This Week in Music History: The Premiere of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (1791)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? An operatic premiere in the chaotic final year of Mozart‘s life…

Despite what a certain well-known film would have us believe, the composer Antonio Salieri did not plot to assassinate Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The brilliant film (and play) Amadeus took, let’s say, a few liberties with the historical truth. But surprisingly, it is true that Salieri was responsible—albeit indirectly—for making Mozart’s workload significantly more complicated in the chaotic final year of his life.

The story begins in February 1790, with the death of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He was succeeded by his brother Leopold II, who was crowned in Mozart’s home city, Vienna, later that year. A second coronation was scheduled for Prague, also part of the empire, for 1791. And for that coronation, a celebratory opera was called for.


Salieri and Mozart

But that opera, to be in the style of an opera seria (“serious opera”), wasn’t commissioned until mid July, for a coronation on September 6—a mere six or seven weeks away. With time so short, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they received a no from the first composer they approached: Antonio Salieri.

Salieri’s rejection meant that the task fell to Mozart, even though he was still working on Die Zauberflöte, an opera for which he had already been engaged. But, always eager for work, Mozart accepted all the same. As it happens, July was also the month he received that legendary requiem commission. And, well, we all know what happened next. More or less.

Rumors circulated after Mozart’s death in December that the cause had been overwork. Understandable, especially given that he was also rumored to have written his coronation opera for Leopold—La clemenza di Tito—in a mere 18 days. Both these rumors are very likely false: he seems simply to have caught a fever, and he probably spent the best part of six weeks on the composition. So can we blame Salieri for burdening Mozart with this job, hence making him work himself close to death? It can’t possibly be healthy to write a whole opera in six weeks, not even for Mozart… But still, the answer is clearly no.

The title page of Metastasio’s libretto for La Clemenza di Tito

In fact, we should thank Salieri for stepping aside, because Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito is a delight. The plot—chosen, not too subtly, to appeal to the new ruler—concerns the Roman Emperor Titus, whose famed benevolence is put to the test when an attempt is made on his life. It’s based on a libretto by Metastasio, the most renowned librettist of the mid 18th century, that had first been set to music in 1734. For Mozart, the libretto was shortened and altered to make it more in keeping with the style of the 1790s—”ridotto a vera opera”, Mozart wrote (“reduced to real opera”)—although its serious tone is still perhaps suggestive of an earlier operatic age.

But what’s wrong with that? These days, the serious operas of Handel are hugely popular—and so are some of Rossini’s, showing that opera seria lived on well beyond the Baroque. While for a long time Clemenza’s reputation suffered on account of its comparatively old-fashioned style, there’s no reason that should be an obstacle to us enjoying it today.

You shouldn’t watch Clemenza expecting the cosmopolitan edge of Mozart’s “Da Ponte” trilogy (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte) or Die Zauberflöte’s busy mixture of styles. Instead, you should take La clemenza di Tito on its own terms—as an opera seria on a Classical subject, just as filled with passion and vitality as any other Mozart opera. After all, and most importantly, its music is just as perfectly crafted as any Mozart wrote towards the end of his busy, all-too-brief career.

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