Mozart Minute: Envy and Intrigue Scuttle a Mozart World Premiere

Mar 24, 2016

If you've followed The Mozart Minute, then you know that Mozart's stay in Paris was pretty much a flop. He had hoped to establish himself as a composer in Europe’s musical capital, but that didn't happen. And in at least one incident, envy and petty rivalry seem to have kept one of Mozart’s new works from being premiered on a major Parisian concert series.

  In a letter of April 5, 1778 to his father, Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang outlined a litany of details about the music he was then composing, which included a sinfonia concertante for winds and orchestra, to be performed by wind players of the acclaimed orchestra at Mannheim and the noted hornist Giovanni Punto. “I am now going to compose," Mozart wrote, “a sinfonia concertante for flute, (Johann Baptist) Wendling; oboe, (Friedrich) Ramm; horn, Punto; and bassoon, (Georg Wenzel) Ritter.” (Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson).

Less than a month later, in a scene that reads like the synopsis of a B-rate comic opera, Mozart wrote of some petty intrigue that may have thwarted the sinfonia concertante’s planned premiere.

On May 1, 1778, Mozart wrote his father, “there appears, however, to be a hitch with regard to the sinfonia concertante, and I think that something is going on behind the scenes and that doubtless here too I have enemies. Where, indeed, have I not had them? But that is a good sign.”

Mozart supposed that one conspirator in the intrigue was Jean Le Gros, a singer and composer who, at the time of Mozart’s stay in Paris, was also director of the important Parisian concert series Le Concert Spirituel. Mozart had given Le Gros the autograph sore of his sinfonia concertante to have it copied for performance on his series, but that performance – which would have been the sinfonia oncertante’s world premiere – didn’t happen.

Mozart’s letter to Leopold continued, “Le Gros kept it for four days to have it copied, but I always found it lying in the same place. The day before yesterday I couldn’t find it. – I searched carefully among the music – and I discovered it hidden away. I pretended not to notice it, but just said to Le Gros: ‘A propos. Have you given the sinfonia concertante to be copied?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I forgot all about it.’ As of course I could not command him to have it copied and performed, I said nothing; but when I went to the concert on the two days when it should have been performed, Ramm and Punto came up to me greatly enraged to ask me why my sinfonia concertante was not being played. ‘I really don’t know,’ I replied. ‘It’s the first I’ve heard of it. I know nothing about it.’ Ramm flew into a passion and in the music-room he cursed Le Gros in French, saying it was a dirty trick and so forth.”

But Mozart, ever the master of human motivations, didn’t have to dig too deeply to find a co-conspirator in – and a possible reason for – the intrigue.

“I believe,” Mozart wrote, “that (Giuseppe Maria) Cambini, an Italian maestro here, is at the bottom of the business. For in all innocence I swept the floor with him at our first meeting at Le Gros’ house.”