- First part of a sacred Singspiel
- Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Libretto: Ignaz Anton Weiser
- First performed: Knights‘ Hall of the Palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg, 12 March 1767
Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots is probably Mozart’s worst opera. But cut the guy some slack. He was only 11. And as an opera written by an 11-year-old, it’s remarkable.
But then Mozart was remarkable.
“We are transported with utter amazement when we see a boy of six years sitting at a harpsichord, and hear him not only playing the same sonatas, trios and concertos manfully, not at all like a child, but also hear him improvising from his head, now cantabile, now with chords, for whole hours at a time, and producing the best ideas in contemporary taste, or reading at sight to accompanying symphonies, arias and recitatives at grand concerts. Tell me, does this not exceed all powers of the imagination?”
That was an advertisement (in the form of a letter to the editor) written by Mozart’s proud father Leopold. “And yet it is the pure truth!”
The boy composed clavier concertos when he was four, and outclassed violinists at the age of six. He toured through Europe with his father and sister, performing for the crowned heads of Europe: for Maria Theresa in Vienna, leaping into her lap and kissing her; for Louis XV in Paris, most put out that Mme Pompadour wouldn’t let him kiss her; and for George III in London (where he composed his first three symphonies).
Die Schuldigkeit was a sacred Singspiel performed at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s palace. Mozart contributed only the first part. (Legend has it that the Archbishop locked him up for a week while he composed.) Michael Haydn, the great Haydn’s brother, and A.C. Adlgasser composed the rest of the opera; their scores have been lost.
The libretto is heavy-handedly moralising, although not quite so off-puttingly religious as Montéclair’s Jephté (1732), with its injunction to fear God and slaughter non-believers. The allegorical figures of Divine Justice, Divine Mercy, and the Spirit of Christianity try to bring a wayward believer back to the straight and narrow. He prefers wine, women, and song in the company of Worldliness – when he should be following the First Commandment.
Anton von Weiser, merchant and later mayor of Salzburg, wrote the libretto “not only to delight the mind, but also to educate the soul”. Thus we have Salvation, Heaven, Hell, and Death; dreary visions of the Last Judgement; and warnings of the dangers of enjoying life.
Mozart’s score is hardly compelling; much of the music is rather dull, with long stretches of secco recitative in German. In “Erwache, fauler Knecht”, Divine Justice urges the sleeping Christian to wake up and await judgement in a dreary, eight-minute andante; Mozart still has to develop musical aptness. The Christian’s “Jener Donnerworte Kraft” and Worldliness’s “Schildre einen Philosophen” are equally dismal.
If the first act weren’t by Mozart, it would have been forgotten long ago. But it would be foolish to expect Don Giovanni from an 11-year-old. The music may not always be inspired, but it is never less than competent. The best pieces could be written with pride by an adult. Mercy’s “Ein ergrimmter Löwe brüllet” is an attractive hunting song, with coloratura and horns; while Mozart recycled the Spirit of Christianity’s “Manches Übel” in La finta semplice. The glory of the score is “Lasst mir eurer Gnade schein”, a trio for the Christian spirits that closes Mozart’s act. That a child could write it boggles the mind.
Allan Clayton (Ein lauer Christ), Andrew Kennedy (Der Christgeist), Sophie Bevan (Der Weltgeist), Sarah Fox (Die Göttliche Barmherzigkeit), and Cora Burggraaf (Die Göttliche Gerechtigkeit), with Ian Page conducting the Orchestra of Classical Opera, London, 2012. Hyperion.
- Alfred Einstein, Mozart: his character – his work, trans. Arthur Mendel and Nathan Broder, London: Cassell, 1946
- Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart, London: Victor Gollancz, 1978
- Ian Page, “Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots – an introduction”, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (CD), Hyperion, 2013