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 known as the Hall of Mirrors from 1762 onwards – the year of Mozart’s reception at Schönbrunn. The reception and concert could 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 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 the sole memento of her returned to Vienna after her death (Ibid, 20). It will be remembered that one of the most poignant mementoes 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 a name with one of Maria Theresia’s 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 two 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 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 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, writing that people would probably think he had invented the whole story.
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, while 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 if he could arrange a letter from the French Queen. 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, replying that he hoped to be able to get a letter of recommendation for his son from the imperial court. 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 good number of letters to write.
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). Mozart wrote that Marie-Louise-Philippine was a splendid harpist and 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 (ed. Eisen, 270).
Feminine curiosity filled Maria Anna, who was delighted to pass on rumours of a possible royal pregnancy back to Salzburg. 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