Child Mozart in Italy

With apologies to Lord Byron and Hector Berlioz for the title of this post, and as a way of getting to some comments on Mozart’s three string Divertimenti (K. 136-138), I thought it worthwhile to sift through a bit of information on the young composer’s Italian period. From December of 1769 to March of 1773, Mozart took three extended trips to Italy with his father Leopold for the purposes of earning income by performing for Italian nobility and for soliciting work and commissions as a composer. Mozart’s reputation throughout Europe as a child prodigy proceeded him and father Leopold was anxious to keep the schemes going. It is easy to forget, though, that Wolfgang was not yet 14 years old when they left Salzburg for the first of the three Italian journeys.

The first journey, the longest of the three, lasted 15 months until March of 1771, and took him through all the major cities of Italy. In many ways, the trip paid off handsomely by earning him commissions for operas that he would fulfill on the subsequent trips. Mozart’s first true operatic efforts came about as result: Mitridate, re di Ponto, Ascanio in Alba, and Lucio Silla. This Italian period accomplished several things—it solidified his reputation as a composing prodigy rather than as a child performer and it introduced him to the details, performers, and politics of Italian opera.

Prior to their third trip (in which Lucio Silla was premiered in Milan), Mozart wrote three string divertimenti to take along for the purposes of having ready material for performing opportunities should they arise. The three-movement quartets could easily be played by whatever small ensemble might be available. Yet again, let us not forget that these are the work of the now sixteen year old whose mature style was still a few years away. Despite that, the ingenuity and charm of Mozart are clearly there.

The strings of the UT Chamber Orchestra tackled these three charming works (K. 136, 137, 138–D Major, B-flat, and F major, respectively) on Sunday afternoon for a chamber-size audience in anything but a chamber-size hall. Although the Cox Auditorium is far too voluminous to do justice to works such as these, it was, nonetheless, an intriguing listen. Overall, I felt that conductor James Fellenbaum took the tempos in all three a bit too slow, but I have no doubt that he knew exactly what he had to do for the sake of his mixed student/faculty players. Early Mozart works such as these benefit from sparkle and crispness—Fellenbaum certainly made up for the languidness with nicely rounded phrases and crisp entrances and cutoffs.

Perhaps a faculty ensemble would care to try out some of the later Mozart string Divertimenti?

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