Performers and performances

What a difference an audience makes

Mozart was in Paris in 1778. He visited the duchess of Chabot, Elisabeth-Louise de la Rochefoucauld, wife of Louis-Antoine-Auguste de Rohan. Mozart described the visit in a letter to his father:

A week went by without any reply, but she had informed me to see her in a week’s time, so kept my word and went to see her on that day. I had to wait for half an hour in a large, ice-cold, unheated room that didn’t even have a fireplace. At last, the Ducheße de Chabot [Duchess of Chabot] came in and asked me, with the greatest politeness, to use the Clavier that was in the room because none of her other pianos were in good enough condition to be played; I should just try it out. I said: I would be happy to play something, but that at this very moment it would be quite impossible, for in this cold I could not even feel my fingers; I asked whether someone could show me to a room that had a fire in it. O oui Monsieur, vous avés raiso [“Yes, Monsieur, you are quite right”]. That was the answer I got. Then she sat down and began to draw for an entire hour in the company of gentlemen who sat in a Circle around a large table; I had the honor of sitting there for a whole hour. Windows and doors were open. Not only my hands but my whole body and my feet were freezing cold, and my head began to ache. In the room was altum silentum [utter silence]. I didn’t know what to do for all the cold, headache, and boredom … At last, to make a long story short, I did play on that miserable, Wretched Pianoforte. And what really galled me was that Madme. and her gentlemen never interrupted their drawing for one moment, they just continued, and I had to play for the chairs, tables, and walls. Given these miserable conditions, I finally lost my patience – I had begun to play the Fischer Variations and I had played about half of them when I stood up. They immediately showered me with complements; but I said what had to be said, namely that I could not do myself justice on this Clavier, and I would be happy if Madame would chose another day when a better Clavier would be available. But she wouldn’t hear of my leaving and I was obliged to wait another half hour until her husband came. He, however, sat down next to me and listened to me very attentively, and I – I forgot the cold and the headache, and played in spite of the Wretched clavier – the way I play when I am in the best of spirits. Give me the best Clavier in Europe, but an audience that either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand, people who do not connect with me and my playing, and I will lose all joy in performing.”

– Mozart, in a letter to his father, 1 May 1778. Cited in: Spaethling, Robert (2000) Mozart’s Letters; Mozart’s Life. London: Faber and Faber, p.150-151.

By Greg

Australian composer and pianist