Dates of key Mozart symphonies are wrong, claims music scholar

Works written by musical genius in his late teens misdated by a couple of days to nine months

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 2:00am

Mozart symphonies from one of the most important periods of his composing life have been wrongly dated, a British scholar has discovered.

John Arthur believes he has made what is arguably the most important Mozart discovery of the last 30 years: that the accepted composition dates are wrong for five symphonies written by a 17- and 18-year-old Mozart in 1773 and 1774.

“I was absolutely stunned, gobsmacked really,” Arthur says. “It completely changes our understanding of the works he composed in that period.”

The works are part of a collection of nine handwritten symphonies that were bound in a single volume by Mozart’s father, Leopold, and include some of his most celebrated early instrumental work, including the symphony numbered Köchel 183, often called the “little G minor”, which was used in the opening music for Milos Forman’s film Amadeus, accompanying the attempted suicide of Mozart’s rival Salieri.

The mistakes range from a couple of days to nine months. The five wrongly dated symphonies, according to Arthur, are:

• Symphony 24 K182 in B Flat, which should be 1 October 1773, not 3 October;

• Symphony 26 K184 in E Flat, which should be November 1773, not March;

• Symphony 27 K199 in G, should be January 1774, not April 1773;

• Symphony 28 K200 in C, should be February 1774, not November;

• Symphony 30 K202 in D, should be 16 May 1774 not 5 May 1774.

They may not sound like huge discrepancies but they are important considering how young and prolific Mozart was – a week was an awfully long time in the teenage genius’ life.

“It was the time he was becoming the Mozart we know, when Mozart became Mozart,” says Arthur. “Mozart is coming under new influences every month and this completely changes the biography of that period.”

For example: “In the summer of 1773 we know Mozart was in Vienna and two of the symphonies had been thought to predate that visit,” says Arthur.

“Now it is clear they were written after Vienna, in November and January. If you look in the music of these symphonies you can see influences and things that Mozart learned during his Vienna trip.”

The discovery allows scholars to fill in gaps in our knowledge of Mozart. For example, before the discovery there were no known works from the first three months of 1774.

“It has been completely blank,” says Arthur. “We now know what Mozart was doing in those first two months of 1774. It is very exciting.”

The two best known works from the nine are K183 and K201.

Arthur says both these works were correctly dated, but the redating of the other symphonies before and after was of huge importance.

“183 and 201 contain genuine Mozart miracles and they can be explained and understood better if one has got the dates of the surrounding symphonies correct … they can be put in context, you can understand how Mozart has got there.”

The mystery of when Mozart wrote the symphonies arose because someone crudely crossed out the dates on the original manuscripts, possibly because they wanted to pass them off as later works and not the works of a teenage boy.

“There has always been a problem with the dates of the symphonies,” says Arthur. “Someone, we don’t know who, cancelled the dating inscriptions on the symphonies so for the past 200 years they have always been a puzzle and a problem.”

For the 19th and most of the 20th century the manuscripts were in private hands and not easily accessible to scholars.

One man who did attempt to read them was the Swiss musicologist Franz Giegling in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His incorrect conclusions were incorporated into the 1964 edition of the definitive Köchel catalogue, which lists and dates all of Mozart’s works.

“It has been one of those things,” says Arthur, “that people have thought ‘if it’s in Köchel, it must be right’.”

The manuscripts are now a highlight of the Morgan Library in New York, on a long-term loan as part of the Robert Owen Lehman collection.

Arthur, a Mozart scholar and consultant to the books and manuscripts department at Sotheby’s in London, discovered Giegling had got five dates wrong by examining the crossed-out dates.

“They are very difficult to read and I only had a magnifying glass, but if you spend long enough you can actually see them so it is rather surprising that, for example, someone read April ’73 when it is January ’74.”