Strahov Monastery: The Power of Place in Mozart History and Heritage

Since May is National Preservation Month, the peak travel season is upon us, and we're nearing the month of June when I took my thir...

Since May is National Preservation Month, the peak travel season is upon us, and we're nearing the month of June when I took my third and most recent trip to Prague, I thought it was a good time to recognize an historic place I visited there associated with the history of W.A. Mozart: The Strahov Monastery. It's a case study in the power of place regarding Mozart's history and heritage.

Architectural phenomenology is the proper term, a newer field of study introduced to me by my twin sister Sheryl with whom I recently collaborated on a related project in popular music, The Surf Speaks: Voices of a Living History. It frames the broader topic of audiences and their role in the preservation and relevance of music landmarks. And how emotional attachments to place and associated feelings of musical and environmental nostalgia motivate and sustain their efforts (heritage tourism, etc). 

Our research caught the attention of cultural sociologists at Griffith University, a top research institution in Australia, and is being published this year in a new book, entitled Remembering Popular Music's Past: Memory, Heritage, History. The edited collection will be published by Anthem Press, a leading independent publisher of innovative academic research, educational material and reference works in established and emerging fields. I certainly look forward to applying what I've learned to the places where Mozart visited, lived and performed.

The Strahov Monastery is the oldest Premonstratensian monastery in Bohemia. The organ in The Basilica of Assumption of Our Lady at the monastery was one of many organs played by Mozart during his lifetime. He indulged when visiting the city in the autumn of 1787 for the premiere of his opera, Don Giovanni. He was accompanied to the monastery by his friend, the celebrated opera singer Josepha Duschek. Josepha and her husband Franz, a renowned composer and musician, lived at the Villa Bertramka where Mozart was their house guest. 

The following photo of the organ loft is from the official website:

The monastery's organ was, and still remains, a much admired instrument. The organ Mozart would have played on was replaced in 1900 (source). But it still has its original Baroque casing and the architectural and acoustical footprint of the Basilica remain intact. Its overall environs are authentic to the period.

Our Mozart Society of America conference group attended a service there complete with organ music. To sightread and sing along with the program was an experience I'll never forget. To grasp an idea of its beauty, watch Strahov Monastery Organist Vladimir Roubal perform on the instrument earlier this year. 

The following are photos I took during our visit. Interior photography wasn't permitted.

Norbert Lehmann, the monastery's organist at the time of Mozart's visit, had written a sketch of his improvisation shortly after their encounter. It was preserved and later cataloged as KV. 528a. Listen! It's described in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe (New Mozart Edition) as the following: 

Fragmentary Postscript of an Organ Improvisation by Mozart. Allegedly from the Strahov Monastery, Autumn 1787. The authenticity of this piece is doubtful (Original German: Fragmentarische Nachschrift einer Orgelimprovisation Mozarts. Entstanden angeblich Kloster Strahov, Herbst 1787. Die Echtheit dieses Stueckes ist zweifelhaft). 

Although the improvisational sketch is "doubtful" to scholars (Lehmann himself says he was distracted when writing it) and may not be accurate to the note, it's still documentary evidence of Mozart's visit.  Lehmann provided an account in 1818 at the request of Mozart's first biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek. Although written decades later, where you might expect some romanticized retrospect, it's still valuable in its rarity and detail as to how Mozart improvised, selected registers, used pedals, etc.

It's never desirable for historical integrity to be compromised in any manner, whether it be documents, artifacts or buildings. But vulnerability in human recollection and the replacement of artifacts and architectural elements are inevitable over time. Still, none of this breaks our bond to an historic place. Somewhere between the extant architecture, documentary evidence and our willing imagination, we find ourselves in the midst of living history in continuum. 

We're motivated by what I mentioned previously: emotional attachments to place and associated feelings of musical and environmental nostalgiaArchitectural phenomenology is about the power of place, of suggestion (filling in the blanks to create a narrative) and of subject. We want to be there because Mozart was there. It's that simple. And this artist-audience attachment is vital to the preservation of Mozart's history and heritage. Protecting and nourishing that relationship is a shared responsibility of our guardianship as a community of professionals and admirers.


Bertramka Declared National Cultural Landmark By Minister of Culture

Photo: Archive Blesk. Blesk.CZ. On January 28th, the day after Mozart's 263rd birthday, the Maestro received one of the best gifts...

Photo: Archive Blesk. Blesk.CZ.

On January 28th, the day after Mozart's 263rd birthday, the Maestro received one of the best gifts the 21st Century could offer him: the preservation of his beloved friends' villa where he was a house guest in 1787 and 1791. Read more about this history.

Bertramka, whose decline has been exacerbated by neglect over the past few years, was declared a National Cultural Landmark by the Minster of Culture, Antonín Staněk. This new designation means that the property will now have state protection and funding for rehabilitation and maintenance.

The following are local news articles (select translate in browser):
"Mozart's Villa Bertramka is a National Cultural Monument. The New Status Helps Her With Funding" (Blesk.CZ)
"Prague Villa Bertramka, Where Mozart also Resided, Became a National Cultural Monument" (Aktualne.CZ)

I'd like to thank my colleague David Bahlman, an Architectural Historian and Preservationist, for his work in this matter and for keeping me informed through his contacts in Prague.

I thought this would never happen, so I'm feeling both excitement and disbelief. If you've been following my coverage of this story, you'll know that I've long championed the effort with Friends of Bertramka and other allies. It was last February when I penned an article about what seemed like a hopeless situation.

Read my article: "Praguers No Longer Understand Mozart, Metro States as Bertramka Declines."

Now, one year later, after mounting public pressure, there is action. We raised our voices as a global community alongside the concerned citizens of Prague and succeeded. Bertramka has been saved from an uncertain future, a future that could have ended in collapse or demolition. Victory is ours!


Music City: A Mozart Birthday Celebration

Roger Wiesmeyer, Founder of Mozart in Nashville, during a performance for the 2017 Mozart birthday celebration. Photo by Sally Bebawy Phot...

Roger Wiesmeyer, Founder of Mozart in Nashville, during a performance for the 2017 Mozart birthday celebration. Photo by Sally Bebawy Photography.

On the occasion of Mozart’s 263rd birthday this weekend (January 27, 1756), I’d like to celebrate by recognizing an inspiring and underrepresented effort to present his music. Mozart in Nashville just held their 17th annual Mozart birthday celebration concerts in Music City and it was their most successful to date. 

Listen: Live in Studio C: Mozart in Nashville (Nashville Public Radio, Jan 18, 2019)
Read: 17th Annual Mozart's Birthday Concerts (Off The Podium, Jan 11, 2019)
Watch: Musician Q&A with Roger Wiesmeyer (Nashville Symphony, Jan 17, 2017)

The history of music in Nashville dates back to the late 1700s when the settlers celebrated with fiddle tunes after arriving on the shores of the Cumberland River. Nashville is a mid-sized city comparable to Mozart’s adopted home of Vienna with a similar kind of authenticity, creative energy and artist community. It has the intimate environs of Viennese coffee culture and more music jobs per capita than any other city in the United States. I would argue that Nashville is one of the most fitting places for Mozart to be introduced, explored and performed. Read: Why Nashville Is Still America’s Music City. 

Mozart in Nashville was founded by Roger Wiesmeyer, a graduate of the Curtis Institute and current English horn player/Oboist with the Nashville Symphony. It's of particular interest to me to investigate Mozart organizations operating in music heritage cities where classical music may not necessarily be the most popular genre, but where there is great potential to progress, and Nashville is one such place. Learning more about organizations is another way for me to gauge the "current state of Mozart." When I approached Roger about a Q&A, he enthusiastically accepted. Thank you, Roger. I hope we'll have the opportunity to work together in the near future!


Sherry: Congratulations on your 17th annual Mozart birthday celebration! Last weekend, you performed Mozart's works for Glass Armonica/Harmonica, K. 356 and K. 617, along with his Symphony No. 40, K. 550. How have the concerts evolved over the years in terms of repertoire and personnel? As not only the Founder of Mozart in Nashville, but also one of its musicians, what works do you enjoy performing most?

Roger: Actually, I play English horn so my choice of repertoire is extremely limited. The adagio which is a fragment which he turned into the Ave verum corpus has been determined to be for basset horns. As oboist, I've played the quartet of course, K. 370. Also, we've done the serenades and “Gran Partita.” We've performed the music for mechanical clock in transcription for quintet AND piano four hands. About six years ago, I discovered my true artistic motivation was to provide a chance to play his magnificent piano concertos. A friend of mine refers to them as “the caviar of music.” I seem to do one every other year or so. So far, I have gotten to play little A major, G major, c minor and last Bb. I’m eyeing big A major for next year but haven't committed myself. I've played a minor sonata and Bb K. 333. We’ve done Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 and the bassoon concerto as well as three of his songs and “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” I’m sure I’m forgetting good stuff but you get the idea.

Sherry: I recently discovered your organization through our mutual friend Deanna Walker at Vanderbilt University. I noted your emphasis on charity and inclusion. You accept donations to support performance expenses with all additional proceeds benefiting local charities. “Mozart in Nashville is dedicated to bringing classical music to Nashville's most vulnerable citizens, including children, lifelong learners, people with special needs, and incarcerated people.” To me, this immediately set your platform apart from others. While many might acknowledge culture as a unifying force, we mostly find empty words in place of action and exclusivity instead of universality. You actually practice the themes of love, enlightenment and fraternal union found in Mozart's music and biography. And in a genre whose sustainability depends upon eradicating an elitist stigma dating from Mozart's time, well, this means something. Aside from Mozart, who or what was your main source of inspiration for making these two pillars (charity and inclusion) the foundation of Mozart in Nashville?

Roger: My inspirations come from various places. When I lived in the Bay Area, I was fortunate to get to play with a group called Midsummer Mozart which was founded by the great conductor George Cleve. It was such a joyous, true musical experience, I wanted to do something similar when I moved home to Nashville. Pete Seeger is also an inspiration especially when it comes to the third leg of Mozart in Nashville. When he was blacklisted, he made his living playing songs in church basements and union halls all over the country. This is always in the back of my mind when I take the train every summer to points west bringing music I love to house concerts up and down the west coast.

Sherry: How successful have you been in your objective to be an "...organization dedicated to bringing classical music to those who might not otherwise encounter it?" We know from his letters that Mozart found joy in knowing that his music reached everyday citizens beyond the salons of the aristocracy. He had a supreme command of writing music that appealed to both connoisseurs and general audiences. Today, accessibility remains an issue, which your mission statement addresses. Do you find it challenging to strike a balance with outreach and engagement between these two populations? Is your focus more on attracting new, broader and more diverse audiences?

Roger: This last weekend we had our most successful concerts as for as audiences and also money raised. It is still a big deal to have an audience bigger than 125, especially at our non-Mozart birthday concerts (we sponsor four Concerto Orchestra Concerts each season). In terms of programming, I don't aim for a demographic. I find music that I want to inhabit for a while and present it with the aim of saying a little bit about WHY it is special to me. Also, this music really is in the collective unconscious. If you sing the first half of the first phrase of the g minor symphony or “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” my guess is most folks could volley back the right answer. Even if people don't know it's Mozart, he's just that ubiquitous. I try to present it in as unstuffy, down to earth way as possible. 

Roger Wiesmeyer (piano) and Mozart in Nashville musicians give a preview of their annual Mozart birthday celebration at Nashville Public Radio. Photo by Kara McLeland, January 18, 2019.

Sherry: Although Nashville is a thriving community of artists working in various genres, it's still known primarily for country music. Alongside the Nashville Symphony, the Nashville Opera and other institutions, do you feel that your organization has played a role in creating greater awareness of Mozart's music and the classical genre in Music City? One advantage certainly lies within Nashville's own creative community where artistic crossover is sought and nourished. Ie. Country singer Mandy Barnett performed the Nashville Songbook with the Nashville Symphony last year. What do you feel is key in promoting Mozart's music as both an independent and interdependent force in Nashville? 

Roger: Music is about joy, communication of feeling that words fail, sharing something moving and completely intangible. Whenever I meet someone, after establishing good will and a level of mutual trust, I’ll ask "So what do you listen to?" This often happens in a car share as I gave up my own car a few years back. Fortunately, I like all genres of music even if I’m not fluent in them. Whatever they mention, I try to find common ground and at some point, I'll mention I play in the NSO and have a non-profit called Mozart in Nashville. It's really an organic feeling and I do it mostly to share what I love rather than thinking in terms of promoting Mozart. I need and love his legacy more than it needs my help. Cream floats after all...

Sherry: The devastation of historic Music Row, where over 40 historic buildings have been demolished in the last few years, signals a blatant disregard for Nashville's music history. What does this mean for other historical genres like classical music and related organizations like Mozart in Nashville? Last year, I wrote an article about the deterioration of the Villa Bertramka in Prague, a beloved Mozart landmark, from neglect. When music's built heritage is threatened, I believe the entire system of related organizations, performing groups and audiences is threatened. Is Mozart in Nashville active with advocacy and preservation efforts with groups like Historic Nashville? Have any of the historic churches or other venues where you've performed concerts ever been endangered?

Roger: The question about historic preservation is of vital interest to me personally, but doesn't really enter into Mozart in Nashville in any substantial way. Edgehill United Methodist Church, our mother church if you will, is not a particularly old building. However, it is the oldest intentionally integrated church in Nashville. East End United Methodist Church is home to the second oldest continually meeting Boy Scout troop in the U.S. and is a lovely building from around 1910 I believe. West End United Methodist is a grand building and I believe the congregation goes back to the earliest days of Vanderbilt University. Since we are largely volunteer and have a tiny budget, we go where we are welcomed without a fee. Trinity Presbyterian, Saint George's Episcopal, Edgehill United Methodist, East End United Methodist, West End United Methodist are our main venues although we just played at W O Smith Music School for the first time and I hope we can go back.

Sherry: Returning to the lighter fare of the Maestro's birthday, what will you be doing to celebrate since the Mozart in Nashville birthday concerts were last weekend? 

Roger: On the actual day, I'm playing a Mozart concert in Clarksville with a lovely group called The Gateway Chamber Orchestra. Linz Symphony, Strauss Serenade for Winds, and Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. We repeat it on Monday night in Franklin.

The Mozartian Store Opens on CafePress

The Modern-Day Mozartian   store is now open on CafePress! Stickers, buttons, magnets, postcards and luggage tags featuring my logo are r...

The Modern-Day Mozartian store is now open on CafePress! Stickers, buttons, magnets, postcards and luggage tags featuring my logo are readily available to ship worldwide.

Browse & Shop! (I welcome feedback about product inventory!)

Why merch? It makes a powerful statement and reaches audiences through human interaction rather than through a screen. It's more meaningful and effective. I think most people would be more intrigued by seeing a bewigged character they encountered at the airport or in traffic than while skimming and scanning content on a device.

Whether you have a sticker on your notebook, a button on your backpack, a magnet on your refrigerator or car, you're using a luggage tag on a trip or you're sending a postcard to a fellow Mozartian, signature merch serves an ambassadorial role. It's your stamp of approval, your endorsement, and it'll help bring new audiences to Mozart and my platform while giving you (the WolfGANG!) a fun way to support my work.

CafePress was on my mind when I created the logo in 2016, but so many other projects and initiatives intervened that it simply didn't happen...until now! I've never had a paywall or asked readers to pay subscription fees, so in addition to audience development, opening a store also creates a potential revenue stream for me, something I can never have enough of as an independent professional!

I've always believed that taking a social approach to preservation is key because audiences benefit exponentially through shared experiences. It's why I've created events and contests on Facebook as well as two fan collection exhibits at the Mozarthaus in Vienna. Promoting the public recognition of Mozart's audiences with an identity (logo) through which we can connect is also a part of the journey.

And what's in a logo? Well, everything in terms of message and as little as possible in terms of design. When someone sees the Mozartian, I want them to know that she represents not only my work (I'm simply a catalyst or representative), but the efforts of the Mozartian collective. As musicians, audience members, consumers, patrons and volunteers, we all play a vital role in sustaining Mozart's music and heritage.

We're storytellers who deliver contemporary context, socio-cultural perspective and human interest. We're agents of the living and ever-evolving music history of which we are a part. Our voice is one of great power and beauty, reflecting the joy and humanity of Mozart's music and the universal messages of love, unity and enlightenment conveyed within its measures.