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Music for a Queen: Mozart and Queen Charlotte

The first and only time that the boy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited London occurred between 1764-5, at about the half-way point of the Mozart family’s monumental European Grand Tour, which was to prove pivotal in Wolfgang’s developmental process as a composer, the beginning proper of those childhood travels he would make on his path towards musical maturity.

Over the fifteen months that Mozart spent in London, he encountered a city of truly metropolitan vision in terms of its concert life, one of immense wealth in both fiscal and cultural terms, the largest in the world at this period. This was the London of pleasure gardens, chiefly those at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, where fashionable society gathered to converse, be entertained, to see and be seen. Mozart appeared at the latter as part of a benefit fundraising concert. With his extremely talented sister Nannerl, they were advertised to the culturally curious, probably also performing in many of the capital’s private drawing rooms, a live version of the calling card Leopold Mozart had, had printed in Paris, showing Nannerl singing and the young Wolfgang, with child-feet dangling off of the stool. The exhausted children may also have appeared as part of a subscription series held by the legendary Italian-born Mrs Cornelys at Soho’s Carlisle House, although their having done so is not recorded.

The boy Wolfgang also performed personally for George III and Queen Charlotte at Buckingham House later called the Queen’s House and which eventually became Buckingham Palace. This led ultimately to a royal musical dedication to the German-born Queen Charlotte, which I want to explore.

Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons, painted by Allan Ramsay, c. 1764-69. The picture hangs in the Green Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Note the Queen’s musical interests and talents emphasised by the English spinnet in the painting, at which she is seated, whilst with her sons (Allan Ramsay [United States Public domain or Public domain])

Musically speaking, London carried the deep imprint of the German-born Handel’s rich legacy, the composer had died some five years prior to Mozart’s visit, as well as Johann Christian Bach, the ‘English Bach’ and bright morning star in the new musical firmament. The boy Mozart met the ‘English Bach’ and probably inspired by this meeting, decided to pen some symphonies of his own composition. Nannerl’s account of this went: ‘While he composed and I copied, he said to me “Remind me to give something good to the horn!”’ (cit., Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women, 23). This was at a time when Leopold Mozart lay ill in London – in Nannerl’s possibly exaggerated account ‘close to death’ – and the children were not permitted to ‘touch the clavier’. Writing a symphony was, therefore, Mozart’s way of keeping himself busy, music filling his mind in the quiet house of his father’s sick-room, as well as the frantic pace of performing, leaving him suddenly with nothing to do. Nannerl recalled the meeting between her brother and the ‘English Bach’, which is revealing of their musical methods as well as their warm mutual regard, as Bach took the boy ‘between his knees, the former played a few bars, and then the other continued, and in this way they played a whole sonata and anyone not watching would have thought it was played by one person alone’.

Mozart later made arrangements of Handel’s masque Acis and Galatea (1718/32) and his sacred oratorio Messiah (1742), and we must suppose that had Handel still been alive and living in his house in Mayfair’s Brook Street, a meeting between him and the boy Wolfgang would probably have taken place. Incidentally, Mozart’s interest in Handel appears to have extended even beyond the vast realm of mutual music, because he lent one of his friends and fellow Freemasons, Michael Puchberg – a brother who belonged to the same lodge – a life of Handel in 1790, perhaps Johann Mattheson’s Lebensbeschreibung (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, 547). George III, of course, shared in the passionate Hanoverian patronage of Handel and during a further visit to the Queen’s House, the boy Wolfgang played works by Handel at first sight, (‘prima vista’) as well as pieces by Bach, Abel and Wagenseil, Johann Christian Bach being also music master to Queen Charlotte.

As Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart wrote back home to Salzburg with more than a pinch of paternal pride, they were received by the British king and queen at the ‘Queen’s Palace’ [sic] ‘within 5 days of arriving’, at which they were promptly given the sum of ‘only’ 24 guineas for their pains (Ibid, 35). The young George III and Queen Charlotte were extremely musical themselves; the King played the violin, flute and harpsichord. He also owned organs; one is preserved in the Dining Room at Kew Palace.

Wolfgang played on one of the King’s organs, which astonished the small party at the Queen’s House, who according to Leopold, considered the boy’s organ playing as even superior to that on the harpsichord. Leopold wrote that Wolfgang accompanied Queen Charlotte whilst a flautist played and the Queen sang. Then he played the violin in some Handel arias ‘that happened to be lying around’ and improvised a melody over the bass. In short, Leopold concluded – astonished himself at his son’s development: ‘What he knew when we left Salzburg is a mere shadow of what he knows now’ (Ibid, 38).

The personal charm of the young royal couple was much in evidence by the natural way that they treated the Mozarts, exhibiting a remarkable courtesy. Leopold Mozart boasted back home in a letter that the British royal welcome exceeded all the others hitherto; a week after their reception at court, the King and Queen recognised the Mozart family walking in nearby St James’s Park as they drove past. George III opened the window of his carriage, after which he ‘leant out and, laughing, greeted us and especially our Master Wolfgang’.  

Perhaps it was the area in which he accompanied Queen Charlotte, the memory of her musical talent and voice, or simply returning a royal compliment, but whilst in London, Wolfgang wrote some time before the end of 1764, six sonatas for keyboard and violin and cello, Opus 3 (K. 10-15). These were dedicated to Queen Charlotte and Leopold Mozart had these engraved at the beginning of 1765.

It is perhaps also, a further example of the countless attempts to acquire steady royal patronage. In Paris, where the Mozarts had sojourned before continuing to London, the boy Wolfgang had dedicated his Sonates pour le clavecin to Madame Victoire, second daughter of Louis XV, the front page of the dedication proudly proclaiming ‘par J G Wolfgang Mozart de Salzbourg, age de sept ans’ [by J G Wolfgang Mozart of Salzburg, aged seven years old’. Leopold Mozart wrote with paternal bravado to the wife of his landlord back in Salzburg, Maria Theresia Hagenauer: ‘Just imagine the stir that these sonatas will make in the world when it says on the title-page that they are the work of 7-year-old child…’ These sonatas [K6-7] were published in Paris in early 1764.

Leopold Mozart wrote in the above letter of February 1764 that they were ‘currently being engraved’. A measure of how far the Mozart children had come musically, might be seen in the fact that in 1759, Mozart’s sister Nannerl, had inscribed a music book given to her by her father Leopold, ‘Ce livre appartient a Marie Anna Mozart, 1759’, entitled simply ‘Pour le clavecin’.

All this would appear to be supported by the fact that Mozart’s first printed works included amongst those six sonatas dedicated to Queen Charlotte and the Sonates pour le clavecin to Madame Victoire, also six sonatas for the keyboard and violin, dedicated to the Princesse de Nassau-Weilbourg (nee Princess of Orange) and sonatas for piano and violin dedicated to Madame, Comtesse de Tesse. Importantly, all of these works are sonatas for keyboard with mostly violin accompaniment and are dedicated to royal women, significantly belonging to counties through which the boy Mozart was passing at the time, on his European tour.

So then, the dedication to Queen Charlotte might also be considered to be a continuation of this practice begun in Paris, a queen whose kindness, together with that of the King, Leopold Mozart had found on receiving him and his family to be ‘indescribable’ (Ibid, 36). A comment in one of Mozart’s later letters to his father, written during the disastrous visit to Paris in 1778, contains a very hidden connection to Queen Charlotte, as he asked his father if the concertos of Johann Samuel Schroeter were available in Salzburg, because if not, he considered buying them and sending them to him. Schroeter was also a composer who was appointed a music master to the British Queen (Ibid, 309). The great Johan Joseph Zoffany painted Queen Charlotte; the boy Mozart was painted in a work (1764/5) sometimes attributed to Zoffany, showing him somewhat charmingly, holding a bird’s nest. The latter is preserved in the Mozarteum, Salzburg.

9 Cecil Court, St Martin’s Lane, London, site of the building where the Mozart family first stayed in the capital, now the location of an antiques and decoratives shop (Spudgun67 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (])

I have managed to locate an example of the title-page of Mozart’s dedication to Queen Charlotte, for his six piano concertos with the accompaniment of violin or flute [KV 10-15), engraved in London in 1765, a copy preserved in the Munich Bavarian State Library. The dedication is full of elegant flourish, much like the other dedications to Madame Victoire, the Princesse de Nassau and the Comtesse de Tesse: ‘Six Sonates pour le clavecin que peuvent se jouer avec l’accompagnement de violin our flaute/traversiere/Tres humblement dediees/a sa Majeste Charlotte/Reine de la Grande Bretagne/composes par I.G.Wolfgang Mozart/Age de hui tans/Oeuvre III’. Again, the proud proclamation records these are by an eight-year-old child. These sonatas are in B flat, G, A, F, G and B flat. Given the visits to the Queen’s House, the sonatas must, therefore, have been written at either Cecil Court or Five Fields Row, whilst they were engraved when Mozart was living in Soho.

This title-page however, has a further piece of interesting information, because it tells us exactly where Mozart was living at the time they were engraved. This follows in English at the bottom of the title-page: ‘Printed for the Author and sold at his lodging at Mr Williamson in Thrift Street Soho’.

A pleasing relic of an earlier royal connection, the Royal Collection contains various band parts and reproduction piano scores of Mozart’s works, a life of Mozart, a bust of him in biscuit Nymphenburg porcelain – in Queen Victoria’s bedroom at Osborne House, next to a matching one of Beethoven. Far more importantly, the Royal Collection owns an autograph manuscript in Mozart’s handwriting of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. Leopold Mozart wrote on the front of the document, that it was composed in March 1766, although recent research suggests it should date to 1767, when the young Mozart was eleven years old; it was first performed in the residence of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg on 12 March 1767 and given a repeat performance in April.

The manuscript was autographed by Köchel’s predecessor, Johan Anton Andre, who recorded that it was written in Mozart’s hand. It entered the Royal Collection in 1841 by Prince Albert, who purchased it the year after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria ensured that it joined the collections of the Royal Library in 1863. It is perhaps touching, that this manuscript dates from the 1760s, the same decade when Mozart performed before George III and Queen Charlotte.

As an adolescent, the future Queen Victoria’s opinion of Mozart was not as high as that of her distinguished singing-master, Luigi Lablache. She confided to her journal on 18 April 1837 that she preferred instead ‘Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, etc., to anything else; but Lablache who understands music thoroughly said, “C’est le Papa de tous’. [That’s the father of them all] (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 43). Interestingly, a few days later at Kensington Palace, Princess Victoria described singing some pieces from Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. Many of the journal entries in which Victoria mentions Mozart’s music are warmly complimentary, with words such as ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’. By 1847, her opinion had grown higher because she considered Mendelssohn to be Mozart’s successor in terms of musical genius.

Until late summer 1764, the Mozarts were living in Cecil Court, St Martin’s Lane with the barber John Couzin, before removing to Five Fields Row, today Ebury Street (bordering Chelsea) with a Dr Randel and his family, so outside of the centre proper during this period. Towards the end of September, the Mozarts moved to Soho, where they settled in 20 Frith Street, spelt Thrift Street at the time. Mr Williamson was the name of the corset-maker with whom the Mozarts were living whilst in Soho, so this verifies that the sonatas were engraved in early 1765 when they were still very much at his address.

The original Soho house of 1725/6 was pulled down in 1858, but a blue plaque commemorates Mozart having stayed in the building which once stood here. Perhaps with historical irony, the building that occupied the site was the London Casino—the current Prince Edward Theatre. Over the entrance are the words: “The World’s Greatest Artistes have passed and will pass through these doors” (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Mozart’s Visit to London, Part 1, in Friends of Mozart Newsletter, Summer 2016, 2). Certainly, one of the very greatest of all the world’s artists passed through a door there once, no longer.

It was music for a queen, probably in memory of his performances – in the Queen’s House.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019