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Music for the Empress: Mozart at Schönbrunn Palace

By Simon Matzinger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Following the success of his first debut in Munich, playing for the musically-gifted Elector Maximilian III Joseph of Bavaria, the six-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set out for the imperial court of Vienna, arriving on 6 October 1762. He was accompanied by his parents, Leopold Mozart and Maria Anna Mozart, as well as his elder sister, Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart. The concert that the young Mozart would give at the imperial summer residence of the Habsburgs, Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna, meant that one of the palace’s many rooms (today numbering 1,441) could claim a significant place in the history of music. It also was, in a way, symbolic of the long-standing but strained relationship that Mozart would have with the Habsburg Imperial Family, for despite the many occasions his works had connections with important events in the life of the Imperial Family, he never attained the committed patronage he may have hoped for. This, in turn, set him on an arduous path of enquiry, trailing the royal courts of Europe for appointments and finally settling as a freelance composer in Vienna.

As Leopold Mozart reported to his landlord and friend, Lorenz Hagenauer, in letters clearly intended to be shared with the rest of the Salzburg community back home: “At 11 o’clock that same evening [10 October 1762] I received orders to go to Schönbrunn on the 12th. But the next day I received fresh instructions to go there on the 13th….” A member of the Imperial Family, Archduke Leopold of Tuscany [the future Kaiser Leopold II] was overheard by Leopold Mozart at the opera, saying that there was “a boy in Vienna who plays the keyboard so well…” and Leopold Mozart describes how Archduke Joseph [the future Joseph II] had been told of the concert of the Mozart children gave en route in Linz, who then told his mother, Empress Maria Theresia. The mention of “that same evening” is significant. It means that the summons to court for the Mozart family the same evening that Leopold Mozart overheard the talk about Wolfgang at the opera, shows the fame of the children had already reached the capital before they themselves announced their arrival.

The room where this legendary concert took place at Schönbrunn Palace, is traditionally thought to have been the so-called ‘Mirrors Room’ or Spiegelsaal. This important performance of the Mozart children, as Salzburg subjects before their Imperial Family, took place the year before what would be the Mozart’s family own musical version of the ‘Grand Tour’ – which itself lasted over three years, from June 1763 until November 1766 – and took the Mozarts to many of the great European cities, including Munich, Mannheim, Cologne, Paris, London and The Hague. The Spiegelssal is on the beletage of the Palace, whose rooms back onto the Great Parterre, between the ‘Balcony Room’ and Maria Theresia’s ‘Chinese Cabinet’, the last room in the East Wing.

Mozart family performing together. By Louis Carrogis Carmontelle – pAG4oubzF9IxKg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

The ‘Mirrors Room’ also acquired the alternative name of ‘Hall of Mirrors’ after 1762, as a notable feature of the room is its magnificent crystal mirrors – framed by ormolu girandoles – which amplify the room’s proportions, a classic illusion to multiply its size in a sea of reflections, aided by the polished parquet floor and the optical trick of baroque candle lighting. The room is typical of the Maria-Theresian style of representation at Schönbrunn and closely resembles her apartments in the Leopoldine Wing of the Hofburg Palace in central Vienna, today the seat of the Federal President of Austria. The room contains two crystal chandeliers and is striking in its spectacular white and gold rocaille decoration, with red velvet hangings and white lace curtains. Schönbrunn Palace confirms that this was “probably” the room where the concert took place, with the young Mozart performing on the ‘clavecin’ [harpsichord]. The scene was recorded in a nineteenth-century romantic painting by Eduard Ender (1869). The room was later used by Kaiser Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth as a reception room.

It is plausible, however, that this concert may have taken place in the adjoining room, the ‘Rosa Room’ because we know that this was used historically for musical performances. Schönbrunn Palace also confirms this additional possibility. Filled with landscape scenes, including one of the so-called ruined ‘Habichtsburg’ [literally Habicht-Castle] in Switzerland, ancestral seat of the Habsburg dynasty, the room contains musical instruments in the gilded rocaille decoration, which again underlines the possibility that the space was used for concerts.

The concert took place between 3 and 6 pm; Maria Theresia’s husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I challenged Mozart, (who played with one finger on a ‘covered keyboard’), coming in from the “next room” and taking Leopold Mozart into see the “Infanta” play the violin. Wolfgang played the harpsichord for Empress Maria Theresia, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, court composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil and most of the imperial children, some of them the same age as the Mozart children. These children also included Archduchess Maria Antonia – history’s Marie Antoinette. An anecdote had that Wolfgang roundly declared that he would marry the future Queen of France, an extraordinary claim, if true. The young Archduchess Josepha, who tragically would die early from smallpox, took the little Wolfgang by the hand and “led him back and forth in her rooms”. Leopold Mozart reported with pride: “Wolferl [Wolfgang] jumped up into the empress’s lap, grabbed her round the neck and kissed her right and proper”.

This must have been indeed a pleasure for the Empress, herself “insatiable” when it came to children, as the mother of five sons. Two days later, an imperial courier arrived with two presents for the Mozart children; the young Mozart was painted in his gala dress – a lilac moire silk outfit which had belonged to the little Archduke Maximilian Franz, appropriately the same age as Mozart – which was a gift from his Empress (Mozart: Bilder und Klänge, 1991); his elder sister also received a dress by way of a reward. Wolfgang received 100 ducats for his performance.

The young Mozart also features as a tiny face among the onlookers in a massive painting in Schönbrunn Palace’s Hall of Ceremonies. The painting is of the ‘Serenade’ in the ‘Redouten Ballrooms’, so named because of ‘redoute’ meaning ‘masked balls’. It forms part of a series of gigantic paintings commissioned by Empress Maria Theresia, to mark the occasion of the marriage of Archduke Joseph with Isabella of Parma, a member of the Bourbon house. The figure of the tiny Mozart was added later, whilst the paintings were in the studio of the painter, van Meytens.

The imperial connections continued, with the Bohemian estates commissioning La Clemenza di Tito from Mozart, to mark the occasion of the coronation of Maria Theresia’s son, Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Harsh words attributed to Leopold’s wife, Maria Luisa of Spain, as a verdict on La Clemenza di Tito, in a phrase rendered more elegant in Italian, as a “porcheria tedesca” [a “German mess”] cannot, however, be traced back further than the nineteenth century.

There were consequences however to that concert in 1762, beyond the commissions. When Mozart, at 22 was in Paris with his mother on what would turn out to be an extremely ill-fated journey, he was in the capital during the time that Marie Antoinette was Queen of France, and as the consort of Louis XVI, at last – pregnant.

The Maria-Theresian-Denkmal in Vienna, a monument depicting the Empress surrounded by numerous men from the court, the military and the ministers of her government, also contains another, smaller figure. Lodged between those statues beneath the Empress, in the section dedicated to the arts and sciences, alongside van Swieten, Pray, Glück and Haydn, is – the boy Mozart.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018-19

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.