In addition to his portrait of Mozart, Joseph Lange left posterity with an insightful account of the man. The German Orpheus. Accounts...

19th Century Memoirs Recall W.A. Mozart as The German Orpheus

In addition to his portrait of Mozart, Joseph Lange left posterity with an insightful account of the man.

The German Orpheus. Accounts of Mozart in the 19th Century by those who knew him are a collage of testaments which further his enigmatic appeal. They are a fascinating read to say the least, and although they may be romanticized to a degree in their retrospection, they provide us with the only living portrait that we have of the man in action, beyond biography and extant correspondence.

In this small collection of memoirs, I've included entries from Irish tenor Michael Kelly, an original cast member of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, the novelist Karoline Pichler (also written as Caroline), daughter of Franz Sales von Greiner at whose house Mozart played, and the actor and artist Joseph Lange, Mozart's brother-in-law. In her account, Pichler refers to Mozart as "The German Orpheus" (Orpheus was the greatest musician and poet in Greek myth, "whose songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement") which is representative of the Romantic era in which these accounts were written.

Although far from being a comprehensive compilation, this is a sampling across different relationships that's nonetheless insightful in its corresponding themes. I originally shared these accounts in one of my earliest entries from September 6, 2007. It was clear from the beginning of my authorship that I had a passion for connecting a curious public to the man who, despite our attempts, remains both known and unknown to us.


"Never was Mozart less recognizably a great man in his conversation and actions, than when he was busied with an important work. At such times he not only spoke confusedly and disconnectedly, but occasionally made jests of a nature which one did not expect of him; indeed he even deliberately forgot himself in his behavior. But he did not appear to be brooding and thinking about anything. Either he intentionally concealed his inner tension behind superficial frivolity, for reasons which could not be fathomed, or he took delight in throwing into sharp contrast the divine ideas of his music and these sudden outbursts of vulgar platitudes, and in giving himself pleasure by seeming to make fun of himself. I can understand that so exalted an artist can, out of a deep veneration, for his art, belittle and as it were to expose to ridicule his own personality." -Joseph Lange, Reminiscences, Vienna (1808)

Biographie des Joseph Lange K.K. Hofschauspielers, 1808. 

"I remember that at the first rehearsal of the full band Mozart was on the stage, with his crimson pelisse and his gold-banded cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. I shall never forget the little animated countenance when lighted up with the glowing rays of genius. It is as impossible to describe it as it would be to paint sunbeams. Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged by repeated obeisances his thanks for those distinguishing marks of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him." -Michael Kelly, Reminiscences, London (1826)

"These three pieces were nearly ready for representation at the same time, and each composer claimed the right of producing his opera for the first. The contest raised much discord, and parties were formed. The characters of the three men were all very different. Mozart was as touchy as gunpowder, and swore he would put the score of his opera (Figaro) into the fire if it was not produced first; his claim was backed by a strong party." -Michael Kelly, Reminiscences, London (1826)

Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, 1826.

"Mozart and Haydn, whom I knew well, were men in whose personal intercourse there was absolutely no sign of unusual power of intellect and almost no trace of intellectual culture, nor of any scholarly or other higher interest." -Karoline Pichler, Memoirs, Vienna (1843-44)

"Once I was sitting at the piano, playing the 'Non piu andrai' from Figaro; Mozart, who happened to be present, came up behind me, and my playing must have pleased him, for he hummed the melody with me and beat the time on my shoulders; suddenly, however, he pulled up a chair, sat down, told me to keep playing the bass and began to improvise variations so beautifully that everyone present held his breath, listening to the music of the German Orpheus. But all at once he had enough; he jumped up and, as he often did in his foolish moods, began to leap over tables and chairs, miaowing like a cat, and turning somersaults like an unruly boy." -Karoline Pichler, Memoirs, Vienna (1843-44)

Anthologie aus den saemmtlichen Werken von C. Pichler, 1830. 

The following is a selection of excerpts from Michael Kelly. He documented Mozart's affinity for dance and appearances: "His talent lay in that art (dance) rather than in music." Kelly recalled Mozart as being "a remarkable small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine, fair hair of which he was rather vain." Kelly described the first time he heard Mozart perform the keyboard in public: "His great feeling, the rapidity of his fingers, the great execution and strength of his left hand particularly, and the apparent inspiration of his improvisation astounded me." Regarding performances in more private circumstances, Kelly adds: "He was kind-hearted, and always ready to oblige; but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise was made, he instantly left off." Kelly's narrative also spoke to Mozart's passion for billiards: "He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard table in his house. Many and many a game have I played with him, but always came off second best."