The unusual final year of Mozart’s life gets an airing in Kilkenny

The Mozart programme at Kilkenny Arts Festival featured compositions for mechanical organ and glass harmonica

History tends to focus on the big events. So 1791, the last year of Mozart's life, is usually seen as the time of the last great works. There's the Requiem, two operas (Die Zauberflöte, and La Clemenza di Tito), the Piano Concerto in B flat, K595 (his last concerto for his own instrument, which would also bring his final public appearance as a concerto soloist), his sole Clarinet Concerto and his last major piece of chamber music, the String Quintet in E flat, K614.

The reality of 1791 was far more varied. Early in the year he wrote a sheaf of orchestral dances: minuets, German dances, contredanses. He wrote a number of pieces for glass harmonica, an instrument devised by Benjamin Franklin, which exploits the fact that glasses with wet rims emit beautifully clear, ethereal-sounding pitches when rubbed. Franklin did not come up with the idea but he improved on the existing implementations of the principle.

Mozart’s final chamber works were the substantial String Quartet in E flat, K614, and the Adagio and Rondo, K617, for the unusual combination of flute, oboe, viola, cello and glass harmonica, a work that remains rare today, since players of the glass harmonica are so thin on the ground.

Clockwork mechanisms

The glass harmonica was not the only unusual instrument Mozart wrote for in his final year. His catalogue of works includes “A piece for an organ in a clock”, “An organ piece for a clock” and an “Andante for a Cylinder in a small Organ”, all pieces written for mechanical organs operated by clockwork mechanisms.


In a letter to his wife, Constanze, he said he was doing it for the money, “but as it is a kind of composition that I detest, I have unfortunately not been able to finish it. I compose a bit of it every day – but I have to break off now and then, as I get bored.”

His late works also include three songs that appeared in a Liedersammlung für Kinder und Liedersammlung am Clavier: Frühlingslieder (Collection of Songs for Children and Those Who Love Children at the Piano: Spring Songs), the much-loved choral work Ave Verum Corpus, two masonic pieces and various fragments.

The Kilkenny Arts Festival's unusual Mozart programme brought together the mechanical organ and glass harmonic strands in performances by Malcolm Proud on Saturday at St Canice's Cathedral. Mozart may have railed about the tedium of writing for the instruments, but some of the music, especially the piece we now know as the Fantasy in F minor, K608, is of very high quality indeed.

Proud played all three of the composer’s works for mechanical organ and added a much shorter one for solo glass harmonica, which, like the quintet, he wrote for the blind German glass harmonica virtuoso Marianne Kirchgessner, who gave three concerts in Vienna in 1791.

Proud gave carefully sculpted and incisive performances of the mechanical organ works and took a beautifully serene approach to the glass harmonica piece. He moved from Vienna to France for his final work, Claude Balbastre's spirited Marche des Marseillois et l'Air Ça-ira, with effects representing the flight of the enemies and the thunder of a cannon.

The biggest offering of Kilkenny's Mozart celebration was the 1781 opera Idomeneo, a work that is rich way beyond its profile in the opera houses of the world. It was last seen in Ireland in a Belfast production by Opera Northern Ireland in 1997.

Kilkenny presented it in two concert performances, on Thursday and Saturday. I heard the second, where there were rough edges that might have been expected to have been ironed out after the first night.

The biggest problem was the Idomeneo of Austrian-Australian tenor Gerard Schneider. He is a singer of obvious achievement, in terms of agility, tonal quality and heroic climaxes. But his heroic mode is rooted in the mannerisms of 19th-century opera rather than the world of Mozart, and his imposing style didn’t always allow him to negotiate recitative with appropriate expression or finesse.

The stars of the evening were two Irish singers, soprano Anna Devin, who impressed as an emotionally rounded Ilia, and mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, whose Idamante was consistently sharply focused. Both singers' handling of the work's finely tailored recitative was in a class apart from the rest of the cast.

Young Irish tenor Andrew Gavin’s Arbace took some time to warm up, although in the later stages of the opera he showed clear potential. English soprano Rebecca von Lipinski seemed miscast and stepped well out of the scale of the rest of the performance as the vengeful Elettra.

The chorus was provided by Mark Duley's choir Resurgam, with the two smallest roles of High Priest and the Voice effectively taken by choir members Ciaran Kelly and Tristan Caldwell. The playing of the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Christian Curnyn had little of the dynamism that had informed its work under Jörg Widmann at St Canice's just a week earlier.

The two concerts I heard from the series of Mozart string quartets and quintets with Heath Quartet and Finnish viola player Atte Kilpeläinen offered music-making that was tonally attractive in the manner of period instruments performances.

However, to my ears, the playing of the four string quartets I heard (K421 in D minor, K499 in D major, K464 in A and K589 in B flat) was lacking in character, although the addition of Kilpeläinen in two quintets (K406 in C minor and K614 in E flat) brought a welcome infusion of vitality and colour.

Festival director Eugene Downes also announced that next year's composer focus will be on another great name, Franz Schubert.