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...

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 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.