If one were able to ask Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart why some of his contemporaries were not fans of his music, hearsay might incline one to believe that he would bat away your question and reply “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (“My Praguers understand me”).
But just how meaningful was Mozart’s music to the city of Prague? The history books are not entirely clear on whether the above quote can be attributed to the classical composer. What they do maintain, however, is that citizens of Prague in the late eighteenth century regarded Mozart as something of a rock star. Most of what we know today of Mozart’s fame during his time in Prague comes to us directly from the mouth of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (who collaborated with Mozart to create staples of the operatic genre such as Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni). With very little exception, everything Mozart created in Prague was lauded by those who lived and work there as nothing short of genius. So what was it about the people of Prague that rendered them so perceptive when it came to admiring Mozart’s melodies?
Speaking to the discernment which Prague audiences reserved for Mozart’s music, Da Ponte is quoted as having remarked “It is not easy to convey…the enthusiasm [Prague’s citizens had] for Mozart’s music. The pieces which were admired least of all in other countries were regarded by [Prague’s citizens] as things divine; and, more wonderful still, the great beauties which other nations discovered in the music of that rare genius only after many, many performances, were perfectly appreciated by the [people of Prague] on the very first evening.”
So what was the catalyst for Mozart’s stardom taking off in Prague? Mozart was originally invited to Prague by a group of musicians and patrons because of how well his Marriage of Figaro had been received just one year earlier at the city’s National Theatre. And while the compositions of “Don Giovanni” and “La clemenza di Tito” certainly cemented him as a household name in the Golden City, it was Mozart’s performance of his “Prague Symphony” in 1787 that turned the everyday “Praguer” into a die-hard Amadeus fan.
It is speculated by music historians that Mozart’s intricate writing for wind instruments within his Prague Symphony could point towards that work being fashioned specifically with Prague in mind. Certainly not every title given to a symphonic work reflects the inspirational force behind the piece’s inception. Yet the wind instrumentalists of Czechoslovakia were so well-known throughout Europe during Mozart’s life that it seems plausible the wigged wunderkind may have timed his performance of the Prague Symphony somewhat strategically. The people of Prague had established a strong ethno-musical identity through their efforts with wind instruments, and the Prague press attributed Marriage of Figaro’s success at least partially to Mozart’s “skillful deployment of wind instruments.”
Whether or not the winds were what won the people of Prague over, it has been firmly established that the Prague Symphony was not performed in Vienna before Praguers got a chance to hear it for themselves. That was enough of a respectful gesture in and of itself, as Vienna was one of the go-to centers for musical innovation at the time. It must have been refreshing for the musical innovation of Mozart to come to Prague for a change. And having had a chance to revel in the immortalization of their city name through a Mozart symphony, the people of Prague had something on the cusp of musical fashion to share with Vienna for a change!
In any event, Mozart’s arrival in Prague caused a ripple effect of wholly positive musical proportions, one that brought forth a major advance in Mozart’s symphonic technique through the wind instrumentation of the Prague Symphony. Imitations of this very technique would find thier way into his final symphonies, and would be emulated by the likes of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would return to Prague many times before illness took him in that great city at far too young an age. And while he was was laid to rest in Vienna with few mourners and without any special performance of music, the first memorial service given in his honor was held in in Prague on the 14th of December, 1791. The service was attended by thousands of Praguers and featured a lavish Requiem mass performed by over a hundred musicians who refused to be paid for their efforts. So, in the end, one could say with conviction that Mozart’s Praguers really did understand him, and that they gave back to the brilliant composer just as much as he gave them in the dedication and performance of his unforgettable 38th Symphony.