Job Hunting in the Muddy Streets of Paris


“I’ve always been a great lover of Mozart, a great, great admirer of this composer”, says Anne-Sophie Mutter in the booklet accompanying her recording of some of the most beautiful sonatas for violin and piano written by Mozart. “None of these pieces are easy. Mozart has a habit of suddenly demanding you after a wonderfully beautiful elegiac melody to perform a triple somersault from a standing start. And yet it must never sound merely virtuosic. Mozart’s music is never an end in itself. However we may have valued virtuosity, it’s always wrapped up in galanterie, elegance and expression.”

How true. His Sonata in a major (KV 305/239d) is such a piece of music. Galanterie – that catches the spirit of this piece. Mozart wrote it in 1778 in Paris. He had traveled through Germany to the City of Light, seeking fame and fortune. Paris – the city of  Louis XVI, the last king of France. Eleven years later a revolution would shake France and change Europe forever. Louis XVI would be executed, other kings and emperors would tremble.

Mozart of course could not have known anything of this. He had been instructed by his father to introduce himself at the court of Versailles and to please. And to find a job as a musician, as a composer, anything. But Paris did not exactly greet him with open arms. He and his mother stayed in a cheap, dirty hotel. Mozart spoke only little French. The Parisian nobility rebuffed the child prodigy, a situation Mozart wasn’t accustomed to. He wrote to his father in Salzburg: “Now I have to wait half an hour in a freezing, unheated room without a fireplace.” He was 22, full of hopes, and failed miserably in Paris.

It did not however block his creativity. Listen to the opening of the sonata’s first movement: Pure, exuberant joy! Elegance, esprit, yes but no excess in any direction. Noblesse oblige – he would not try to introduce himself with something flamboyant and lacking grace, but with something beautifully refined. He succeeded in musical terms even if he did not make any impact on the Parisian audience. The lively and delicate first movement sets the tone and the theme for the second movement and its six variations.

“Dolce” the score says, but not sugar-coated. The golden mean, matching the elegance of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Mozart’s reality was different. “You write to me that I ought to pay a good many visits in order to make new acquaintances, and to renew former ones. This is, however, impossible, from the distances being so great, and it is too muddy to go on foot, for really the mud in Paris is beyond all description”, he complains to his father. “To go in a carriage entails spending four or five livres a day, and all for nothing; it is true the people say all kinds of civil things, but there it ends, as they appoint me to come on such and such a day, when I play, and hear them exclaim, ‘Oh! c’est un prodige, c’est inconcevable, c’est étonnant!’ and then, Adieu!”

Mozart – un prodige. C’est vrai. Autant que la sonate.

© Charles Thibo

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