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Classical 101

Mozart Minute: The Whistler

Wolfgang Mozart's effervescent personality covered the gamut from gregarious to goofball. Still, there's a character in the Mozart family correspondence who was quite possibly sillier than Mozart was even on his dottiest day. Karl Michael von Esser was concertmaster of the court orchestra in Kassel in the 1760s, then later abandoned his post to tour Europe as a soloist, which he did to some acclaim. When the seven-year-old Mozart met Esser in Mainz in 1763, the boy wonder was not favorably impressed. In a letter of December 7, 1780, Mozart's father, Leopold, wrote from Salzburg that, 18 years earlier, his precocious son had criticized Esser's playing "by telling him that he played well, but that he added too many notes and that he ought to play music as it was written." Leopold also asserted that Esser "may be an excellent violinist who cloaks his real merits in the tricks of a charlatan." (Translation by Emily Anderson) Two days later, after a visit with Esser, Leopold wrote, "He is a jolly old fool of a fellow. But he plays (when he plays seriously) with the surest and most astounding execution. [...] But when he starts playing the fool, he plays on the G-string only and with the greatest skill and technique. By striking his strings with a wooden pencil he performs whole pieces with amazing rapidity and precision." But Esser didn't limit his silliness to playing the violin. Leopold continued, "what touched me and struck me at first as rather childish was his whistling. He whistles recitatives and arias as competently as any singer and with the most perfect expression, introducing portamento, flourishes, trills and so forth, most admirably, and all the time accompanying himself on the violin." And Esser's personality evidently wasn't just musically irksome. Writing in the code in which the Mozart family corresponded about sensitive matters, Leopold revealed some of the less righteous details about Esser's personality. "He came to see us every day <and drank like a fish>. This great talent of his brings him in a good deal of money - <and yet he never has any cash>."