He began his free-lance career in Vienna with heartening success. He was well paid for the lessons he gave; each of his concerts in 1782-84 brought him some five hundred gulden.74 Only seventy of his compositions were published in his lifetime, but he was reasonably paid. The publisher Artarin gave him a hundred ducats for the six quartets dedicated to Haydn—a handsome sum for those days.75 Another publisher, Hoffmeister, lost money by printing Mozart’s piano quartets in G Minor (K. 478) and E Flat (K. 493); the musicians found them too difficult (they are now considered easy), and Hoffmeister warned Mozart, “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything more of yours.”76 Mozart received the usual fee, a hundred ducats, for his operas; for Don Giovanni he was paid 225 ducats plus the proceeds of a benefit concert. He had in these years “a very good income.”77 His father, visiting him in 1785, reported: “If my son has no debts to pay, I think that he can now lodge two thousand gulden in the bank.”78
But Mozart did not put those gulden in the bank. He spent them on current expenses, entertainment, good clothes, and in meeting the needs of mendicant friends. For these and more obscure reasons he fell into debt at the height of the demand for his services and his compositions. As early as February 15, 1783, he wrote to the Baroness von Waldstädten that one of his creditors had threatened to “bring an action against me.... At the moment I cannot pay—not even half the sum! … I entreat your Ladyship, for Heaven’s sake, to help me keep my honor and my good name.”79 He was temporarily relieved by the success of a concert given for his benefit in March, which brought in sixteen hundred gulden. Out of this he sent a gift to his father.
In May, 1783, he moved to a good house at No. 244 in the Judenplatz. There his first child was born (June 17)—“a fine, sturdy boy, as round as a ball.” This event, and the gift, softened paternal resentment of the marriage; Wolfgang and Constanze took advantage of the thaw to visit Leopold and Nannerl in Salzburg, leaving the infant in Vienna with a nurse. On August 19 the child died. Its parents remained in Salzburg, for Mozart had arranged for the performance there of his Mass in C Minor, in which Constanze was to sing. Wolfgang and Constanze outstayed their welcome, for Leopold had to count every penny, and thought three months were too long a visit. On their way back to Vienna they stopped at Linz, where Count von Thun commissioned Mozart to write a symphony.
Home again, he worked hard, teaching composing, performing, conducting. In two months (February 26 to April 3, 1784) he gave three concerts and played in nineteen others.80 In December he joined one of the seven Freemason lodges in Vienna; he enjoyed their meetings, and readily consented to write music for their festivals. In February his father, mollified by the birth of another son to Constanze, came for a long visit. And in 1785 Lorenzo da Ponte entered Mozart’s life.
This Lorenzo had almost as adventurous a life as his friend Casanova. He had begun life in 1749 as the son of a tanner in the ghetto of Ceneda. When he was fourteen Emmanuele Conegliano and two brothers were taken by their father to Lorenzo da Ponte, bishop of Ceneda, to be baptized into the Catholic Church. Emmanuele adopted the bishop’s name, became a priest, had an affair at Venice with a married woman, was banished, moved to Dresden, then to Vienna, and was engaged in 1783 as poet and librettist to the National Theater.
Mozart suggested to him the possibility of making an opera libretto out of Beaumarchais’ recent comedy Le Manage de Figaro. This had been translated into German with a view to staging it in Vienna, but Joseph II forbade it as containing revolutionary sentiments that would scandalize his court. Could the Emperor, who was himself quite a revolutionary, be persuaded to allow an opera judiciously abstracted from the play? Ponte admired Mozart’s music; he was to speak of him later as one who, “although endowed with talents surpassing those of any composer, past, present, or future, had .not been able as yet, owing to the intrigues of his enemies, to utilize his divine genius in Vienna.”81 He eliminated the radical overtones of Beaumarchais’ drama, and transformed the remainder into an Italian libretto rivaling the best of Metastasio.
The story of Le nozze di Figaro was the old maze of disguises, surprises, and recognitions, and the clever hoodwinking of masters by servants: all familiar in comedy since Menander and Plautus. Mozart took readily to the theme, and composed the music almost as fast as the libretto took form; both were completed in six weeks. On April 29, 1786, Mozart wrote the overture; on May 1 the première went off triumphantly. Part of the success may have been due to the jovial, stentorian basso, Francesco Benucci, who sang the part of Figaro; more must have been due to the vivacity and fitness of the music, and to such arias as Cherubino’s plaintive “Voi che sapete” and the Countess’ intense yet restrained appeal to the god of love in “Porgi amor.” So many encores were demanded that the performance took twice the usual time; and at the end Mozart was repeatedly called to the stage.
The income from the production of Figaro in Vienna and Prague should have kept Mozart solvent for a year had it not been for his extravagance, and the illnesses and pregnancies of his wife. In April, 1787, they moved to a less expensive house, Landstrasse 224. A month later Leopold died, leaving his son a thousand gulden.
Prague commissioned another opera. Ponte suggested for a subject the sexual escapades of Don Juan. Tirso de Molina had put the legendary Don on the stage at Madrid in 1630 as El burlador de Sevilla (The Deceiver of Seville); Molière had told the story in Paris as Le Festin de pierre (The Feast of Stone, 1665); Goldoni had presented it in Venice as Don Giovanni Tenorio (1736); Vincente Righini had staged Il convitato di pietra in Vienna in 1777; and at Venice, in this very year 1787, Giuseppe Gazzaniga had produced, under the same title, an opera from which Ponte stole many lines, including the jaunty catalogue of Giovanni’s sins.
The “greatest of all operas” (as Rossini called it) had its première at Prague on October 29, 1787. Mozart and Constanze went up to the Bohemian capital for the event; they were feted so fully that he deferred the composition of the overture till the eve of the première; then, at midnight, “after spending the merriest evening imaginable,”82 he composed a piece which is almost Wagnerian in foreshadowing the tragic and comic elements of the play. The score reached the orchestra just in time for the performance.83 The Vienna Zeitung reported: “On Monday Kapellmeister Mozart’s long-expected opera, Don Giovanni, was performed … Musicians and connoisseurs are agreed that such a performance has never before been witnessed in Prague. Herr Mozart himself conducted, and his appearance in the orchestra was the signal for cheers, which were renewed at his exit.”84
On November 12 the happy couple were back in Vienna. Gluck died three days later, and Joseph II appointed Mozart to succeed him as Kammer-musikus— chamber musician—to the court. After much trouble with the singers Don Giovanni was produced in Vienna on May 7, 1788, to scanty applause. Mozart and Ponte made further alterations, but the opera never attained in Vienna the success it had in Prague, Mannheim, Hamburg … A Berlin critic complained that the dramma giocoso was an offense against morals, but he added: “If ever a nation might be proud of one of its children, Germany may be proud of Mozart, the composer of this opera.”85 Nine years later Goethe wrote to Schiller: “Your hopes for opera are richly fulfilled in Don Giovanni”;86 and he mourned that Mozart had not lived to write the music for Faust.