ClassicsOnline Home » MOZART, W.A.: Organ Music (Sebestyen)
"Sebestyen's playing is crisp and graceful by turns"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
The first mention of Mozart's playing of the organ was of a
performance on the instrument at Ybbs on 4th October 1762, when he was six. The Mozart
family had travelled from Linz towards Vienna on the Danube. Priests who were in their
company stopped at Ybbs to say Mass, and the boy, in his father's account, played about on
the organ to such effect that members of the religious community left w hat they were at
to listen to him in amazernent. The following summer the Mozarts set out on the first
great journey through Europe. In Wasserburg, where they were delayed by a broken
carriage-wheel, and Mozart played the organ in the church, his father showed him the use
of the pedals, and he then proceeded to play standing up on the pedals, which otherwise
his legs would never have reached.
Leopold Mozart's letters to his friend, landlord and banker,
Lorenz Hagenauer, continue to inform us of the family's progress. In Heidelberg the boy
again played the organ, this time in the Church of the Holy Ghost, and caused such
astonishment that the Town Magistrate ordered the event to be recorded on an inscription.
In Frankfurt, where the young Goethe heard the children, Mozart was advertised as able to
improvise on the organ. By December they were in Paris, where the boy played the organ in
the Court Chapel on New Year's Day and in London his ability on the organ was again
advertised as one of his remarkable accomplishments. On the return journey in 1766 Mozart
played on the organ Caprices, Fugues and other of his own compositions, and further
performances and exhibitions of virtuosity on the instrument followed, as they travelled
On subsequent journeys Mozart again showed his prowess on the
organ, at first during the three visits to Italy and then again in 1777 in Augsburg, where
he reportedly told the instrument-maker Stein of his admiration for the organ as the king
of instruments. In the same year he had little good to report of the Mannheim organists.
At the end of the next decade we hear of a contest on the keyboard between Mozart and
Hässler, during the composer's visit to Dresden, on his way to Berlin. In this
competition Mozart proved the better organist, while in Leipzig he improvised on the organ
once played by Bach at the Thomaskirche. In short, while winning a considerable reputation
for himself as a master of nuance on the fortepiano, as Stein remarked in Augsburg, Mozart
nevertheless had a great admiration for the organ. Regrettably he used the instrument
primarily for improvisation, so that relatively little of his music for the organ was ever
written down. Nevertheless it must be remembered that it was possible to play even on the
clavichord in "organ style", as he did during his visit to Augsburg in 1777 at
the request of the Dean of the Monastery of the Holy Cross.
Mozart started to write short pieces for w hat has become known
as his London Sketch-Book in 1764, during the course of his long stay in London. His
sister Nannerl, as part of Leopold Mozart's educational scheme for his children, had kept
a similar notebook from 1759, and now it was the turn of her brother. The note-book
contains 43 pieces, the last of them the beginning of a four-voice fugue, with basso
continuo, and these seem to represent the eight-year-old composer's unaided work, with
occasional comments from his eider sister, unlike the works intended for publication,
which his father supervised. Not unnaturally these short pieces are often derivative. K. 15, for example, is said to have similarities
with a sonata by Franz Xaver Richter.
From 13th December 1769 until 28th March 1771 Leopold Mozart
and his son were in Italy. They spent three months in Bologna, where Wolfgang took lessons
from Padre Martini and was admitted as a member of the Accademia Filarmonica, and four
months in Milan for the staging of his newly commissioned opera Mitridate, Re di Ponto. They had travelled to Italy
by way of Innsbruck and Bozen (Bolzano), thence to Verona, where the young Mozart again
gave an impressive display of his ability as an organist. His portrait was painted there
by Saverio dalla Rosa, at the request of Pietro Lugiati, a well known patron of the arts
and Receiver-General of Venice, a man of considerable local importance. The portrait shows
Mozart seated at the harpsichord, an instrument by Giovanni Celestinus, dated Venice 1583,
with the music of his Molto allegro, K. 72a, the so called Veroneser Allegro, on the
music-stand. This is the only source for the work, which is, in consequence, incomplete.
Mozart's stay in Paris in 1778 brought only disappointment,
enhanced by the illness and death of his mother. Little of this is reflected in the
compositions of the period, which apparently include three sets of keyboard variations on
melodies popular in Paris at the time. The twelve variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman,
were intended for performance on the fortepiano, but it is clear that Mozart was not
averse from the occasional jeu d'esprit on the organ, to the amazement and sometimes the
amusement of those who heard him.
Early in 1779 Mozart returned to Salzburg from his abortive
search for employment elsewhere. As court organist he made some contribution to liturgical
repertoire, and wrote further Epistle Sonatas. The last of these, K. 336 in C major, was
probably composed in March 1780 and includes a concertante organ part, which the composer
would presumably have played himself, although there were other organists in the court
musical establishment to carry out many of the normal duties involved in his nominal
appointment. It is scored additionally for two violins, bass instruments and ripieno
There has been some confusion about the precise date of the Präludium in C major, K. 284a, which seems to be one
of the four "Preambele" that Mozart sent his sister from Munich in October 1777.
rather than the later work he sent her from Paris in July the following year. An opening
Allegretto leads to a toccata-like Capriccio, modulating to B flat, the key of a brief
Andantino passage, which finds its way back again to C major for a final Capriccio
There are problems, too, about the C minor Fantasie, K. 396, of 1781, which exists as a
Sonata and Variations for violin and piano, but which, it has been postulated, was
originally conceived as a keyboard work only. The completed keyboard version has been
attributed to the Abbé Maximilan Stadler, a musician who, together with Mozart's
brother-in-law, was entrusted with the task of setting in order the manuscripts left by
Mozart at his death in 1791. The extent of his arrangements and completions of incomplete
works by Mozart can only be a matter of surmise. The Fantasy, marked Adagio, moves from
the key of G minor in improvisatory style to a final G major section.
The D minor Fantasie, K. 397,
is also incomplete, and the autograph is lost. It was probably written in Vienna in 1782,
the year of Mozart's marriage and of the successful German opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and opens with a
slower introduction section, followed by a charming Allegretto. Only the composer's
closing section is missing, completed in the first published version by the Leipzig
Thomascantor August Eberhard Müller, later Kapellmeister in Goethe's Weimar and adviser
and editor to the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf und Härtel.
The same year, 1782, saw the composition of a Suite in G major, an excursion into the Baroque,
reflecting Mozart's interests and those of some of his contemporaries in Vienna,
particularly Baron van Swieten, self-appointed arbiter elegantium at court and Prefect of
the Imperial Library, a man with a keen interest in the music of Bach and Handel, fostered
through the regular informal Sunday meetings at the Library, in which Mozart took part.
The Suite, which lacks only a completed Sarabande
and Gigue, opens with a French Ouverture, a
slow introduction in characteristic dotted rhythm followed by a fugue. The A major Andante and A minor Fugue, K. 402, completed by Stadler and of
which the autograph has been lost, survives from later copies only in the form of a work
for violin and keyboard, whatever the composer's original intention. Constanze Mozart had
a passion for fugues and would listen to nothing else, Mozart told his father in a letter
home to Salzburg, seeking, as always, to show his wife in the best light possible.
Mozart entered his B minor
Adagio, K. 540, in his list of compositions on 19th March 1788 as "Ein
Adagio für das klavier allein" and it was probably among the keyboard music that he
sent his sister in August the same year. In style it is characteristic of the composer in
his maturity. The so called Leipziger Gigue was written in that city a year later. His
visits to Leipzig were undertaken during the course of a journey with Prince Karl
Lichnowsky to Potsdam and brought applause rather than profit, as he explained in a letter
home to his wife.
The Gigue was
written on 16th May in the album of the court organist Karl Immanuel Engel, with a
dedication to the composer. The style has been categorised as Handelian, rather than as a
tribute to Leipzig's greatest resident composer, Bach.
In a letter to his wife on 3rd October 1790 from Frankfurt am
Main, where he had arranged concerts to celebrate the coronation of the new Emperor,
Mozart teIls her of his work on an Adagio for a clockmaker. The work in question was
probably the Adagio K. 594, written for the Müller Wax Museum. Joseph Graf Deym von
Stritetz, who had gone into exile after a duel, had assumed the name of Müller and
returned in 1780 to set up his Müllersche Kunstgalerie, an exhibition of copies of
classical sculpture, later including mechanical exhibits. The musical clocks and automata
for Müller's were the work of the Esterhaza librarian, Father Niemecz, court chaplain to
Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy and the inspiration for a number of similar little pieces by
Kapellmeister Haydn. Mozart's composition was for a model of a Mausoleum for Field Marshal
Freiherr von Loudon, who had died on 14th July 1790, music designed to mourn the death of
a national hero, famous for his exploits in the wars against Turkey. The Andante in F für eine Orgelwalze, K. 616, was
entered into Mozart's list of his compositions on 4th May. This and another short piece
were presumably written for the same automatic instrument and exhibition.
Janos Sebestyén was born in Budapest in 1931 and studied at
the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. In 1971 he established the harpsichord department of
the Academy, which he has headed since that date. His career as a performer and teacher
has taken him as far afield as Japan, his reputation increased by his very successful
recordings for a number of record companies, both in Hungary and abroad. A number of
important awards in Hungary have added distinction, including in 1984 the title Cavalière
of the Italian Republic for services to music.