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After exhibiting before Their Majesties: Mozart and the British Museum

By Saverio Dalla Rosa, Public Domain, Wiki Commons

By October 1764 the Mozarts had once more been at court, having been received at the Queen’s House in May as Leopold Mozart wrote ‘within 5 days of arriving’. The young Wolfgang played before George III and even accompanied Queen Charlotte, who sang an aria.

In addition to this, the Mozart children gave public concerts. Leopold Mozart arranged for his children to be advertised in the newspapers of the day, one such announcing a performance of vocal and instrumental music on 13 May 1765 in Hickford’s Great Room in Brewer Street, with tickets costing five shillings ‘each, to be had of Mr Mozart, at Mr Williamson’s, in Thrift Street, Soho’ . The concert was billed ‘for the benefit of Miss Mozart of Thirteen, and Master Mozart of Eight Years of Age, Prodigies of Nature’.  This is how it appeared in ‘The Public Advertiser’, London, 13 May 1765 (British Library). The advertisement also guaranteed that the concert would feature ‘all the OVERTURES of this little Boy’s own composition‘, with the concerto on the harpsichord to be played ‘by the little Composer and his Sister‘, noting that this would be ‘each single and both together, &c’. 

As if to help sell the child’s genius, another advertisement noted the young Mozart’s royal approval: ‘He has had the Honour of exhibiting before their Majesties greatly to their Satisfaction…’ 

Queen Charlotte, painted with her two eldest sons by the portraitist Allan Ramsay. Note the open spinet at which the Queen is sat, as she poses (Allan Ramsay [United States Public domain/Public domain, Wikimedia Commons])

Fittingly, Queen Charlotte was painted by the great Scottish portraitist Allan Ramsay in this exact period 1764-69, showing the Queen seated with her two eldest sons. Her musical interests are emphasised by the fact that she is not seated on a formal chair, but actually sat at her English spinet and turned towards the painter. Leopold Mozart tells us that they were given ‘only 24 guineas’ at their first appearance at court. The easy warmth of the British King and Queen was such, however, that in Leopold’s words: ‘their common touch and friendly manner allowed us to forget that they were the king and queen of England’. 

The young Mozart’s sonatas for keyboard and violin K10-15 in B flat, G, A, F, G and B flat were engraved before the end of 1764 and dedicated to the musical Queen Charlotte. But there was one further gift, alongside his royal dedication.

Composed by the young Mozart in England it was presented to the British Museum and importantly, written in English. Catalogued by its Köchel number K20, it is a madrigal known as God is our Refuge. A curious aside in English during this sojourn in London was written down in Leopold Mozart’s notebook. A passage from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice peculiarly suited to himself and his family on the precious (mutual) theme of music, he wrote in his own hand, slipping into his German ‘ist’: ‘The man that hath no Musick in himself nor ist [sic] not mov’d with concord of Sweet Sounds. Is fit for treasons, Stratagems, and Spoils…’ (cit., Michael Levey, The Life and Death of Mozart, 46).

The British Museum in its first building, the former Montagu House (Incledon, Charles Benjamin, 1763-1826 [performer] [United States Public domain/Public domain, Creative Commons)

The motet may have been composed in Cornhill, where the Mozarts lived for possibly no more than a week, at the historic tavern The Swan and Harp, which now no longer exists but once stood in the present-day Change Alley. The Mozarts were living there in July 1765, the month when the piece was presented as a gift, although it could have been composed in late June when the family were still renting in Chelsea. By July, the Mozart children were available for daily performances at low prices, giving the feeling that perhaps it might have been wiser to have left London sooner, the novelty having lost something of its earlier sparkle. In July 1765, the young Mozart had played a harpsichord made by the instrument maker Burkat Tschudi; Leopold Mozart mentions such a harpsichord in a letter written from Naples in 1770: ‘a valuable instrument made in England by Tschudi, with 2 manuals and pedal stops’.  Leopold Mozart wrote in June 1764, whilst still in the family’s London lodgings: ‘a couple of harpsichords take up a lot of space’, and that they were renting ‘only one with difficulty’. Leopold Mozart purchased some engravings of London in 1764; one of these is kept in the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg. Perhaps the most poignant relic of the London stay however, was Leopold writing in English in his notebook, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, peculiar to himself and his musical family: ‘The man that hath no Musick in himself nor ist [sic] not mov’d with concord of Sweet Sounds. Is fit for treasons, Stratagems, and Spoils…‘ Leopold has lapsed into German, an interesting comment on the cultured traveller in England.

Researching in the collections of the British Library which now owns this manuscript, K.10.a.17.(3), I was able to establish that this sacred motet was presented to the British Museum when the young Mozart visited it in July 1765.

Another fellow German traveller, Princess Louise of Anhalt-Dessau, paid a visit to the British Museum incognito some ten years later in 1775 and wrote: ‘The most striking thing in the library [at the Museum] seemed to me to be the collection of all of the individual libraries of the Kings and Queens, which can be all found in one room beneath a portrait of their exalted Master…’ (ed., Johanna Geyer-Kordesh, Die Englandreise der Fürstin Louise von Anhalt-Dessau im Jahr 1775, 202).

It is important to note that the British Museum had only been open to the public since 15 January 1759, a mere six years prior to Mozart’s stay in London. The Museum would have then been housed in the seventeenth century Montagu House, offering free entrance to ‘all studious and curious Persons’. Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s elder and brilliant sister, made a list of some of the Museum’s rich historical and ethnographic treasures originating in the great collection of Sir Hans Sloane.

‘God is our Refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ is a musical setting in G minor for Psalm xIvi and is for four voices in score, partly in autograph and partly in the handwriting of Leopold Mozart. It is headed ‘Chorus by Mr Wolfgang Mozart, 1765’. A note in the handwriting of the English musician and publisher Vincent Novello, pasted within the pages of K.10. a.17. (2) records that it had been composed ‘for the express purpose of presenting it to the British Museum’, referencing Nissen.’s Life.

We can predate the visit before 19 July 1765 because, on that date, the Secretary of the British Museum wrote to Leopold Mozart: ‘Sir. I am ordered by the Standing Committee of the Trustees of the British Museum, to signify to You, that they have received the present of the musical performances of your very ingenious Son which You were pleased lately to make Them, and to return You their thanks for the same. M. Maty. Secretary’ (cit., Hermann Abert, W. A. Mozart, 45).

Abert’s biography of Mozart stated that the presentation of a manuscript was in fact, in response to a request from the Museum and that not only the four-part aforementioned motet but also his engraved sonatas were given (Ibid, 44). According to the British Library, these were his Sonates pour le Clavecin, op. 1 and 2 (K6-9), presented at the same time.

The Mozarts left London on 24 July 1765 and were soon making their way to the Netherlands where music would again be a gift but this time as a royal dedication.

Alongside Mozart’s dedication to Britain’s Queen Charlotte, this religious motet was his gift to the British Museum and therefore to the city of London to which he never returned.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.