Mozart in London

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
February 2024

The time that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart spent in London had little in common with the experience of most residents. He was only eight when he arrived and did not speak any English. Together with his thirteen-year-old sister Maria Ann (Nannerl), he was wholly directed by their father Leopold, who was also a stranger in the city. His stay lasted not much more than a single year from 1764 to 1765, although it was the longest period that he remained at one location during the whole of his travels round western Europe, between the departure of the family from Salzburg in July 1763 and their return in November 1766. Most obviously, the boy outshone his rivals before London musical society, and became the subject of a celebrity interview by a Fellow of the Royal Society. His performing skills, rather than his still emerging ability as a composer, were often the feature most remarked upon. All these things set Wolfgang apart and meant that he must have felt a little like the tiny toy that Gulliver becomes in Brobdingnag. Nevertheless, it was a phase that holds a measure of significance in his development, artistically and humanly.

The family left Paris on 10 April 1764, and reached London on 23 April. They soon took lodgings in Cecil Court, off the western side of St. Martin’s Lane. Within five days they made their first court appearance, when their performance at Buckingham House was well received by King George III and Queen Charlotte (herself barely twenty, and a newcomer from a small duchy in northern Germany). They were handed a purse of twenty-four guineas (Leopold was of course hoping for more). Soon after, the Mozarts just chanced to be taking the air in St. James’s Park when George and Charlotte passed by in their carriage. The royal couple waved to them, apparently singling out Wolfgang. The family were back at court twice more in the course of the year, the first time on 19 May, when young Master appropriately played harpsichord music by the new stars on the London scene, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, as well as the revered Handel, still regarded as the greatest composer to have practised in all of Europe. At this stage he would most likely have played his earliest keyboard compositions from Salzburg, and he would have performed also on the violin. The Queen sang an aria to the accompaniment of Wolfgang, who farther impressed the audience with his improvisations “on some Handel arias, which happened to be lying there,” as his father reported in his disingenuous way. According to an entry in Thaliana, the diary of Hester Piozzi, the King encouraged the boy not to be bashful, to which Wolfgang replied, “Afraid! Why I have played before the Emperor,” but this is regarded as apocryphal.

Leopold (1791–1787), and Wolfgang Mozart (1756–1791), ca. 1760-1770. Austrian School. Royal College of Music, London, PPHC000259. Courtesy of ArtUK.


The family’s third visit came on 25 October, on the day that the King celebrated his accession four years earlier. Leopold claimed that the Queen invited him to dedicate some new keyboard sonatas to her—they had possibly been already written. When the set was published (now designated K10-15) in March 1765, it contained a fulsome dedication in French, for which Leopold received a handsome fee of fifty guineas (less his expenses on the engraving). By this date, the prodigy had already made his public debut, at the Great Room in Spring Garden, on 5 June, when his father obtained the services of prominent London musicians headed by the violinist and composer François-Hippolyte Barthélemon, who had only recently arrived but remained a key figure in the city’s concert life as late as the 1790s when he befriended Joseph Haydn. Unavoidably, there is a degree of Barnum and Bailey hucksterism surrounding the occasion, as the advertisements declared the aim as “to shew the Public the greatest Prodigy that Europe, or that even Human Nature has to boast of.” Leopold had hoped to sell 600 tickets at half a guinea (52p), and though there were only about 200 in the audience he managed to come out with a tidy profit estimated at not far short of £100.

Later that month he agreed that his son should appear at a concert to benefit “a Public useful Charity” held at Ranelagh Garden on 29 June. The cause turned out to be a projected maternity home, which would open in 1768 as the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth. Leopold saw this as an opportunity for “winning the affection” of his target audience, and since the enterprise was ”pro bono publico” he waived the fee. For once the hyperbolic advertising told a real truth, even if a year was lopped off the boy’s age in the familiar manner of marketing a prodigy:

In the Course of the Evening's Entertainments, the celebrated and astonishing Master MOZART, lately arrived, a Child of 7 Years of Age, will perform several fine select Pieces of his own Composition on the Harpsichord and on the Organ, which has already given the highest Pleasure, Delight, and Surprize to the greatest Judges of Music in England or Italy, and is justly esteemed the most extraordinary Prodigy, and most amazing Genius that has appeared in any Age.

The notice concludes with a long appeal directed to the “the Rich, Affluent, and Compassionate,” to show their concern for “the Wants and Distress of the Poor.”

Leopold continued to network among the musical fraternity and over time arranged more concerts. The schedule was interrupted when he contracted a throat infection and was thought to be in danger of death. As a result, the family moved out of Cecil Court for better air to be found at Ebury Street, then called Five Fields Row, in the semi-rural area of what is now Victoria. At some stage Mozart composed his first five symphonies in three movements (K16, 16a, 19, 19a, and 19b), of which two are lost. The remainder are juvenile works that show precocity but were not yet hugely developed in technique (Haydn, of course, had not yet expanded the scope and meaning of symphonic form). Long afterwards, Nannerl reported, “As he composed, and I copied, he said to me, ‘Remind me to give the horn something worthwhile to do.’” Doubtless the loyal, perhaps musically underemployed, girl complied with her brother’s injunction.

In late September, with the paterfamilias recovered, the Mozarts moved back to central London. From a professional standpoint, their new base was the best placed of those they occupied in the capital. It was on the east side of Thrift (now Frith) Street, which ran south from Soho Square in the direction of Leicester Fields. The entire area in Soho between Piccadilly and the Oxford Road had been colonised by immigrant artists and craftsmen, with a specially large influx of Huguenot refugees. Several foreign-born members of the musical world, such as the harpsichord-maker Burkat Shudi (whose instrument Mozart tried out In May 1765) resided in the district, as did some Jewish music-lovers whom Leopold got to know. It is no accident that regular gigs by the family took place in the vicinity, most notably at Carlisle House, a matter of yards from Thrift Street. In 1765, after taking over from the flamboyant Teresa Cornelys (an early erotic interest of Casanova and an opera singer in her youth), the composers J.C. Bach and C.F. Abel began their popular series of weekly concerts here, and Leopold would have been glad to get in this or a similar act if it proved possible. A longstanding setting for music, Hickford’s Great Rooms, had moved to Brewer Street, also adjacent to Thrift Street in 1739, and the family performed there in 1765, when solo, instrumental, and vocal pieces by Wolfgang were heard. It was in such places that Mozart first became familiar to the London concert-goer, along with slightly more remote venues such as the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, where a fairly successful evening in February 1765 yielded the family coffers something like 130 guineas net from 250-odd tickets sold. The event had been postponed, but press notices gave repeated assurances to the public that “THE C O N C E R T for the Benefit of Miss and Master MOZART will be certainly performed on Thursday the 21st instant, which will begin exactly at six, which will not hindering (sic) the Nobility and Gentry from meeting in other Assemblies on the same Evening.” God forbid that the little whippersnappers should keep the nobility and gentry from the assembly that William Almack’s club advertised for the same evening at King Street, St. James’s Square, starting at eight o’clock and supper laid on at twelve precisely—no doubt many guineas had been won and lost in that stretch of time.

It has long been appreciated that Leopold cultivated a wide circle of influential musicians and patrons, including not just Bach and Abel but also Thomas Arne, Samuel Arnold, Charlotte Brent, Felice de Giardini, Tomasso Giordani, Elizabeth and James Harris, William Jackson, Giustino Tenducci, and Polly Young—a remarkable galaxy of domestic and imported talent. Grand dames and hostesses such as the Duchess of Hamilton were also on his visiting list. In December 1762, some of these musically inclined socialites were among the people that James Boswell met at a “Breakfast and Concert” at the home of his friend Lord Eglinton, a patron of Charles Burney, who knew many of those on the list. Burney first encountered the young Mozart during the London sojourn, and later told his daughter Frances that the boy played “on my knee, on subjects I gave him” (though apparently switching immediately to a game of marbles). The researches of Hannah Templeton have added further personages, among them a number of businessmen previously overlooked. One of the more interesting groups whom Leopold was able to contact was that of the cadre of foreign diplomats, notably the widely accomplished ambassador of Saxony, Hans Moritz von Brűhl, who had just begun a sojourn in London that would last until his death in 1809. The fact that emerges is that, thanks to Leopold’s assiduity, the family were in touch with a good sample of the elite of London. It is a pity that they do not seem to have met Thomas Gainsborough, a friend of Bach especially, who moved in the Soho circle, and “provides a clear point of intersection between London's different musical spheres” (Templeton).

The family attended mass at the chapel of the French ambassador, Claude-Louis-François Régnier, comte de Guerchy in Soho Square. When the Mozarts came to London, he was in the middle of a violent feud with the former stand-in for this post, the notorious Chevalier, or Chevalière, d’Eon. Guerchy was actually accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate d’Éon, who was forced to hunker down in Brewer Street for his own safety. Leopold almost certainly heard of this bizarre affair, as we know that he became a close friend of Bach, a convert to the Catholic faith, who also worshipped at the chapel. The older composer had been in London a little longer, residing in Meard Street and Dean Street, which lay on the doorstep of all the latest action.

Naturally, the Mozarts were not wholly confined to this small area of the city. Amid the serious business of the tour, they were prepared to engage in touristy activities, as Nannerl recorded:

In London I saw the park [St. James’s] and a young elephant, and a donkey that had white and coffee-brown stripes that were so clear that no one could paint them better Chelsea, the invalid house [Chelsea Hospital], Westminster bridge, Westminster Church, the Tower, Richmond, where there is a very beautiful view, and the royal garden, Kew and Fulham bridge, the [Chelsea] waterworks and a canal; Westminster Hall, … Marylebone; Kensington, where I saw the royal garden, British Museum, where I saw the library, antiquities, all sorts of birds, fish, insects and fruits, a particular kind of bird called a basson, a rattlesnake, a veil made from the bark of a tree and hair made from the bast-fibre of the bark, Chinese shoes, a model of the Holy Sepulchre; all kinds of things that live in the sea, minerals, Indian balsam, terrestrial and celestial globes and all kinds of other things; I saw Greenwich, the invalid house [Naval Hospital], the Queen’s ship [mistake for house?], the park, in which I saw a very beautiful view, London Bridge, St. Paul’s, Southwark, Monument, foundling hospital, [Royal] Exchange, Lincolns Inn Fields, Temple bar, Somerset House.

Not many visitors got around further than this, and fewer still displayed the same awareness of the way that the urban scene was being revitalised by scientific, technological, and antiquarian studies. Officially, children were not allowed in any part of the British Museum, which had been opened in 1759, but the family gained entrance thanks to well-placed contacts such as Thomas Birch and the timely gift of a freshly drafted score by Wolfgang.

In June 1765 Leopold allowed Wolfgang to submit to a detailed examination at Thrift Street by Daines Barrington (1728–1800). The son of a controversial politician, Barrington was well known throughout London and further afield in many guises: legal, as holder of several judicial appointments; scientific, as a keen student of natural history; antiquarian; as a collector and editor of medieval materials; and in the word of exploration, where he was the sponsor of important voyages of discovery. He had written in all these fields, but it was his interest in music that led him to interview the boy wonder after attending some of his concerts. His paper was submitted to the Royal Society in 1769 and published two years later in its Transactions. It describes various tests Barrington gave, one of them involving an unpublished opera duet, which Wolfgang and his father performed on violins and sang at sight, the higher part taken in “masterly” fashion by the young performer although it was written in the alto clef. According to Barrington, he pointed out with an angry expression some errors that Leopold had made in reading the score. He also responded with total success when asked to compose short pieces impromptu on topics such as a love song and a “Song of Rage,” as well as playing a recent study with aplomb, despite the fact that “his little fingers could scarcely reach a fifth on the harpsichord,” and showing particular skill in modulation. Throughout, Barrington stresses not just the precision of his playing, but also the excellent taste with which it was rendered. Unsurprisingly, the paper alludes to the childish demeanour of Wolfgang, and his running around the room with a stick between his legs as though riding a horse; but this is not to degrade the boy, rather to underline the contrast with his seemingly adult powers in all musical matters. Barrington’s account has a serious, even quasi-scientific purpose, even if he was no more able to explain the origins or workings of the highest genius than we are today.

By the early summer of 1765, there were signs that Leopold, if not his children also, was growing restless. The general assumption has been that the young master had lost his novelty value as a fickle public looked for new diversions, such as an upcoming revival of George Colman’s comic afterpiece Polly Honeycomb, at Covent Garden. The evidence for this is drawn partly from the fact that between 9 April and 30 May Leopold issued invitations for visitors to call at Thrift Street and in return for the purchase of the sonatas (at a cost of half a guinea) to have the opportunity to test Wolfgang’s facility in sight reading and in harmonising tunes on the spot without even going to his harpsichord. For a week in July, both children were to be heard performing for just half a crown (12p.) at a tavern named the Swan and Hoop near the western end of Cornhill, in the heart of the City. “ It is hard to say, whether his Execution upon the Harpsichord and his playing and singing at Sight, or his own Caprice, Fancy and Compositions for all Instruments, are most astonishing,” ran the ads, and even today the words ring true. These developments have been seen to indicate desperation on the part of Leopold. However, Templeton has shown that “ allegations of the tavern's downmarket nature lack supporting evidence,” and that it was a respectable house in a good area frequented by prosperous business people of the sort Leopold had attempted to woo along with socialites of the West End. In any case, he had never intended to stay forever and had seemingly rejected offers to prolong it. The family left for Dover on 24 July, and began their circuitous homeward journey, which passed through several countries before they finally got back to Salzburg on 29 November 1766. But the time in London had not been wasted. It served its central purposes of allowing the world to see Wolfgang to see the world, and for him to see the world. It gave him the chance to write some of his earliest symphonic, vocal and keyboard music—all prentice work, but none of it less than remarkable for such a young boy.

It is misleading to call the family odyssey a Grand Tour, as has often been done. In the first place, no one undertook such a prolonged exercise at the age of eight, and as for Nannerl relatively few females ever were involved in such a venture. The aim of the journey was to expose the talents of the prodigy to a gaping audience, but also to further his musical education by exposing him to the practice of the foremost practitioners in Europe. It was undoubtedly a commercial enterprise on one level (Leopold took care to ensure that news of the family was transmitted to Salzburg and souvenirs made available in their home town). This was unthinkable for most of the Grand Tourists, who set out to visit classic ground, but also to educate themselves in diversions such as drinking, gambling and the pursuit of women. Leopold was seen for a long time as a cynical Svengali bent on exploiting his gifted children. He is now viewed more favourably, on account of his own musical skills, his undoubted entrepreneurial talent, and his genuine desire to bring out Wolfgang’s powers to their full potential. Nor is it possible any more to regard Mozart as a damaged human being, infantilised by his high-pressured upbringing. He turned out to be not only a very great composer, but a decent and well liked human being, flawed in certain ways as we all are.

An excellent short survey in the light of the city’s musical world is the entry for “London” by Simon McVeagh in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, ed. Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (2006), pp. 254–59. For the wider picture, see McVeagh’s book, Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn (Cambridge,1993). A more detailed description is given by Hannah Templeton in her dissertation on “The Mozarts in London: Exploring the Family’s Social, Professional and Intellectual Networks in London, 1764–1765” (2016), available on the King’s College Research Portal. A good treatment of the biographic and musical issues is found in Stanley Sadie, “Playing for the English Court,” Mozart: The Early Years 1756–1781 (2006), pp. 58–89.