A lost composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri was recently discovered in the archives of the Czech Museum of Music in Prague. On Tuesday, the re-discovered cantata was performed to the public for the first time in years.
The cantata called ‘Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia’ or ‘For the recovered health of Ophelia,’ was written to celebrate the recovery of a famous singer of the Viennese court opera. The long-lost score was discovered by a German composer and musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann, while he was searching the archives of the museum for pieces by Salieri’s students. When I spoke to Mr Hermann I first asked him whether he actually knew about the existence of the composition:
“I came across the title when I was doing research on Salieri. I wrote my thesis on Salieri, on the German language staged works, so I was well-aware of all the music Salieri had written.
“This piece was like a phantom many researchers had been hunting, because it shows another angle on the relationship between Mozart and Salieri. And all the Salierians, as I call them, wished to find that piece because it could shed a light on the relationship between Mozart and Salieri.”
“So I was well-aware of the title and when I was browsing through the catalogue of the Czech Museum of Music and I read the name, I was thrilled to see it there.”
So when you saw the title you knew immediately that this was the lost composition?
“I was sure it had to be, because all the facts clicked into the place: the composers, Lorenzo da Ponte as a poet, and the date 1785, which was also correct. So I immediately tried to get in contact with the Museum of Music.”
How did it actually get to the Czech Museum of Music?
“As far as I know it came from an archive of a nobleman that was brought to the Museum of Music in the 1950s or 1960s. But it is not quite clear how it appeared in that person’s archive.”
“When I was browsing through the catalogue of the Czech Museum of Music and I read the title, I was thrilled to see it there.”
Can you tell me more about the piece? When was it composed and what kind of composition is it?
“It was composed in 1785 for a special opportunity. A famous singer for the Viennese Hofoper, the court opera, an English-Italian singer Nancy Storace, fell ill while performing in an opera of her brother Steven Storace. It happened in June 1785 and she lost her voice for almost four months.
“So the famous musicians took this as a chance to present a new short piece to celebrate her return on the stage. The people were Mozart, Salieri, Da Ponte and a person called Cornetti, who we don’t know anything about.”
What do we know of the singer? So she was kind of a celebrity at the time?
“Yes, she was. She came to the Viennese court opera in 1973 from Venice, where she also sang in a Salieri opera. She came with a new Italian opera troupe and became very famous in a very short time, because she had a very unusual voice, more of a mezzo-soprano voice. She was very popular among the Viennese audiences.”
Do we know if the song composed for her was actually performed in public?
“We have no actual record of that, but the fact that this piece was printed (and this print in Prague is the only one that survived), shows that it was largely known. Therefore we can assume that there had been performances in those days, but we don't have a description of any of them.”
What does the title, For the Recovered Health of Ophelia, refer to?
“Ophelia was a role Madame Storace was to sing in an opera by Salieri, La Grotta di Trofonio. This opera was scheduled for June 1785, just when she got ill, and so it had to be postponed. The newly written cantata refers to Ophelia anticipating her performance.
“We can assume that Da Ponte and the others wrote the piece within just a week, because Nancy Storace first appeared in the opera on September 19 and the cantata was announced in a Viennese newspaper exactly a week later. So they had a very little time to do that.”
Was that a common practice to cooperate on one piece of music?
“This is what makes the cantata very special, I think. We know about pasticcios, which combined pieces by various authors, but the fact that they worked directly together, is quite unique.”
When you heard the piece, was it obvious which part was composed by Mozart?
“The quality of the music is quite an interesting question. The weakest part in fact is that written by Cornetti, which we assume is a pseudonym. We think that he might have been an amateur, who was an admirer of Mrs Storace.
“The parts of Mozart and Salieri are difficult to compare. Salieri wrote a piece in a more pastoral style, referring to the libretto set in an ancient Greek setting among shepherds and nymphs, so it is more of a mythological scenery. Mozart wrote a more march-like tune which is reminiscent of the overture of the Abduction from the Seraglio.
“In fact the print we found in Prague only consists of a vocal line and a base line for an instrument, so we can only speculate what the orchestral setting looked like, or if it was perhaps just for a piano, because some parts are still missing.”
“We know that in the year the cantata was written, in 1785, Salieri and Mozart were in a very close contact.”
Do you think there is a chance that it will be found as well?
“It would be wonderful if it was somewhere in the archives. I think the discovery of the print now helps to identify some parts of the piece because now we have the complete text by Da Ponte and we have the musical clues to the individual parts, so even if it is just a fragment lying somewhere in a library, we can identify it.
“We are also preparing a new edition of the piece that will be printed by Hofmeister in Leipzig, so this will also help other researchers to identify the potential fragments.”
So would you agree that this rivalry between Mozart and Salieri as it is portrayed in Miloš Forman’s film ‘Amadeus’ did not exist?
“I think that every serious researcher knows that it wasn’t the way Amadeus shows it. We know that in the year the cantata was written, in 1785, Salieri and Mozart got into very close contact and had several opportunities to work together.
They cooperated for instance during the concert for the Viennese Society for widows and orphans. Salieri was in charge of the programme and all the programmes had to pass through his hands, so if he wanted to avoid Mozart performing there, he would have done so.”
How significant is the discovery? What does it reveal on Mozart that we didn’t know before?
“It was a work written for a special opportunity and I think we can say that it is not a masterpiece. But it is a new piece of the mosaic of Mozart's life and it shows how he worked in his daily life.
“You have to imagine that in the days when he wrote the Ophelia cantata he was already working on the Figaro score and da Ponte has just finished the libretto. So it is showing how this composer worked and was involved in the musical life of Vienna. I think this is the most important thing about the discovery.
Do we know about any other lost pieces by Mozart?
“We know that there are around ten other pieces from the Viennese period of Mozart that are lost to date, for instance the Andante for violin and orchestra, and maybe these things will appear in the future. We just have to look.
“I think there are many Mozart researchers out there who are well aware of this music. We just have to research and cooperate with libraries and archives all over the world and maybe we are lucky and find something new.”
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