Kelly’s Hero – An Irishman’s Diary about Salzburg, Mozart, and an Austro-Hibernian bromance of the 1780s

Mozart’s birthplace, the Mozart Geburtshaus in Salzburg. Photograph: iStock

Mozart’s birthplace, the Mozart Geburtshaus in Salzburg. Photograph: iStock

 

Mozart is everywhere in Salzburg. His reputation towers over this beautiful city like the Festung Hohensalzburg, the enormous medieval citadel 600 metres above the old town.

He also underwrites the city’s self-promotional slogan, “Stage of the World”, although the stage set – a Unesco-listed extravaganza of Baroque architecture – is almost as important.

Speaking of stages, reverence for Mozart helps explain the grandiose Latin motto on the Grosses Festspielhaus, where the annual Salzburg Festival begins this weekend.  

As if to keep him humble, the city authorities have also arranged that his birthplace – the Mozart Geburtshaus – has a Spar outlet at ground level

The venue’s stage is 100 metres wide. And of similarly epic scale is the motto – SACRA CAMENAE DOMUS CONCITIS CARMINE PATET QUO NOS ATTONITOS NUMEN AD AURAS FERAT – which stretches across the front of building.

My smart-phone Latin-English translation engine wrestled gamely with this for a while, before retiring with a nervous breakdown. I had to search elsewhere for the meaning: “The Muse’s holy house is open to those moved by song. Divine power bears us up who are inspired.”  

It’s clear that Salzburg believes Mozart to occupy the same altitude as the Muse. But as if to keep him humble, the city authorities have also arranged that his birthplace – the Mozart Geburtshaus – has a Spar outlet at ground level.  

Life goes on, even in a muse-inspired Unesco world heritage site.

The man himself would probably not be as indignant about the shop as some visitors.

Despite his God-like musical powers, he was very human when away from the klavier.  

Among other things, he loved to drink punch and was a crack billiards player, who kept a table at home and when challenging visitors to play, rarely lost.

We know this from the memoirs of a then-famous Irish tenor called Michael Kelly, who for a time in the 1780s was one of the composer’s closest friends.

Known as O’Kelly on the continent, and adopted as “Ochelli” in Italy, the Dubliner was a major celebrity, performing sell-out concerts and causing Mozart to write Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro to suit his voice.

When Kelly departed Vienna for home in 1787, it was an emotional occasion. “I went to take leave of the immortal Mozart and his charming wife and family,” the Irishman recalled nearly 40 years afterwards. “He gave me a letter to his father [in] Salzburg. I could hardly tear myself away from him and, at parting, we both shed tears.”

Richard Brinsley Sheridan suggested the sign should read: 'Michael Kelly. Composer of Wines and Importer of Compositions'

Mind you, Kelly’s reliability as a narrator has sometimes been questioned.

And further to the issue of artists “borrowing” material (we were discussing this earlier this week in connection with Myles Na gCopaleen), Kelly did some of that too during his later career when he branched into composition.  

Based in England by then, he was not above lifting the works of continental composers who were not well known there.  

When he also set up a wine business, his compatriot Richard Brinsley Sheridan suggested the sign should read: “Michael Kelly. Composer of Wines and Importer of Compositions”.

Still, many of his Austrian memories have the ring of truth, especially one wherein he experienced that quintessential Hibernian emotion – guilt at not being able to speak Irish.

The occasion was an audience with Emperor Joseph II, when the attendance also included two emigré army generals, O’Donnell and Kavanagh – part of the Wild Geese, Austrian Wing.

When Kavanagh said something in Irish, Kelly didn’t understand and failed to reply.

With gratitude he noticed that the generals had not heard him, or were pretending so

So the emperor exclaimed: “What, O’Kelly, don’t you speak the language of your own country?” Then before he could stop himself, the latter blurted out that, in Ireland, only the “lower orders” spoke Irish.  

He was instantly mortified by the remark, “made before two Milesian generals”. Even though the emperor laughed, Kelly recalled: “I could have bit my tongue off”. With gratitude he noticed that the generals had not heard him, or were pretending so.

That latter-day Milesian, the aforementioned Na gCopaleen, is responsible for a more sustained outbreak of Irish in Austria this week. The language has been heard in and around the University of Salzburg in the context of such events as a brilliant lecture on 20th-century Irish literature, “Sweeney Among the Moderns”, by Prof Stanley Gontarski of Florida State University.

Also part of the week-long International Flann O’Brien Conference was yesterday’s visit to the city’s modern art gallery, the Salzburger Kunstverein.  

Delegates were welcomed there by the current curator, whose not-quite-Austrian name – Séamus Kealy – suggests the Wild Geese migration hasn’t finished yet. Kealy is in fact Canadian by birth, but as you’d suspect, he has strong links with the old country. Before his 2013 appointment here, he cut his curating teeth at The Model arts centre, Sligo.