose long-lost Symphony in F, K. 19a, was having its American premiere more than two centuries after it was written and several months after it mysteriously surfaced in West Germany. The composer was all of nine when he wrote it.

Even Mozart was not about to write a symphony that plumbed great emotional depths in 1765; both the composer and the form itself were practically in their infancy, and the galant spirit of the times did not call for such a thing. And with Mozart’s earliest works there is always some question as to what extent, if any, his father Leopold (who copied the music) helped him with the finer points of structure and harmony.

At its White House performance and at a concert in the Kennedy Center a few hours later, the symphony—probably its composer’s third—proved to be genuinely Mozartean. A dashing allegro assai with a surprisingly sophisticated development (perhaps Leopold had a hand in here) is followed by an Italianate andante that ambles along amiably, the gracious, formal melody accompanied by a distinctive stutter-step in the violas. The presto finale is a sprightly jig.

For 200 years, all that was known of the work was the first 15 measures of the first-violin part, which Leopold had jotted down on the cover of another youthful Mozart symphony. Last year a complete set of parts in Leopold’s handwriting was discovered among private papers in Bavaria and sold anonymously for an undisclosed sum to the Bavarian State Library, where the work was authenticated by Robert Minister, chief of the music collection. Says Minister: “When I recognized the handwriting of Leopold Mozart, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The excitement and ceremony surrounding the symphony are one more example of the Mozart boom; not since Mahler became a cult figure in the 1960s has a composer been as popular. On Broadway, Peter Shaffer’s hit play Amadeus recently won five Tony Awards. Mozart last year led all composers in the number of new listings in the Schwann record catalogue, and record companies are assiduously exploring the nooks and crannies of the composer’s output in search of further repertory—the oratorio La Betulia Liberata, for example, or the opera Mitridate, Re di Ponto, both written when Mozart was an adolescent. In addition, music of the classical period has become the frontier of performance scholarship; original-instrument versions of Mozart are now appearing, led by the Academy of Ancient Music’s formidable project of recording all the Mozart symphonies in the way they might have been performed in his day.

There is a danger, of course, that in this burst of enthusiasm Mozart will—or perhaps already has—become overexposed, merchandised like a bar of soap or a political candidate. But while a vogue is transient, music is not, and Mozart’s is for the ages. Even music he wrote when he was nine. —By Michael Walsh

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com