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Mozart Minute: Goosed

image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
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Oscar Wilde once said “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” If true, then the poem Mozart wrote for his sister on her thirty-second birthday was steeped in brotherly love.

On July 31, 1783 Mozart wrote his sister, Nannerl, a letter in celebration of her birthday, and presumably accompanied by a bottle of punch – his favorite drink. Here's Mozart's poem in Emily Anderson's translation: 

Today I went out shopping and why, you’d never guess,
But now that I must tell you, the reason was no less
Than with some trifling gift my sister to delight,
For her to please I’d strive with all my main and might.
Alas! I’m not quite sure if punch you like to drink?
Ah! Please do not say no, or else the seal will stink.
But to myself I thought, she loves the English faces.
For if she favoured Paris, I’d give her pretty laces,
A bouquet of fine flowers or perhaps some perfume rare.
But you, my dearest sister, are no coquette, I swear.
So from your brother take this punch (it’s very strong and choice)
And may repeated draughts of it your heart and soul rejoice.
(Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson)

With a nod to both his bad verse and his the silliness he an his sister enjoyed since childhood, Mozart signed his letter “W.A. Mozart Poet-laureate of the marksmen.”

Mozart knew bad poetry when he saw it, and later the same year, Mozart would determine that even his own doggerel was no match for that of a comic opera libretto he was trying to set. The opera was called L’oca del Cairo – The Goose of Cairo – and the libretto was the handiwork of Giambattista Varesco, the poet and priest who two years earlier had written the libretto for Mozart’s Idomeneo.

On Dec. 6, 1783, Mozart wrote his father about a major dramatic flaw he perceived in Varesco’s libretto for The Goose. He also proposed a solution that involved, of all things, the comic addition of a singing goose. 

Despite Mozart’s troubleshooting, his letter shows him all but unconvinced that the “goose story,” as he called it, made for good opera.

Only two months later, Mozart had all but given up on the opera and, in a letter of on Feb. 10, 1784, told his father why. “At present I haven’t the slightest intention of producing (the opera). […] As it is, the impression I have gained from Varesco’s text is that he has hurried too much, and I hope that in time he will realize this himself.”

Mozart never finished The Goose of Cairo, and the world had to wait until 1860 – the better part of a century after Mozart’s death – to hear for the first time the parts of the opera that Mozart had actually composed.

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.