by Benjamin Pomerance
The two boys were born in the same year. Growing up in Salzburg, they were childhood friends. Yet that was where the similarities ended. Mid-eighteenth-century Europe was a class- conscious place, after all, and the families of these two kids ran in entirely different circles. One child was Sigmund Haffner, whose father ran a prominent wholesale business and served as Salzburg’s mayor. Everyone in town looked up to the Haffners. They stood for wealth, nobility, eminence, prestige — everything that anyone who wanted to be anyone aspired to achieve.
The other kid was named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His father, Leopold, was a musician. Nobody in town threw themselves at his feet. Sure, the man was a tremendous violinist and an even better music teacher. Yet the way he flaunted his daughter and son before the public, trotting them all over Europe like a circus act, was mocked as much as it was marveled. His children could go out on stage and do anything with an instrument — sight-reading, improvising, reeling off any virtuosic piece of music placed before them. The whole scene was wildly entertaining. But it wasn’t the way to garner respect from the upper class.
Still, Sigmund and Wolfgang somehow managed to remain close. In fact, historical evidence indicates that Sigmund even understood that his old pal possessed a genuine musical gift, a prodigious talent that even outshone his father. Indeed, when Sigmund’s sister announced her engagement to a local shipping agent, it was 20-year-old Wolfgang to whom Sigmund turned with a request to write a serenade for the wedding ceremony, a commission that Wolfgang quickly fulfilled. At the wedding, he even conducted and played the solo violin part himself.
And six years later, Sigmund came calling again. This time, he was the center of attention, preparing for the ceremony that would officially proclaim his status as a nobleman. As the man of the hour, he could select whatever music he desired for the occasion. Sure enough, he turned to the friend with whom he had formed happy memories without complicating thoughts of social status and societal positioning.
Yet times had changed. Wolfgang wasn’t even in Salzburg anymore. He had created an opera, Idomeno, which had wowed the public in Munich. He had toured extensively in Italy and Paris, receiving significant acclaim from prominent individuals. He wasn’t merely a local marvel any longer.
Still, his longtime patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, continually scorned him, treating him like a mere servant. When Emperor Joseph II ascended the throne, the Archbishop even rejected Wolfgang’s request to perform at the ceremony. That was the final straw. He demanded permission to resign from the court, received a dismissal one month later from the Archbishop’s steward, and packed himself off to the most cosmopolitan municipality in the empire: Vienna.
In many ways, he was initially a fish out of water, floundering around and gasping for air. Vienna was much larger, the competition much stiffer, the pace of daily life much busier than anything he had ever experienced in Salzburg. Socially awkward, he certainly did not fit in with the Viennese high society that he aspired to join. Yet the cocky young musician managed to catch a lucky break, winning a keyboard-playing competition on Christmas Eve in 1781 — with none other than Emperor Joseph II himself in attendance.
It was the perfect entry point to the city that was Europe’s musical epicenter at that time. Before long, he was the most sought-after keyboard player in Vienna. And whenever he played, he brought his original pieces into the spotlight. Soon, his compositions were increasingly in high demand, too, forcing him to write new music faster than ever before. In his spare time, he began independently studying the music of Handel and J.S. Bach, marveling at the techniques of the Baroque masters and trying to imbue their harmonic strengths into his own work.
And he was in love. A few years earlier, Wolfgang had fallen hard for a singer named Aloysia Weber, only to receive one of the worst shocks of his life when she spurned him. Now, however, the Weber family had moved to Vienna. Wolfgang persuaded them to rent a room to him at their new home adjacent to St. Peter’s Square. Soon, he found himself smitten again, this time with Aloysia’s younger sister, Constanze. Unlike Aloysia, she proved willing to return the composer’s often clumsily expressed affections.
If Wolfgang ever had any doubts that destiny had brought them together, those misgivings were erased when he received the libretto for a new opera. One of the actors from the Vienna Burgtheater had crafted it. The heroine of the work was named Constanze. Wolfgang saw it as a sign, insisting that he transform the piece into an opera immediately even though his multiple competing obligations already left him barely enough time to breathe.
By the time July 1782 rolled around, Wolfgang’s schedule read like a novel. He was performing often, composing feverishly, giving music lessons, studying scores of Handel and Bach’s creations, romancing Constanze — who had accepted his proposal of marriage, but whom Wolfgang’s father deemed inferior — and preparing for the premiere of his new opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. There simply wasn’t room for anything else.
And then his childhood friend called on him for a favor. Sigmund Haffner couldn’t find Wolfgang in his new Viennese location, so he sent his request to Leopold instead. Thrilled that his son had a commission from such a prominent family, and potentially pleased that he had an excuse to distract Wolfgang from Constanze, Leopold wrote to his son and demanded that he design something for Sigmund at once.
Wolfgang was floored. “I am up to my ears in work,” he wrote in a letter back to Leopold. “By a week from Sunday, I must arrange my opera for wind instruments, or someone else will do it and secure the profits instead of me. And now you ask for a new symphony, too! How on earth can I do that?”
By the end of the letter, however, Wolfgang evidently resigned himself to the fact that his rare moments of rest would become even scarcer. “Well, I will have to stay up all night,” he concluded, “for that is the only way; for you, dearest father, I will make the sacrifice.”
Sure enough, one week later, Wolfgang dispatched a completed movement to Leopold. Five more movements soon followed. Wolfgang even composed the work in D Major, Leopold’s favorite key. Given this sudden spurt of filial piety, some commentators speculate that Wolfgang embarked on the entire venture to convince Leopold to accept his upcoming marriage to Constanze. If this were the goal, then Wolfgang fell short. Although Wolfgang and Constanze ultimately were wed, Leopold continued to insist that she was an inferior match for his son.
Yet while Leopold never approved of Constanze, he heartily approved of Wolfgang’s creation for the Haffners. In the end, Wolfgang would share his father’s viewpoint of the hastily constructed piece. When the Vienna Burgtheater offered him the chance to program a concert of his own music during Lent, he decided to feature this particular selection on the bill of fare. On December 4, 1781, he wrote to Leopold and asked for a copy of the score.
For reasons unknown, Leopold delayed sending the music to his son for two months, releasing the parts to their author only after Wolfgang sent four more letters to him. Yet when he received the score, Wolfgang expressed pleasure in his own work. “My new ‘Haffner’ Symphony has positively amazed me,” he wrote with characteristic self-praise, “for I had forgotten every single note of it. It must surely produce a good effect.”
Before presenting the ebullient symphony to Viennese ears, however, Wolfgang streamlined the work. He removed the march movement and one of the minuets, reducing the piece to the classical four-movement symphonic form. And in a peculiar stroke of programming, he placed the first three movements of the symphony at the beginning of his Burgtheater concert, but withheld the final movement until the end of the concert.
As Wolfgang predicted, the symphony was well-received, from the spirited opening theme to the final movement bearing Wolfgang’s direction to play it “as fast as possible.” “The Theater could not have been more crowded; every box was full,” the proud composer wrote to his father afterward. “But what pleased me most of all was that [Emperor Joseph II] was present and, goodness! — how delighted he was and how he applauded me!”
The two childhood friends never recaptured their boyhood closeness. Wolfgang stayed in Vienna and Sigmund remained in Salzburg, a distance that prevented the two from ever seeing much of one another. Mozart died young, at age 35. Sigmund died even younger, at age 31. Yet for this one instance in their lives, their existences overlapped in a pivotal way. The two friends from opposite sides of the Salzburg tracks managed to give one another a lasting gift. And today, with Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony performed around a world that is far larger than either of them ever imagined back in 1783, the music of their friendship lives on.
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony on Sunday, March 6, at Proctors GE Theater. For tickets, call (518) 346-6204 or visit www.proctors.org