Mozart Minute: How a 14-Year-Old Kid Gets an Opera Commission

May 26, 2016

A previous episode of The Mozart Minute saw the 14-year-old Mozart composing his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto on commission and for performance in Milan amid all manner of envy and intrigue. How Wolfgang the boy wonder secured a commission for such a large work at such a tender age is a story in its own right.

From 1769 to 1773, Leopold Mozart took his son on a tour of Italy to show off Wolfgang’s prodigious skills to VIPs. The pair arrived in Milan in January 1770 and less than a month later, Leopold was already writing his wife of Wolfgang’s successes.

The boy wowed Count Carlo di Firmian, the governor of Lombardy, at their first luncheon together, prompting Leopold to report a few days later, on Feb. 10, “His Excellency is much impressed by Wolfgang’s skill and marks us out for his special courtesies and distinctions.” (Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson)

Count Firmian continued to take an interest in Wolfgang. On March 3, Wolfgang wrote his sister, Nannerl, “Today Count Firmian’s steward has invited us to celebrate our last day with him, and we shall have much to chatter about.”

On March 12, two days before that farewell dinner, the count hosted a concert featuring arias that Mozart composed specially for the occasion. For Mozart the event was an audition, a chance to prove his ability to compose dramatic music and thus secure a commission to write a full-length opera for Milan.

One of those arias, “Misero me! Misero pargoletto,” (K. 77) was Mozart's first effort to write recitative accompanied by the fuller dramatic resources of an orchestra, instead of only by continuo instruments. This concert aria and its long and intensely dramatic recitative on a text adapted from Metastasio's libretto for Demofoönte are high drama - they show the character Timante in despair upon realizing that his wife, Dircea, is also his sister. The recitative and aria also show the young Mozart already at an advanced level of dramatic skill.

Delighted with Mozart’s work, Firmian offered Mozart an opera commission. And when Leopold and Wolfgang left Milan the day after the farewell dinner to continue their Italian tour, the count also supplied them with letters of introduction to the powers that be in Bologna and other points south. The following October, father and son would return to Milan, where Mozart carried out the commission for Mitridate, rè di Ponto.