19 April 2023

Following in the footsteps of
Mozart and his visits to Prague

The Mozart Prague … the hotel is a former baroque palace visited by Mozart in 1789 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We were staying in the Charles Bridge Palace Hotel when we were in Prague last week. The hotel is a mere two- or three-minute walk from the Charles Bridge, and yes, we did get up at dawn to try to photograph the bridge early in the morning before the tourists arrived in great numbers.

Other attractions within easy walking distance include the National Theatre, National Museum, National Opera, Clementinum Library, Rudolfinum concert hall and the old Jewish quarter.

The hotel next door to us was the Mozart Prague – and, of course, it is one of the many places in Prague where Mozart is said to have stayed.

Prague was much kinder than Vienna to Mozart during his many visits, and he may have stayed longer in the Bohemian capital but for the allure of a court appointment in Austrian capital.

At every corner, twist and turn in Prague, it seems, there is some connection with the great composer: a house with rooms where he is said to have slept, a church where he played the organ, a theatre where he performed or conducted, a bar or resturant with his portrait on the wall …

Mozart’s portait in the Black Star restaurant in the Old Town in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Mozart Prague is one of a group of cultural and architectural buildings in the heritage district in the heart of the Unesco-recognised Old Town neighbourhood in Prague. The hotel consists of two unique structures—a Neoclassical building and a Baroque palace.

The Pachtuv Palace dates back to 1628, when the Pachta family was ennobled in the Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Ferdinand II. A century later, Count Hubert Karel Pachta of Rajov bought a plot of land where four mediaeval townhouses once stood and began building his palace.

Jan Josef Wirch, who developed the design, was inspired by a blend of Baroque designs and incorporated many Baroque motifs, with colonnades, cupolas, domes, cartouches and gilding. Inside, he installed crystal chandeliers, with quadrature and trompe-l’œil paintings on the ceilings, and the family coat of arms was engraved at the entrance to the palace.

By 1770, Count Pachta’s Pachtuv Palace was one of the most spectacular estates in the heart of Prague. It had become the setting for lavish soirees, as the count and his descendants entertained visitors and dignitaries.

For generations, the Pachtas were celebrated for their love of music. They entertained well-known musicians and composers from across Europe, with the Pachtas often playing their own instruments with their visitors.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited the Pachtas for several days in 1789. According to tradition, Josef Pachta, one of Hubert Karel Pachta’s heirs, jokingly ‘imprisoned’ Mozart in one of the bedrooms to make him keep his promise to compose some new music. Left with just a quill and some paper, Mozart spent several hours writing ‘Six German Dances, K 509.’

When Mozart completed the composition, he played the entire ballad before the Pachtas during one of their many galas.

The Mozart Prague … Mozart visited the Pachtas for several days in 1789 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

While Vienna was Mozart’s creative home, Prague opened its arms to him in the 1780s. The Marriage of Figaro had its Czech premiere in the Estates Theatre in 1786, when its warm reception was in contrast with the moderate enthusiasm it received in Vienna.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart first visited Prague on 11 January 1787 with his wife Constanze. A week later, on 19 January, he conducted the premiere of his Symphony in D major, now known as the Prague Symphony, K504.

On 20 January, there was a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, which had a more successful run in Prague than in Vienna. Mozart improvised a solo on the piano – including variations on the popular aria ‘Non più andrai’ from The Marriage of Figaro. Later, he said he ‘counted this day as one of the happiest of his life.’

One legend from this visit has the host of a party inviting him an hour before all the other guests and making him compose new dances for the evening. The high sophistication of Prague’s musical public meant that Mozart found a receptive acceptance. He is said to have declared, Meine Prager verstehen mich, ‘My Praguers understand me’ – although there is no documentary evidence for these words.

During this first stay, Mozart and his wife Constanze were guests of Count Thun-Hohenstein at the Thun Palace in Malá Strana, the site of the present British Embassy. Mozart had composed his symphony K425 for Count Thun in 1783, and he knew the countess from Vienna.

The present British Embassy dates from a later period, and it would appear that Count Thun’s original palace was damaged by fire in the early 1790s. Popular tradition says the embassy has a letter from Mozart in his own handwriting, thought to be a ‘thank you’ note. But this tradition is doubted.

Mozart offered little description of the palace, but said there was a ‘very good’ pianoforte in his room, and that one evening, a quartet was played instead of his compositions.

Mozart also stayed at an inn on Celetná Street. He was feted everywhere in Prague and stayed until the second week of February.

The House of the Three Golden Lions in Prague Old Town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mozart’s second visit to Prague is the most famous, when he came for the first performance of Don Giovanni. He arrived on 4 October 1787 and stayed until 12 or 13 November. The maestro visited FX Dusek and his wife the opera singer Josepha, at their rural villa Bertramka.

Josepha Duschek had a particularly strong connection with Mozart through her frequent visits to his native Salzburg, where one of her grandfathers was once mayor.

During that visit, Mozart and Constanze stayed at the House of the Three Golden Lions, an inn on Uhelny trída and separated from the Estates Theatre by Rytirska Street. Tradition says Mozart worked with Lorenzo Da Ponte, his librettist for Don Giovanni, through an open window as Da Ponte was occupying rooms opposite.

The Estates Theatre, where Mozart conducted the premiere of ‘Don Giovanni’ on 29 October 1787 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After several missed deadlines, Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre on 29 October 1787, and the opera was received rapturously. In spare time on this visit, it is said, he also tried out a number of church organs. Mozart played the baroque organ, with over 4,000 pipes, in Saint Nicholas Church in the Lesser Town, according to tradition during his second visit in 1787. No actual record survives of him playing there.

Mozart composed the song K530 ‘Das Traumbild’ and dated it Prague 6 November 1787 – so he may have written it in the House of the Three Golden Lions. A plaque and a medallion bust commemorate Mozart’s stay in 1787. There is an Italian restaurant on the ground floor and the adjoining hair-studio is fittingly called ‘Amadeus’.

Mozart was asked to stay on in Prague to write another opera, but decided to return to Vienna. Either he was eager to apply for a court position that had just become available, or he realised that Vienna had more talented musicians than Prague.

A medallion bust of Mozart at the House of the Three Golden Lions in Prague Old Town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mozart was on his way to Berlin with Prince Karl Lichnowsky, when they passed through Prague on 10 April 1789. This third visit to Prague was fleeting: Mozart arrived on 10 April, and spent one night at U Zlatého jednorožce near the Maltese Square in Malá Strana. He also stayed at the Pachtuv Palace.

In a letter to Constanze, he describes going to see ‘Pachta’ (Major General Johann Joseph Philipp Pachta von Rayhofen) at the Pachtuv Palace. There is a tradition that Mozart wrote his K509 (‘Six German Dances’) while locked in one of the palace’s rooms. One of the hotel’s rooms has a ‘Mozart Suite’. It is also said that this where Mozart met Giacomo Casanova.

He returned to Prague on his way back to Vienna on 31 May 1789 and stayed perhaps a day or two longer.

Mozart’s fourth and final visit to Prague was in 1791, just months before he died. He promised to write a new opera to mark the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, having received the commission after Antonio Salieri allegedly turned it down. Mozart arrived in Prague on 28 August 1791, and the opera received its first performance in the Estates Theatre on 6 September 1791. Unfortunately, it was written hastily and was not well received. He left in the third week of September.

A Requiem Mass for Mozart was celebrated in Saint Nicholas Church, where it is said he once played the organ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Vienna was less than kind to Mozart and his music; Prague, on the other hand, responded enthusiastically. When he died in Vienna on 5 December 1791, the city buried him in a common grave. But when the people of Prague heard the news of his death, they went into mourning that far exceeded that in any other European city.

Poignantly, it was in Saint Nicholas Church that a Requiem Mass was said for Mozart on 14 December 1791. The lavish requiem was performed by over 100 musicians who accepted no payment and was attended by thousands. It ended with church bells ringing all over town.

In later years, the people of Prague supported Mozart’s widow and orphaned children until she remarried.

The film Amadeus, based on the Peter Shaffer play, was released in 1984. It was a fictional take on the rivalry between the young and brash Mozart and the far-less-talented court composer, Salieri. Although set in Vienna, where Mozart lived much of his life, the film was shot in Prague.

The Charles Bridge in Prague at dawn, before the tourists arrive in great numbers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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