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Mozart Minute: Crooked Copyists

image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
Catch The Mozart Minute every Friday at noon during the Amadeus Deli, and listen to The Mozart Minute podcast at wosu.org/podcasts.

As a freelance composer, Mozart was all for having his music performed. But before it could be performed, the music had to be copied from Mozart’s originals. And Mozart didn’t trust the copyists any farther than he could throw them.

In Mozart’s day, lacking the conveniences of photocopiers and scanners, what we today call sheet music came into being with the help of copyists, scribes who, as their title suggests, copied longhand the musical notes from manuscripts.

It was a vastly imperfect system. Copying everything by hand was slow, and human error sometimes reared its ugly head when copyists introduced wrong notes into the music. And what would prevent a copyist from making an extra copy or two of, say, Mozart’s latest piano concerto and selling it to a publisher as the next big thing by Mozart, or even as his own composition?

In short, nothing. Bootlegged copies of works by reputable composers like Mozart leaked out everywhere. And Mozart was determined not to let it happen to him.

On May 15, 1784, Mozart wrote from Vienna to his father, Leopold Mozart, to whom he had entrusted one of his symphonies and four of his piano concertos to have copied in Salzburg.  Mozart implored his father not to let the original manuscripts out of his sight. “I do ask you to have the four concertos copied at home, for the Salzburg copyists are as little to be trusted as the Viennese. I know for a positive fact that Hofstetter made two copies of Haydn’s music. […] I myself have everything copied in my room and in my presence.” (The Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson)

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.