When Mozart met Marie Antoinette?

By Yann Caradec from Paris, France - Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour - 1778 - Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘meeting’ between Marie Antoinette and the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has a fabled quality, not least because of the oft-repeated folklore that has grown around it. From the point of view of posterity, it is a fascinating moment to contemplate, when two legendary (Austrian) figures were in the same room, their biographical futures lying still before them. I want to explore the facts behind this extraordinary ‘meeting’ and present the case for its possibility, against the lack of good evidence. One much-repeated story even has the boy Mozart boldly declaring that he would marry the future Marie Antoinette himself, some eight years before her marriage to the Dauphin Louis Auguste took place.

If this meeting did take place, it was probably in the so-called Mirrors Room at Schönbrunn Palace, the magnificent Habsburg summer residence to the west of central Vienna. Schönbrunn Palace at least supports the tradition that it was in this room that the young Mozart was received in the presence of Maria Theresia, Holy Roman Empress by marriage and Queen of Hungary. The Mirrors Room was in fact known as the Hall of Mirrors from 1762 onwards – the year of Mozart’s reception at Schönbrunn. The reception and concert could possibly also have taken place in the adjoining Grossen Rosa room, where the rococo decoration includes musical instruments, underlining the room’s probable additional function as a music room.

Mozart’s presence, in fact, remains at Schönbrunn in the form of a small portrait, added to one of the vast canvases perfected by Martin van Meytens, commissioned as a cycle by Maria Theresia to commemorate the important dynastic marriage of her heir, Archduke Joseph to Princess Isabella of Parma. Today displayed in the Great Ceremonial Hall, Mozart’s tiny figure was added to the painting of the serenade in the Redoutensaal [Masked Ball Hall] in the studio of Meytens (ed. Elfriede Iby, Schönbrunn Palace, 30). The boy from Salzburg stares out from amongst the countless faces of the assembled Viennese court en fête.

Marie Antoinette’s graceful spirit also remains at Schönbrunn, in the form of her own enchanting portrait by Mytens and in the supremely elegant writing desk in the Palace’s Yellow Salon, a luxurious item of furniture which was in fact, the sole memento of her returned to Vienna after her death (Ibid, 20). It will be remembered that one of the most poignant mementos which Marie Antoinette retained to the last during her imprisonment, was – according to Rosalie Lamorliere, the Queen’s faithful servant in the Conciergerie – a gold watch from her mother Maria Theresia, which Marie Antoinette hung up on her arrival as a kind of childhood talisman until it was confiscated shortly afterwards (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 504).

To be received by no less than the Empress Maria Theresia represented early on in the young Mozart’s career, something of a childhood crowning achievement. This was the year before the Mozarts undertook their epic Grand Tour of Europe, performing in many of its musical capitals. Mozart’s supremely talented elder sister, Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’) was also present at Schönbrunn sharing in fact, a name with one of Maria Theresia’s own daughters Archduchess Maria Anna, in a typical example of that venerable Habsburg prefix, chosen in honour of the Virgin Mary, to whom the imperial house nurtured a particular devotion (Ibid, 7). Archduchess Maria Anna remained unmarried and occupied the titular position of Abbess of the Damenstift in Prague, later becoming Abbess at Klagenfurt in Carinthia. The Bischöfliche Residenz at Mariannengasse no 2 was built for her according to plans made by the great Austrian-Italian architect Nicolo Pacassi and reworked by Franz Anton Hillebrand. Maria Anna occupied the palace until her death and her representational rooms survive. Today, the building is the residence of the Bishop of Gurk and is not open to the public.

So, what do we know about this ‘meeting’? When the young Mozart was received at Schönbrunn, he played not only before Maria Theresia and Holy Roman Emperor Franz Stefan, but also the court composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil and a number of children from among Maria Theresia’s large progeny. Leopold Mozart mentions that the reception lasted some three hours, with the Holy Roman Emperor Franz Stefan himself conducting Leopold to hear the ‘infanta [possibly Princess Isabella of Parma] play the violin’. This alone was an interesting circumstance because Maria Theresia’s children were musical – Marie Antoinette’s love of the harp and spinet being a case in point – and would have no doubt been curious about the sparkling brilliance of the Wunderkind from Salzburg, of an age equal with their own. The future Marie Antoinette would certainly seem to have been present when Mozart was received by her mother (Ibid, 23). What might have added an interest in one another was perhaps the fact that Marie Antoinette was almost of an exact age with Mozart, being older than the boy by less than three months.

The popular story that Mozart advanced towards the future Queen of France, pronouncing that he would marry her when he grew up, is unsubstantiated and would indeed be astonishing if ever proved true. One simplified version of this legend even has Mozart slipping on the parquet floor and being helped to his feet by Marie Antoinette, prompting the boy to remark spontaneously: ‘You are good! I will marry you!’ This account has Maria Theresia asking Mozart why, whereupon he responds: ‘Out of gratitude! She is good with me’. (ed. Harald Salfellner, Mozart, An Illustrated Life, 9). The fact that Leopold Mozart does not repeat such a story – and Leopold was most diligent in writing down every detail regarding his young son – makes us question where the story may have originated.

Maria Theresia was of course, familiar with boys, having had sons of her own. We must imagine that she was charmed by the high spirits of the young Mozart, who jumped on to her lap in playful affection. This can be verified because Leopold Mozart (who was present) tells us in a letter to Lorenz Hagenauer, his landlord in Salzburg: ‘Suffice it to say that Wolferl jumped up into the empress’s lap, grabbed her round the neck and kissed her right and proper…’ The young Marie Antoinette is not mentioned and there was in fact, no real reason why she should be unless there was something noteworthy to record such as their nearness in ages. Leopold himself seems to sum up the fantastical nature of their reception, which alone would invite the kind of wild imagination for the stories that followed later: ‘We were received with such extraordinary kindness by their majesties that if ever I tell them about it, people will say I have made it all up…’

After this first performance, the boy received a present delivered by special courier – a court costume that had belonged to Marie Antoinette’s youngest brother, Archduke Maximilian Franz. This gala dress of lilac and gold braid is what the young Mozart wears in a proud juvenile anonymous portrait (perhaps by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, 1763) now at the Salzburg Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum, showing him in a powdered wig, gazing grandly at the onlooker. One can almost tell by just looking at the portrait, that he has been at the Palace. The boy has all the bravado of his father’s letters, with one hand on his right hip, the other thrust into his silk waistcoat, whilst the harpsichord is in front. Leopold Mozart wrote back home to Salzburg that both Nannerl and Wolfgang had to appear before Maria Theresia’s two youngest sons, Archdukes Ferdinand and Maximilian Franz, the day after the Archduke’s costume had arrived (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, 7).

There is an interesting postscript to that long-ago meeting in 1762. After Marie Antoinette became queen on the accession of the Dauphin Louis Auguste as Louis XVI, Mozart referred to her by this title in his letter to his father from Mannheim in 1777, asking to ‘arrange for me to receive a letter for the queen of France…’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no mention of Schönbrunn; instead, all thought of this was solely mentioned in connection with possible court patronage. Leopold responded from Salzburg a few days after Christmas: ‘I’ve decided to activate a whole host of people in Vienna so that, if it’s still possible, I can obtain a letter of recommendation from the Viennese court to the queen of France…’ Keen as ever to do all he could for the proper recognition of his son’s quite exceptional genius, Leopold had in his own words, ‘a lot of letters to write in any case…’

The last real mentions of Marie Antoinette in the Mozart correspondence occur in letters on the ill-fated journey to Paris, during which Mozart’s mother – who had accompanied him, leaving Leopold Mozart and Nannerl at home in Salzburg – dies. Maria Anna Mozart was naturally interested in the news concerning the Austrian-born Queen of France, whilst living with Wolfgang in Paris. Writing home to Leopold Mozart, she informs him that Wolfgang is teaching composition at the Hotel de Castries to Marie-Louise-Philippine, daughter of Adrien-Louis Bonnières de Souastre, Duc de Guines (1735-1806) (‘he pays well and is the queen’s favourite’). Mozart wrote that Marie-Louise-Philippine was a ‘magnificent harpist; she has plenty of talent and genius’. His K299, the concerto for flute and harp in C, was written for the Duc de Guines, who commissioned it whilst Mozart was in Paris in 1778. Maria Anna Mozart called it ‘for a duke, one for the flute and one for the harp’. (ed. Eisen, 270).

Feminine curiosity filled Maria Anna, who was delighted to pass on rumours of a possible royal pregnancy back to Salzburg: ‘The queen is pregnant again, it’s not yet been made public, but there’s no question about it, the French are delighted…’ Maria Anna Mozart was writing this to her husband on 14 May 1778; Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Therese, Madame Royale was born on 19 December 1778, that daughter of whom Marie Antoinette famously declared ‘You shall be mine’. Cross-referencing, it is interesting that Maria Anna’s hearsay corresponds more or less exactly with when the news was made public to the people of Paris about the Queen’s pregnancy. In mid-May, Marie Antoinette asked Louis XVI to send the sum of 12,000 francs to those prisoners in debtors’ jail (including payments to those who hadn’t paid their wet-nurses) and to the poor at Versailles – and so thus, communicated her news to the people of France (Fraser, 192). Two days after Maria Anna Mozart wrote her letter to Leopold Mozart, Marie Antoinette was examined by the doctor Lassonne to see how her pregnancy was progressing (Ibid, 192).

It is reasonable to assume that Mozart and Marie Antoinette were indeed in the same room(s) at Schönbrunn and a personal ‘meeting’ or sighting of sorts seems likely. Marie Antoinette was musically gifted and could sight-read to a professional standard; her portraits both with a spinet (Franz Xaver Wagenschon, 1769) and later, a harp (by Jacques Fabien Gautier-Dagoty, 1777) testify to her keen talent, so it is probable she would have observed the prodigy from Salzburg with interest.

Did she help the boy Mozart – two months her junior – to his feet, if he fell on the floor? Is his mention of marriage a musical jest or mere apocrypha? One should, I think, suspect the latter.

Most importantly, however, the sources (and Mozart correspondence) do not seem to mention it.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, also speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a long-standing contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's own magazine, Tudor Life. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and she is particularly interested in historic royal weddings. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and has written numerous articles on the Tsarina's life and correspondence. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and conducts original research on the subject, making a number of important finds including 'lost' royal letters and rediscovering Queen Victoria's perfume. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of culture heritage, she worked in the heritage sector for ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous societies and charities/organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, Historic Royal Palaces and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. She also researches and publishes on the life of W. A. Mozart, writing a mini-series on Mozart and Prague for the culture column of the English-speaking Czech newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019) as well as for the newsletter of the New York society, Friends of Mozart (2016). Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary journal and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with forthcoming poetry in the quarterly literary journal Trafika Europe. Her first short collection, a collection of poems on Prague, is scheduled for publication as a chapbook in 2020 by Marble Poetry.