Mozart: Six German Dances, K.509

Six German Dances, K.509

BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: February 6, 1787. He presumably composed them for performance the following day at a Ball of the Society of Nobles, in Prague


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (consisting of 2 sections of violins—but no violas—and “basso,” which might include both cellos and double basses)

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Mozart loved to dance. Quite a few references to dancing pop up in his correspondence and in accounts from people who knew him. Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor whose splendid career on the Continent included creating the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, wrote in his Reminiscences (1826), “Madame Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music.”

Once Mozart moved from his native Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, he had plenty of opportunities to trip the light fantastic. In 1786, Johann Pezzl included in his Skizze von Wien (Sketch of Vienna) a generous section on “Dandies of Both Sexes.” “The male Viennese dandy,” he began, “must know where the best wine is sold and where church festivals are taking place.—How much a game of billiards costs.—Where the best bowling alleys are to be found.” Later in his enumeration he observes, “His joys are: a Styrian capon with sauerkraut or mussels.—A trip in the country.—The National Theatre in the Leopoldstadt.—Animal-baiting and ox-quartering.—A dance hall.” Carnival was the busiest season for people given to social dancing. At that season, the grand Redoutensaal in the Imperial Palace was thrown open to the paying public for masked balls (Redouten). Wrote Pezzl in a Skizze that followed in 1787:

From January 7 to the morning of Ash Wednesday they are open, at first once a week, then twice a week, and throughout the final three days of Carnival. . . . The light from many thousands of wax candles reflected in the great crystal chandeliers and from the pyramid-like candelabras arranged in symmetrical rows dazzles the eye; one’s ears are enchanted and captivated by fanfares of trumpets and drums, intermingled with the softer tone of a hundred musical instruments; instinctively the youthful foot joins in one of the delightful dances. . . .

If only a thousand people attend, it feels too lonely; 1,500 dancers make a nice Redout, and with that number there is still enough room to dance. With 2,000 there is no longer room to dance properly, and in the last few days, when there may be up to 3,000 pleasure seekers, it is a real squeeze. The orchestra plays its minuets and German dances in vain, for there isn’t room to take three proper steps; everybody is jammed together, making a great awkward mass of people for whom only a slow wave-like motion is possible.

“We actually prefer house balls,” wrote Mozart to his father on January 22, 1783. “Last week I gave one in our apartment. Of course, each of the gentlemen had to make a contribution of two gulden. We started at 6 o’clock in the evening and ended at 7. What, only one hour? No, No! We ended at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

The passion for dancing extended well beyond Vienna. In fact, Mozart was not at home when he wrote the Six German Dances performed in this concert. He was in Prague, a city that embraced him with more unanimous enthusiasm than Vienna did. We know Prague as the capital of the Czech Republic, but in Mozart’s day its region of Bohemia fell within the borders of Habsburg Austria. It was the second largest metropolis of Austria, after Vienna, and was largely a German-speaking city, at least in cultural circles—although Bohemian musicians were normally bilingual in German and Czech if they had grown up in a smaller town, which most of them had. In 1782, Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail scored a success in Prague. In his 1797 biography of the composer, Mozart’s Czech friend Franz Xaver Niemetschek (František Xaver Němeček) recalled of that premiere: “I was witness to the enthusiasm which it aroused in Prague among knowledgeable and ignorant people alike. It is as if what had hitherto been taken for music was nothing of the kind. . . . Now the Bohemians proceeded to seek out his works, and in the same year, Mozart’s symphonies and piano music were to be heard at all the best concerts.” In late 1786, the first Prague performance of Le nozze di Figaro created a sensation. Mozart traveled there with his wife shortly after the run began and wrote to a friend about a ball he attended the night they arrived: “I watched with greatest pleasure how everyone was hopping about with sheer delight to the music of my Figaro, which had been transformed into contredanses and German dances.”

We owe information on the likely creation of the Six German Dances (K.509) to an account of the Mozarts’ 1787 trip given by Georg Nikolaus Nissen, the Danish diplomat who married Mozart’s widow in 1809 and published his biography of the composer in 1828:

Mozart was requested by Count P— [Count Johann Pachta] to compose some contredanses for the Ball of the Society of Nobles, of which he was director. [Mozart] promised to do so, but it simply did not seem to happen. The Count prepared a trap and invited Mozart to a meal, with the proviso that on this occasion the meal would take place an hour earlier than usual. As soon as Mozart arrived at the appointed time, his host had the necessary writing material brought in and insisted that he fulfil that request for the ball, which was due to take place the next day. Faced with this situation, Mozart sat straight down at the desk and in less than a half an hour was ready with the four contredanses for large orchestra.

THE MUSIC  In fact, there are no extant Mozart contredanses from that trip to Prague, but he did enter his Six German Dances (Teutsche, as he called them) in the catalogue he kept of his compositions, with the notation “1787, in Prague, February 6.” Immensely prevalent at the time, the German dance evolved into, and was replaced in popularity by, the ländler and the waltz during the early nineteenth century. Each piece in Mozart’s set is in quick triple time and each is in a tripartite form—a principal section, a trio (Mozart calls it an alternativo), and a repeat of the principal section. Each of the six is in a different key (D, G, E-flat, F, A, and C), and they are all linked together by brief modulating passages before concluding in a bubbling coda. The sonic energy of this vivacious set ramps up mid-way through when the piccolo jumps into the fray. Although this music is not played often in concert, some of it will be heard again this season; a half-minute of the first dance figures in the score for Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, which will be screened in April here in Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony playing the soundtrack score live.

There also exists a version for solo piano, in Mozart’s hand. A Viennese publisher advertised the availability of both versions in January 1792, a month after the composer’s death. The entire set runs about twelve uninterrupted minutes and you may decide for yourself whether anyone could actually put all the notes onto paper in a half-hour, even if it were just the piano version and if that person were Mozart!

James M. Keller

Bruno Weil conducting Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Sony)  |  Taras Krysa conducting the Slovak Sinfonietta (Brilliant Classics)  |  In the version for piano, Luc Devos (Ricercar or Brilliant Classics), or a new release (Harmonia Mundi) in which Christine Schornsheim and Andreas Staier perform jointly on a strange Mozart-era instrument that combines a harpsichord with a fortepiano piano, with the players facing each other across the distance of the strings

Reading: Mozart and Prague, by Harald Salfellner (Vitalis)  |  Mozart and Vienna, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  Mozart: The Golden Years, by Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |  Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, translated by Robert Spaethling (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, ed. by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge)  |  Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz: A Study of Dance-Music Relations in 3/4 Time, by Eric J. McKee (Indiana)

(November 2017)