Of all the stories that are told about Wolfgang Mozart’s visits to Italy, one exceeds all others in fame. It concerns the day in Rome in April 1770 when the 14-year-old Mozart first heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, an unaccompanied nine-part polyphonic setting of a psalm that normally lasts about 13 minutes. The Miserere rises repeatedly to an ethereal top C, a haunting moment that had already given the work Europe-wide mystique in Mozart’s time and ensures that it is still widely performed and recorded today.
The Miserere had been written in the 1630s for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel choir and for performance only during Holy Week. The score was a ferociously guarded Vatican secret. No written versions were supposed to exist. Yet, in the chapel that day, young Mozart listened to the Miserere once, then went home to his lodgings and wrote the entire thing down from memory.
Parts of the story are apocryphal – for example a few copies of the score did already exist. But the essence of it is wonderfully true, and rightly so. The tale has become the encapsulation of one of the ways posterity has thought about Mozart, as the composer blessed by God with unique musical gifts who lived too short a time among us before his death at 35 – Mozart as Amadeus rather than as Wolfgang. In her new book, the conductor and author Jane Glover is not in the business of disputing Mozart’s genius. But she makes clear that Mozart lived very much in the real 18th-century world of dirt, illness, bedbugs and discomfort, not permanently wrapped in some fuzzy golden halo of brilliance.
Glover’s account of the Sistine visit is a good example of a humanising tendency that runs throughout her book. She explains, for example, that Wolfgang and his father Leopold would have been tired that day, having just arrived in Rome after a bumpy five-day coach journey in bad weather from Florence. She also records that Wolfgang returned to the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday, with his scribbled-down version hidden in his hat, to check that he had actually got the Miserere exactly right. He was human after all. Nor was his feat a secret. Even the pope got to hear about it, awarding him a papal honour as a result.
Mozart visited Italy three times between 1769 and 1773, and then never again. Yet his time there lived with him – and thus lives with us more than two centuries later. It does so for one fundamental reason: Italy consummated Mozart’s mastery of opera. The things Mozart heard in opera houses from Verona to Naples unlocked his operatic imagination, infused his musical thinking and helped make The Marriage of Figaro possible.
The Mozart who crossed the Brenner Pass for the first time in December 1769 was a touring child prodigy. But the Mozart who left Italy for the final time in March 1773 was an opera composer. Italy was not just the original home of opera, but the part of Europe with the highest orchestral and vocal standards. It was a richly interconnected and competitive artistic world. To work, learn and succeed there was to do so at the very top.In the space of those four years the teenager wrote three operas: Mitridate, re di Ponto in 1770, Ascanio in Alba a year later, and Lucio Silla at the end of 1772. All were great successes. It is impossible to listen to any of them without realising the doors that they were opening to the future.
Glover writes fluently and attractively. She clearly loves Italy almost as much as she loves Mozart. Her accounts of his working methods are particularly fascinating, especially the way his writing lavished such care and attention on the abilities of his individual singers. “I like an aria to fit a singer as perfectly as a well-made suit of clothes,” he once wrote. These were qualities that endured, not least in his dazzling writing for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who sang the Queen of the Night in the 1791 premiere of The Magic Flute. Mozart was a convention-busting operatic master and his Italian years were when he learned his trade.
• Mozart in Italy: Coming of Age in the Land of Opera by Jane Glover is published by Picador (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.