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Oh, Vienna: A trip around Mozart's Viennese haunts

A glimpse of the locations where some of history's greatest operas were written.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

20 January 2012 at 9.26am | 7 Comments

When Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was made into a film in 1984, the producers were faced with a major problem. Much of Mozart’s Vienna no longer exists. Half a century after the composer’s death in 1791, Emperor Franz Josef made sweeping changes to the capital. He knocked down the city walls, and the suburbs (such as the one in which Die Zauberflöte was first performed) doubled in size. What urban planners hadn’t changed in the 19th century, Allied bombing destroyed in the 20th. And although some of the centre’s medieval streets are still there, unfortunately it was impossible to recreate what Mozart would have seen and known.

The producers of Amadeus eventually went to Prague (where Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787). There, director Miloš Forman gained access to the Estates Theatre where the opera premiered; the whole city, blanketed in snow, looked as close to 18th-century Vienna as you could get. But for those of us wanting the real deal, we can only imagine what the city might have looked like when the 25-year-old composer first arrived in the Austrian capital, which by 1781 had become a fortress.

Le nozze di Figaro

Coming from Munich, where Idomeneo had opened to an enchanted public, Mozart wanted to write a new piece for the Viennese stage. Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto arrived in the summer and the premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (set in a Turkish harem) took place the following year. Flying high, Mozart rented lavish rooms in the city centre, at the heart of Imperial society. Changing flats every few months, the composer had had no fewer that eight separate residences by the time that he moved into a house on Domgasse (in the shadow of the cathedral where he and Constanze Weber married in 1782).

It was here – with Le nozze di Figaro – that the composer began his first collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a former priest turned brothel owner. The house sits snugly in a labyrinth of medieval streets with inner courtyards providing the only open spaces in a network of religious institutions, businesses and, nowadays, the ubiquitous coffee house. There’s even one on the ground floor of Mozart’s old home, named after the servant hero of his fizzy comedy.

Don Giovanni

Mozart stayed at the address for a full year after the premiere and it still stands, now a museum to one of the city’s greatest adopted sons. But Mozart’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and, by April 1787, the family had to move to the less impressive surroundings of Landstrasse, south of the centre. Unfortunately, the building in which he lived and wrote Don Giovanni no longer exists, knocked down during the 19th century and replaced by large apartment blocks. Only a small plaque marks the site where Mozart composed the opera.

The Prague premiere brought renewed wealth, but the last years of Mozart’s life were dogged by financial problems. He often visited pawnbrokers and wrote to the wealthier members of his Masonic Lodge for help. Determined to save face, he refused to sack the maid and, in order to lessen their woes, he took on pupils as well as shifting the family between pokey flats in the city centre and more spacious but cheaper homes in the suburbs.

Così fan tutte

The Mozarts eventually took a flat on Judenplatz – right in the heart of the medieval Jewish ghetto – where the composer began to plan for a more successful 1789. Unfortunately, his arrangements for a German tour failed and the year proved equally disheartening. It was overlooking this spacious square however – now dominated by Rachel Whiteread’s chilling Holocaust memorial – that Mozart wrote Così fan tutte, again with Da Ponte. The first rehearsals took place in the apartment, which became another victim of 19th-century town planning. A plaque now testifies to Mozart’s presence.

But by wandering the streets, you glean a hint of the city Mozart would have known, however, by wandering the streets of the area. Buildings, heavy with crests and crosses, lean over the cobbled streets, just as they do on Rauhensteingasse, where Mozart and Contanze finally moved in September 1790. A commission from Prague (La clemenza di Tito) and Die Zauberflöte kept the wolf from the door.

But by the time that inflammatory rheumatic fever took hold in late 1791, Mozart was unable to pay for proper medical attention. Adding insult to injury, the building in which he died was demolished in the 1840s. A department store now stands on the site.

A city of Mozartian imagination

Mozart had entered Vienna a chipper young man, but he was unable to capitalize properly on his achievements. The oddly fleeting success of his operas during his lifetime and a lack of imperial patronage following the death of Josef II in 1790 became his downfall. Today Mozart is celebrated everywhere you go in Vienna. Chocolates, postcards, T-shirts and mugs bear his name. But unfortunately only one of the houses in which he wrote his greatest comedies still stands. Our imagination has to fill in the gaps.


This article has 7 comments

  1. Wonderful!

  2. Wonderful photography/brilliant article!

  3. jeff responded on 3 November 2013 at 5:43pm Reply

    Did the austrians not appreciate mozart in the 1900's?

  4. David Broshar responded on 27 January 2014 at 4:48pm Reply

    The final plaque is actually for the building in which Mozart died, not where he is buried.

  5. Looking forward to paying homage to the Immortal Maestro at all these sights again this summer! Never gets old when you stand in the presence of greatness. :)

  6. Kalimera responded on 24 June 2015 at 11:15pm Reply

    The plaque says

    "In this very place, was standing the house untill 1849, in which Mozart died on the 5th of december 1791"

    Rauhensteingasse : the name of the street

  7. Andy Gilliland responded on 30 July 2016 at 5:28pm Reply

    Saw Don Giovanni at the Estates last year, actually a good performance which traditionally ended after the Commendatore scene. Bit of a spine tingly experience to think that Mozart himself premiered it there. Well worth a visit.

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