It's April 1764 and Leopold Mozart was standing on the French shore of the Channel, waiting for the ferry to England. He was accompanied by his wife Anna Maria and their two children, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) and Wolfgang, aged 12 and 8 respectively. They had never seen the sea and any apprehensions they might have had were met with a rough crossing. Leopold reported in a letter that they made “a heavy contribution in vomiting.”1
On the 23 April they finally arrived in London from Paris, lodging above a barber’s shop near Trafalgar Square. They had left Salzburg almost a year before, as Leopold showed the prowess of his two child prodigies across different European courts. Britain wasn’t included in their initial plans, but they had been urged to make the journey by two Englishmen in the French Court: London was at the time the richest, the biggest and most successful city in Europe. It contained a wealthy class of merchants who patroned public performances. This was an important difference from previous countries they had visited, where concert life was mainly confined to the courts.
The Mozart family spent around fifteen months in the British capital, but their experience was not as successful as they had hope so. Let’s find out more about their story through these three items from our collections
Violin Sonatas, KV 10–15
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Six Sonates Pour Le Clavecin ... Oeuvre III. London: Printed for the Author, 1765. British Library Shelfmark R.M.11.f.5
The start of the trip was nonetheless auspicious. The letters of introduction from France had been very effective, as within a week the family was summoned to Buckingham House (a more modest predecessor to the current Palace), for the first of their three visits to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Here Wolfgang’s skills were put to royal test:
The King placed before him not only works of Wagensil, but those of Bach, Abel, and Handel,2 and he played off everything prima vista. Then he accompanied the Queen in an aria which she sang, and also a flautist who played a solo. Finally he took the bass part of some airs of Handel and played the most beautiful melody on it and in such a manner that everyone was amazed. In short, what he knew when we left Salzburg is a mere shadow compared with what he knows now. It exceeds all that one can imagine.3
The Queen asked the Mozarts to be the dedicatee of one of Wolfgang's compositions. Leopold obliged, printing at his expense a run of three sonatas. The copy shown above, is the very one which was presented to the Queen.
God is our refuge, K. 20
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus.: ‘God is our Refuge’, K. 20; 1765 (detail). British Library Shelfmark K.10.a.17.(3)
Towards the end of their London stay the Mozarts received an invitation to visit the British Museum (from which the British Library was born). It seems now hard to believe, but children weren’t allowed then. Wolfgang and Nannerl were indeed very privileged. Leopold and his daughter kept a travel diary and she recalls to have seen “the library, the antiquities, birds of all kinds, fishes, insects and fruits.” in the Museum 4
They presented the Museum directors with a copy of his first two sonatas (also in our collections); a copy of a print showing Leopold and his two children (in the British Museum); and the manuscript of ‘God us our Refuge’ K. 20 shown above (a digitised version is available here). This motet for four voices was especially composed and presented to the Trustees of the Museum. It was to be his only setting of English words during his life. Little Wolfgang seems to have had trouble fitting the words to their corresponding notes (noticeable in bars 7-9), so his father wrote them in the rest of the piece.
At the British Library we can boast that our collection of Mozart manuscripts is certainly the first to have been started by the composer himself!
The British Library has an important collection of Newspapers gathered by the Reverend Charles Burney (b.1757, d.1817), mostly published in London between 1604 and 1804. The collection has been digitised and can be viewed on any of our Reading Room terminals.
Leopold Mozart was no doubt an astute marketer, paying for several adverts on London papers where he announced performances by his children. They were often described as “prodigies of nature” and Leopold was more than ready to bend the truth slightly, purporting his children to be one or two years younger. The adverts here shown appeared on the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, where Leopold published more frequently.
Their first few months of their London stay saw them play in the most fashionable gardens of London. However their luck changed in early July when Leopold fell gravely ill, developing from what he described as “a kind of native complaint, which is called a cold”5. Without his guidance and promotion, performances stopped for a few months and by the spring of 1765 public interest in the child prodigies began to wane. Wolfgang in the meantime, occupied himself composing -among other works- his first symphony, which premiered in February at the Little Theatre in Haymarket.
Their bad fortunes may have also been influenced by external forces, as there are indications that malicious rumours were being spread about the family. One of the most outrageous no doubt, said that Wolfgang wasn’t a child but a small adult with a growth deficiency. His father Leopold was forced to deny this in an open letter.
Understandably, by mid-1765 the Mozarts started to arrange their long return to Salzburg. Private concerts were being offered at reduced fees. By July 1765 the young Mozarts, who had started performing for the Royals, were now playing during lunchtime at the Swan and Hoop pub near Moorgate in the City...
Special thanks to Maddy Smith, curator of printed heritage collections 1601-1900, for her assistance with this article.
- Letter from Leopold Mozart to his merchant and friend, Johann Lorenz von Hagenauer. London, 25 April May 1764 (extract)
- Composers Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Johann Christian Bach, Karl Friedrich Abel and the King’s favourite composer, George Frideric Handel
- ibid 1. London, 28 May 1764 (extract)
- Mozart. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen. Gesamtausgabe. (Kassel 1962) Vol I. pp196, 198-9. British Library Shelfmark 07902.e.4.
- ibid 1, "Chelsea near London", 13 September 1764.