(originally published as a programme note for the 2013 Salzburg Festival)
The subject of Mozart and the voice extends to almost everything he wrote, from his first vocal works for London in 1765 onwards. Thereafter Mozart’s experience and mastery of vocal composition would inform, even transform, his approach to every other genre. The F sharp minor Adagio of the Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, KV 488, is inconceivable not only without the depths of feeling engendered by the contemporaneous opera Le nozze di Figaro, above all by the miracle of Shakespearean characterization that is the Countess, but also without Mozart’s mastery in vocal writing and embellishment, implicit and explicit. Mozart is fundamentally both a vocal and a dramatic composer in a way that the far more instrumentally-inclined Haydn is not.
From the sacred drama, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, KV 35, and the first opera proper, Apollo et Hyacinthus, KV 38, questions are raised concerning voices and drama. What were the characteristics of particular voices for which he wrote? What were singers’ expectations and demands? How might they, human beings as well as voices, have inspired him? At one level those are historical questions, to which we may or may not have answers, and which may or may not inform our performing choices today. Take Apollo et Hyacinthus. We know that choirboys ranging from 12 to 17 took every part save that of King Oebalus, which was assumed by a 23-year-old theology student. Yet we are most likely puzzled upon turning to the score. Could such choristers really have sung those strenuous roles?
Mozart was certainly put in his place by singers and had his hand forced. ‘Dalla sua pace’ from Don Giovanni owes its existence to the Vienna tenor, Francesco Morella, his voice less suited to the coloratura of the original Prague version’s ‘Il mio tesoro’, composed with Antonio Baglioni in mind. The 1791 contract between the Estates Theatre in the Bohemian capital and impresario Domenico Guardasoni for La clemenza di Tito made it clear that a primo musico (castrato) ‘of the first rank’, exemplified by named singers such as ‘Marchesini, or Rubinelli’, was of greater concern than ‘music by a distinguished composer’. Rendered subservient, Mozart then had to write for the cast with which he was presented at what was, even for him, breakneck speed.
Today, Mozart not so much puts current singers in their place as frees them. The human sympathy required to sing the Countess, for others to engage with her, is as valuable a gift as requisite cleanness and beauty of line. Again and again, singers, including those in this year’s International Mozarteum Summer Academy, tend their voices by ensuring a sufficiency of Mozart in varied vocal diets. Nevertheless, every musician, singer or instrumentalist, will tell you that Mozart is the most demanding taskmaster of all: he grants nowhere to hide.