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Mozart’s visit to what became Buckingham Palace

As part of the ‘Great European Tour’ of the Mozart family, which began from Salzburg in June 1763 and extended across the Holy Roman Empire to France, the Netherlands and Switzerland until November 1766, there was a long visit to London from April 1764 until 1 August 1765.

The Mozart family arrived in London fresh from their stay in Paris, arriving in England at Dover. Our best account of the Mozart visit to London is undoubtedly the first-hand account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father Leopold Mozart, who wrote detailed letters to his friend and landlord back in Salzburg, Lorenz Hagenauer, knowing they would be shared with their shared Salzburg community. Wolfgang’s sister, Maria Anna Mozart “Nannerl”, also kept a diary of her own, in which she noted her observations of these musical journeys that the family made together. Touchingly, she noted seeing the sea for the first time, when she glimpsed the English Channel, writing in her diary: ‘In Calais, I saw how the sea runs away and comes back again’ (cit., Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women, 22).

The ‘Great European Tour’ enabled the Mozart children to meet and perform before European royalty and nobility, thanks to their precocious musical talent. “Nannerl” was an extremely talented musician, who also made occasional attempts at composition. The first of these musical tours was made in 1762 when the young Wolfgang was six-years-old and “Nannerl” aged eleven. Although his sister was undoubtedly talented, it was obvious that it was the little Wolfgang who was regarded as the main prodigy, something which left a lasting impression on the great cities of Europe they visited. When he later undertook journeys in the frustrating search for a permanent court appointment, he would find that the European crowds who had readily welcomed him as a child genius, were awkward in their attitude towards him now that he was no longer that same child but instead an ambitious and burgeoning composer, seeking court patronage.

The Mozart family arrived in London on 23 April and were invited less than a week later to the court of the music-loving British King George III and his consort, Queen Charlotte on 27 April, so it seems that their reputation had preceded them. Like the imperial family of Empress Maria Theresia, the family of King George III was also extremely musical. The early Georgian kings had famously patronised the work of the German-born composer living in London, Georg Friedrich Händel. George III was a passionate admirer of Händel’s music and was also a talented musician; he played the harpsichord even during periods of illness in old age and kept a chamber organ, which can today be seen in the dining room at Kew Palace, installed at his order. A harpsichord once owned by George III and Queen Charlotte has previously been displayed at Kew Palace, along with several other musical instruments associated with their family. 

Queen Charlotte was extremely musical. Johann Christian Bach, (the so-called ‘English Bach’) was living in London at the time of Mozart’s visit and was the Queen’s music master from 1764. The German-born composer Carl Friedrich Abel was also active in London at this time and was appointed chamber musician to Charlotte in the same year. Queen Charlotte loved music and played the harpsichord – she brought two with her to England on her marriage – she sang and also played the guitar. Both the King and Queen took a genuine pleasure in music and used to duet in the early years of their marriage.

Leopold Mozart describes the visit that the Mozart family made to Buckingham House, which George III had purchased shortly after his marriage to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (the ‘Queen’s House’) and which later became Buckingham Palace. It was not designated the official London residence of the monarch until the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. Leopold Mozart refers to the building as the ‘Queen’s Palace’ because it was purchased with Queen Charlotte in mind. This was also because it had initially been intended as a more private royal home, St James’s Palace being still the official residence of the couple. Today, St James’s Palace is officially where the British court resides and is still the Court to which all ambassadors are accredited.

Amongst the concerts that the Mozart children gave in London, was the first of these royal performances on 27 April 1764, a visit that began at six o’clock and lasted a full three hours, after which they received the princely sum of 24 guineas as a reward. They were given an extremely warm welcome by the royal couple and even a week later were recognised as they walked in the nearby St James’s Park, King George III being captured in informal posture, waving from the open window of his carriage as he drove past. The children gave their first public concert the day after George III’s birthday, which was celebrated on 4 June.

A second visit to the Queen’s House on 19 May began at six o’clock in the evening and lasted until ten at night. As part of this visit, the young Wolfgang accompanied Queen Charlotte in an aria she sang and then on the flute as a solo. George III presented Wolfgang with works to play at first sight, including pieces by Bach, Abel and Händel. There must have been a chamber organ in the room during this visit, so perhaps it took place in a part of the House where the Royal Family dined as at Kew, because musical entertainment was typical at this time, as an accompaniment to dining. Wolfgang played on organ for the King and Queen and also improvised melodies on the violin for some arias by Händel. The Mozarts were given another 24 guineas on occasion of this visit. The sonatas that Wolfgang wrote for keyboard and violin, K10-15, in B flat, G, A, F, G and B flat were dedicated to Queen Charlotte before the end of 1764. The Mozarts were invited again to the court in October. 

Today, it is a fascinating thought to imagine Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his only visit to England, playing before George III and Queen Charlotte, in what later became known as Buckingham Palace. The Royal Collection possesses various piano scores and band parts of Mozart’s works, alongside a couple of Mozart biographies translated from the German, which date mostly from the 1880s. Queen Victoria preferred the more ‘modern’ Italian composers of her own day, although she did sketch opera singers such as Giulia Grisi and her music teacher, Luigi Lablache as characters from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It was Lablache who reminded her in firm French that Mozart was ‘le Papa de tous’. [the father of them all]. Touchingly, there is a tiny biscuit porcelain bust of Mozart in Queen Victoria’s Bedroom at Osborne House, next to one of Beethoven.

The Royal Collection also possesses an autograph manuscript of Mozart’s work, “Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots”, supposedly inscribed by Leopold Mozart and probably dating from 1767. It was purchased by Prince Albert in 1841 and entered the Royal Library’s collections in 1863, two years after his death.

Two heritage plaques commemorate Mozart’s visit to London – one at 180 Ebury Street, Belgravia and the other which marks the location of the former 20 Frith Street, Soho, where the family also lived for a time. 

A lovely finale to Mozart’s only visit to the British capital is the oversize statue of the young Mozart by the eminent sculptor Philip Jackson, which today stands in Orange Square, Belgravia. Considering the royal welcome that the young Wolfgang was given in London by King George III and Queen Charlotte, it is perhaps fitting that the statue was unveiled by Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon in 1994. 

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.