Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor: Inspired by Venice?

Mozart, by Joseph Lange

Has anyone else noticed a decidedly Venetian flavour in Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397? Of course there is no documentary evidence to support this, since Mozart visited Venice only briefly in 1771, just over a decade before he composed the Fantasia. Nonetheless, the reawakening of a long-dormant concept is not beyond the bounds of possibility, especially with Mozart. If one were to make a Venetian case for the Fantasia, it might go something like this (here, for reference, is a performance by Emil Gilels).

The piece opens with a series of rising arpeggios that unmistakably recall the traditional accompaniment of the barcarole, the Venetian song sung by gondoliers and boatmen. The arpeggio form mimics the ebb and flow of the tide, the rise and fall of the waters, the rocking of the boat. After this, Mozart breaks into a melancholy cantabile melody, of the kind one might readily expect a gondolier to sing at dusk or twilight. After various developments of the opening ideas, interspersed with a few bravura runs that recall a singer’s improvised cadenzas, the piece ends with a cheerful operatic flourish that one could imagine as a soprano aria, composed resolutely in the Italian style for triumphant delivery at La Fenice.

I’m working on setting some suitable 18th century lyrics to Mozart’s score. I would welcome any thoughts anyone has as to how plausible or absurd this little idea may seem.

In Venice with Reynaldo Hahn

Reynaldo Hahn and Marcel Proust

An edited excerpt from a lecture I gave on Reynaldo Hahn, the French-Venezuelan composer. It opens with Marcel Proust and Reynaldo in Venice in 1900, guests of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac.

In an endearing fit of motherly zeal, Mme Proust spent a large part of the train journey through Lombardy to Venice reading to her son: she read him the preface to Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, which he was later to translate. The whole heady experience of this Venetian baptism was further intensified by the arrival of his lifelong friend and sometime lover, Reynaldo Hahn, who put Winnaretta’s yacht piano to good use, giving a moonlit song recital in a gondola on the Grand Canal. Since he was not to compose his Venetian song cycle, Venezia, 6 Chansons en dialecte vénitien, until 1901, it seems likely Hahn would have sung his famous setting of Verlaine’s poem, L’Heure exquise. We do not know for certain, but it is pleasing to recall Verlaine’s words, given the moonlit setting and the presence of Proust: Rêvons, c’est l’heure. / Un vaste et tendre Apaisement / Semble descendre / Du firmament / Que l’astre irise… / C’est l’heure exquise. Here is Venezia, the six Venetian songs Reynaldo composed in 1901, performed by Joyce Di Donato and Julius Drake. At the end of this post I have included a performance of La barcheta, my favourite, by Giovanni Furlanetto.

Proust and Hahn were to visit Winnaretta in Venice on several occasions in the coming years, after Edmond’s death. Winnaretta thought highly of Hahn and it is clear from her remarks that they were good friends, despite occasional disagreements about music. She notes that he had

developed a certain aversion from the most advanced young composers and for many years hardly ever came to my concerts. Some years ago I met him and reproached him laughingly for this. He frowned, and in a half-laughing way replied, ‘Until my dying day I shall always hate everything you like in music’, to which I said that one cannot hate Mozart, Bach or Schubert, and that their music was always played at my concerts. ‘Yes, possibly,’ he answered, ‘but you are too fond of the va de l’avant, and I absolutely cannot stand their ideas.’ Upon which we decided to lunch together and talk over our differences of opinion. I remain very grateful to Reynaldo. I treasure his friendship, and I admire his wit.

Despite her fondness for the va de l’avant, Winnaretta certainly had a high regard for Hahn both as a composer and as a musician. She had first met him in the early 1890s at the studio of Madelaine Lemerre, a fashionable flower painter of the time who illustrated Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours. In those days Hahn and the pianist Edouard Risler were doing military service at Versailles. They would turn up at Lemerre’s studio parties in military uniform and perform a medley of new and old work. Winnaretta particularly admired his early compositions, works such as Etudes Latines and Le Bal chez Beatrice d’Este. She praised his singing highly – they often played and sang together in Paris and Venice – and luckily there are some excellent recordings to support her remarks, notably one in which he sings two of his own songs, including the jazzy Venetian Che Peca!, and three by Emanuel Chabrier. Winnaretta Singer:

Reynaldo not only had an exquisite voice, but sang in the perfect way composers have, which seems quite natural or untaught. No one ever thought, ‘How did he take that note – was it from the throat or from the diaphragm?’ or ‘Was that trick taught by Jean de Reszke or by Madame Marchesi or some other great teacher?’ It did not matter how the note was taken, for it was always exactly as one imagined the song should be sung, and I do not think I have ever heard anyone except Reynaldo and Dame Ethel Smyth sing in this way: a way that no one can ever forget who has heard them perform.

Reynaldo, while he never kept a formal journal, is an effective and humorous writer. His various notebook jottings are very engaging, providing a lively and impressionistic account of gatherings at the palazzo Polignac in Venice. For example, one day at a luncheon he meets Helen Vincent, Viscountess D’Abernon, who rented a floor of the Palazzo Giustinian dei Vescovi for the first two decades of the century. She was one of the great beauties of her day, “an oleander blossom”, according to Reynaldo, a “Reynolds recast by Whistler”.

Lady Helen Vincent by Sargent

There are many drawings, and a fabulous full length portrait of her, by Sargent, for whom she sat in Venice in 1904. Helen was a great diarist, and not merely a recorder of the comings and goings of visiting aristocracy. Her accounts of Venice during the First World War are vivid and disturbing. She records the air raids, and the carnage resulting from the direct hit on the Ospedale Civile, the relentless and hopeless clatter of the meagre anti-aircraft machine-gun emplacement on the roof of the Palazzo Foscari. Helen served with great distinction in the Red Cross during the war, both on the Western Front and in the Alps. Describing the artless bravery of the Italian soldiers she nursed, and their inextinguishable good spirits, she likened them to “wildflowers on Golgotha”.


At the same luncheon he encounters “the beautiful and arrogant Countess Morosini, still flushed from her imperial flirtation” with the Kaiser. Reynaldo is careful to note Anna’s somewhat flashy pretensions and the unfavourable impression they made on at least one visitor: “She is presented to the Grand Duke Paul: she holds out two fingers. Once, at the Vapore, where I dined with him, the Grand Duke said to me: ‘How familiar she is!'”

Anna Morosini – “familiar”.

On another occasion Reynaldo dines at the palace with the marquis de Ségur and his daughter, the Comtesse de Guerne, along with Olga and Adolf de Meyer and Prince Livio Borghese. Claude Phillips, the English art historian, arrives “teetering in on his too-narrow shoes”, “varnished and perfumed like an old tart”, and the marquis de Ségur mistakes him for the comic actor, Claude Cooper. After dinner the guests spent two hours around the piano, running through “one hundred Italian operas, singing and playing all the roles. I was stunned by our memory.” This must have been a memorable evening, since Comtesse Marie- Thérèse de Guerne was one of the finest amateur lyric sopranos of her day. She was greatly loved by Fauré, whose Clair de Lune was to become a set piece in her repertoire. Edmond de Polignac wrote Chant à la lune for her, an intense vocal and orchestral setting of an excerpt from Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, an erotic and colourful account of the mythical Carthaginian princess. As to her looks, Marie-Thérèse was a striking woman. Though no classic beauty like Helen Vincent or Anna Morosini, she had a beckoning sultriness fully in harmony with the spirit of Salammbô. While her rather nervy formal portrait by Ernest Hebert does her little justice, there is an intriguing painting by him in which we see her in a woodland setting, playing a Celtic harp. She wears silky décolleté frock, à la Emma Hamilton; the wooden harp is stained a rich shade of lapis lazuli and decorated with golden daisies; the painter makes much of Marie-Thérèse’s deep, dark eyes, her cascading hair and her full, voluptuous lips.

Marie-Thérèse – Celtic décolleté.

As to her voice, Proust celebrated it in a long paean published in Le Figaro. “Hers is probably the unique example of a voice without physical essence – a voice not merely pure, but so spiritualized that it seems to be some kind of natural harmony, begging comparison not to the sighs of a flute, but to a reed in the wind…”.

On the third and final occasion he recorded, Reynaldo spends “six hours and a half” at the palace, where he encounters the Catalan-French pianist, Blanche Selva, “enormous and dressed as a shepherdess”, playing “Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, whose strange (and despite its author, ‘oriental’) beginning, has a sombre beauty. The fugue that follows leaves me cold, as cold as the fugue itself, despite the efforts she makes dramatize it.” After Selva’s account of the fugue, Reynaldo and Winnaretta find time for a little camp, gossip-columnish small-talk: “Having found a scorpion in her bathtub this morning, Princess Winnie is thinking of selling her palace and retiring to Scotland.

Gabriel Fauré: Five Venetian Songs, Op. 58.

Following her visit to Venice with Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1890, Winnaretta Singer [Princesse de Polignac] returned for four months the following year with her brother, Washington, and his wife, Daphne Helen Travers. Fauré (above, by John Singer Sargent) whom she had first met in Normandy in the mid-1870s, was one of her guests on this visit and was to become a lifelong friend. The Singers rented part of a small palazzo in San Vio on the Grand Canal belonging to the artist and writer, Count Alexander Wolkoff-Mouromtzoff, a colourful Russian émigré who had lived in Venice for over a quarter of a century and had been a friend of both Wagner and Liszt. The Casa Wolkoff, as the Count’s palazzo had come to be known, was next door to the Ca’Dario. Although the interior was modest in comparison to the Ca’Dario, a large top-floor studio commanded excellent views of the city, the lagoon and the Giudecca. Winnaretta spent much of her time painting either in the studio or out on the lagoon, or copying master paintings in the Accademia. As to music, she had brought with her a miniature, five-octave ‘yacht piano’ made by Cramer of London, a gift from ‘one of my brothers’, most likely her travelling companion, Washington. In the years to come, it proved to be of great use in Venice on several occasions.

Fauré was joined at Casa Wolkoff by the artist Ernest-Ange Duez and his wife Amélie, a talented and well-known amateur singer. Fauré divided his time between the Café Florian and the Casa Wolkoff, working on Cinq melodies “de Venise”, (Op. 58), a song cycle based on poems by Paul Verlaine. He later dedicated it to Winnaretta, who affectionately recalled the work in progress:


I carefully prepared a quiet room with a piano as a study for Fauré to work in, but I had forgotten how fond he was of cafes; and I am obliged to say that he wrote his five Melodies de Venise at a little marble table at the Cafe Florian on the Piazza, in the midst of the noise and turmoil of a busy Venetian crowd, rather than in the peaceful room I had arranged for him.

Several Parisian friends were staying with me at the same time as Gabriel Fauré; one of them, Madame Ernest Duez, having a lovely voice, we were in the habit of going out on the lagoon after dinner in a Peata (or large fishing boat) and we had got together an orchestra of five or six musicians. When Fauré brought back nearly every day one of his lovely songs, Madame Duez and the little orchestra rehearsed them on the lagoon, Fauré playing the little yacht piano that one of my brothers had given me. And thus I heard for the first time Mandoline, En Sourdine, and the three other songs that he dedicated to me, and they form the five Melodies de Venise that are so beautiful.

Fauré was pleased with Melodies and considered it groundbreaking work. He wrote to Winnaretta later that year, in Paris, expressing his satisfaction and explaining that the cycle was more than a simple collection of songs: in the final song, L’Extase, the themes of the preceding songs are reprised and combined in a complex pattern of echoes, conferring a final sense of unity and balance on the cycle as a whole. In a letter to Marguerite Beugnies on Friday 12th June 1891, during his stay in Venice with Winnaretta and other mutual friends, Fauré wrote:

But what a place! And what a life we are living here! Divine doesn’t cover it: let’s just say there’s no word for it! Nor is there a word to express the extent of the admiration and almost something more (ouch) that I feel for our adorable hostess! A parenthesis at this point! BUT YOU MUST SWEAR NOT TO GIVE ME AWAY! Not that it makes any difference since we are going home soon and it will all be over! But Venice I am finding morally DELETERIOUS!!! I thought I was accommodated once and for all! But this, I repeat, is a crisis, the last one of course and I have a feeling that as soon as I step into the train to go home it will all blow over and I shall be left with nothing but great amazement!

Venice, in the Philippines.

As anyone who monitors their dreams will know, it is amazing how similar one place can seem to another. Take, for instance, Megaworld Lifestyle’s Venice Grand Canal “lifestyle” mall in the McKinley Hill township of Taguig City in the Philippines. We learn from Wiki that it is “pet-friendly”, and “home to an array of shopping brands, a supermarket, lifestyle stores, bookstores, services shops, novelty shops, and wellness and fitness centers”. In these respects it is identical to the Italian Venice. Also, like the original, it was designed by Italians. It seems churlish to nitpick about superficial differences rooted in dusty old history, when these essential up-to-date core values have been so meticulously set in place. A significant point is that in common with Italian Venice, the Philippine counterpart has real residents, those who live in McKinley Hill. I wonder how long it will take them to develop the embittered sense of nostalgia that original Venetians have. At what point, one wonders, will they start to say “Venice isn’t what it was…”, or “tourists are going to be the death of us, mark my words…”, or “why are all the bookshops closing?” And will there be McKinley Hill equivalents of Canaletto, Proust and Thomas Mann? I really hope so!

Ruskin’s Lost Daguerrotypes

Carrying Off the Palaces; John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerrotypes by John and Jenny Jacobson is one of the most fascinating books of its kind to appear in the last decade. It was published by Bernard Quaritch, the London book dealers, who summarize it as follows. “The inspiration for this book was a remarkable discovery made by the authors at a small country auction in 2006. One lightly regarded lot was a distressed mahogany box crammed with long-lost early photographs. These daguerreotypes were later confirmed as once belonging to John Ruskin, the great 19th-century art critic, writer, artist and social reformer. Moreover, the many scenes of Italy, France and Switzerland included the largest collection of daguerreotypes of Venice in the world and probably the earliest surviving photographs of the Alps.”

Venice: a “repository of consolations”

Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913.

Henry James comments on the enduring appeal of Venice.

It is a fact that almost every one interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a sort of repository of consolations; all of which to-day, for the conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted,
the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give.

A Venetian at the court of Henry VIII

1519. The Venetian ambassador Sebastiano Giustinian describes a youthful Henry VIII in glowing terms.

King Henry was 29 years old, and much handsomer than any other Sovereign in Christendom,—a great deal handsomer than the King of France. He was very fair, and his whole frame admirably proportioned. Hearing that King Francis wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow, and as it was reddish, he had then got a beard which looked like gold. He was very accomplished and a good musician; composed well; was a capital horseman, and a fine jouster; spoke good French, Latin, and Spanish; was very religious; heard three masses daily when he hunted, and sometimes five on other days, besides hearing the office daily in the Queen’s chamber, that is to say, vespers and compline. He was extremely fond of hunting, and never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses, which he caused to be stationed beforehand along the line of country he meant to take. He was also fond of tennis, at which game it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture. He gambled with the French hostages to the amount, occasionally, it was said, of from 6,000 to 8,000 ducats in a day.

He was affable and gracious; harmed no one; did not covet his neighbour’s goods, and was satisfied with his own dominions, having often said to the ambassador, “Domine Orator, we want all potentates to content themselves with their own territories; we are satisfied with this island of ours.” He seemed extremely desirous of peace.


He was very rich. His father left him ten millions of ready money in gold, of which he was supposed to have spent one half in the war against France, when he had three armies on foot; one crossed the Channel with him; another was in the field against Scotland; and the third remained with the Queen in reserve.

His revenues amounted to about 350,000 ducats annually, and were derived from estates, forests, and meres, the customs, hereditary and confiscated property, the duchies of Lancaster, York, Cornwall, and Suffolk, the county palatine of Chester and others, the principality of Wales, the export duties, the wool staple, the Great Seal, the annats yielded by church benefices, the Court of Wards, and from new years’ gifts: for on the first day of the year it is customary for his Majesty to make presents to everybody, but the value of those he receives in return greatly exceeds his own outlay.

His Majesty’s expenses might be estimated at 100,000 ducats, those in ordinary having been reduced from 100,000 to 56,000, to which must be added 16,000 for salaries, 5,000 for the stable, 5,000 for the halberdiers, who had been reduced from 500 to 150; and 16,000 for the wardrobe, for he was the best dressed sovereign in the world. His robes were very rich and superb, and he put on new clothes every holiday.

A Venetian’s account of the execution of Charles I

Giovanni Sagredo’s fascinating and seldom-quoted account of the execution of Charles I. Sagredo served as Venetian Ambassador in London and the account is taken from his Relazioni Inghilterra, a general summary of the Civil War and its consequences, lodged with the Doge and Senate in 1656. Note the sinister precautions set in place to prevent Charles resisting the axe (he didn’t). Note also the reaction of the old lion in the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London.

Observing that when brought before parliament he neither removed his hat nor responded, declaring that God and not the people was the proper judge of kings, they directed that a great scaffold should be erected on a level with a window of the royal palace, covered with black velvet, and the king taken to it. Fearing that his Majesty might resist the execution of the sentence and refuse to put his neck on the block, they fixed two iron rings in the scaffold, at his feet, through which a cord might be passed and fastened to his Majesty’s neck to compel him by main force to bow to the axe if he refused to humiliate himself voluntarily to the fatal blow. But it was not necessary to go to this extreme. The king heard of it and said they need not use force since he would submit to necessity. He then turned to the people and said that he died for the faults of others rather than his own. His death was only the beginning of misfortunes in store for England, which would one day have to render account to God for shedding the innocent blood of its king. Commending his innocent children he bowed to the axe and died with courage amid general silence and wonder, as the troops were so distributed at their posts that no one ventured to show pity, except at heart. Thus after various changes of scene the death of Charles I ended a good part of the tragedy which had England as its theatre. This unexampled act stirred not only men but the very beasts to compassion. An old lion, still alive in a cage at the Tower of London, expressed its feelings by loud roaring, not only on the day of the execution, but every year on the anniversary, exciting the attention and wonder of the people.

A Venetian at the court of Savoy

March 1615. Renier Zen, Venetian Ambassador in Savoy, reports to the Doge and Senate on a state banquet he gave for the Duke of Savoy. Charles Emmanuel I (Italian: Carlo Emanuele di Savoia; 12 January 1562 – 26 July 1630), known as the Great, was the Duke of Savoy from 1580 to 1630. He was nicknamed Testa d’feu (“the Hot-Headed”) for his rashness and military aggression.

The other day the duke sent to say that he would like to come on Sunday evening to the feast in this house. I prepared a banquet, and the duke sent me a barrel of oysters from Nice, saying that he would come and eat them with me. Prince Thomas sent me a wild boar taken by him that day, and I learned that the duke wished to come to dine with all the ambassadors and a party of ladies, and afterwards he proposed to honour the house with a magnificent masque, as you shall hear. I therefore proceeded to gratify the duke’s wishes. Accordingly on Sunday this house was honoured by the company at dinner of thirty ladies, the duke, Prince Thomas, and all the ambassadors except England. He was invited, first by me and afterwards by the duke, but was unable to come except to the supper afterwards, at which practically the whole Court was present. The duke paid exceptional honour, such as possibly has never been rendered to an ambassador’s house, as after the banquet he went into the upper apartments and masked himself with Prince Thomas, the Baron of Tornon, Count Guido Villa, the Baron of Lolin and his other court favourites, all dressed in most sumptuously embroidered liveries, with more than forty persons in livery, pages and court music. His Highness, with the Prince and the others named, performed a magnificent dance in figure of eight, after ordering a dance by twenty pages, lighted by two torches and accompanied by weird music, the whole executed so daintily that the English ambassador was amazed. He told me that it did not seem possible it could be the same person who had been so wonderfully grave the other day, who shortly before had conferred seriously with us about these current difficulties, and who told us among other things that news came from Spain that his son Filiberto was sick, and the doctor could not diagnose the disease, that he had sent one to that court and he did not know what would become of him, and left suddenly without saying another word, apparently wrapped in thought.

The masque lasted until two o’clock in the morning. I accompanied the duke to the door, and he departed still masked, with the prince. He afterwards invited me to the feast at the Castle on Tuesday, where he proposes to give a grand banquet with the prince and princesses, the ambassadors and a number of ladies; thus, though the drums and trumpets are proclaiming war, the nights are passed with music and feasting.