During his visit in Prague in 1787, for his Don Giovanni premiere, Mozart stayed at the Villa Bertramka, the property of his musician friends Frantisek and Josepha Duschek, and it was there where he wrote the beautiful concert aria „Bella mia fiamma, addio!” Dated 3 November 1787, the aria was dedicated to his friend Josepha Duschek, and the story of its composition is quite unusual.
“The circumstances surrounding the composition of “Bella mia fiamma… Resta, oh cara!” (K 528) are those of Mozart basking in the successful premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague on October 29, 1787. He was a guest at the country home near Prague of the composer Frantisek Duschek and his wife, soprano Josepha Duschek, for whom he had ten years earlier composed the concert aria “Ah, lo previdi“( K 272).
According to a story told by Mozart’s son, Josepha locked his father in a garden house, refusing to release him until he had composed for her an aria. Mozart, however, refused to hand over the score until Josepha agreed to sing the aria at sight, a daunting task given the harmonic and melodic complexity and the resulting emotional states both in the recitative and aria. In his book on Mozart, Alfred Einstein states succintly: “Mozart used extreme means to represent an extreme situation…”
(Steven Lacoste, Los Angeles Philharmonic)
Josepha was the wife of the Prague pianist Franz Duschek and was herself an accomplished singer and pianist. According to Hermann Abert, Josepha was praised for her beautiful, full and well rounded voice, and also for her interpretative powers, which were said to be especially impressive in recitative. She triumphed easily over the difficulties of bravura singing, boasted an attractive use of portamento and was fully capable of combining power and ardour with emotion and charm, with the result that by 1782 she was already being described as “Bohemia’s Gabrieli”.
Not everybody agreed to this, however – as was the case with one musician named Leopold Mozart, who disliked her “exaggerated powers of expression”. A few years later Christian Korner would criticise her in the same manner, finding her powers of expression “too much of a caricature”, missing any sense of grace or charm. Schiller said much the same when she visited Weimar in 1788, finding her very bold, “not to say forward”. But in 1796 Ludwig van Beethoven composed his concert aria “Ah, perfido!”, in Prague, for this talented singer, under the powerful impression of her musicianship. And as late as 1808 Reichardt was still praising her “ardent enthusiasm for all things beautiful”, which may very well mean that her critics had been taken by surprise by a woman who didn’t exactly fit in the “right” image of the times, a woman who was exceptionally gifted as a musician but in the same time too temperamental for the common taste.
Still there was one wonderful musician who seemed to be attracted especially by those qualities, and so in the autumn of 1787 we find Wolfgang Mozart comfortably installed at the Villa Bertramka, working to finish his Don Giovanni and greatly enjoying the company of his friends Frantisek and Josepha.
The composition of “Bella mia fiamma, addio!” is said to have happened in the most unusual and funny way, and the tale of the story is said to have emerged from none other than Mozart’s son, Karl Thomas. This is the story that the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo published in 1856:
“Bertramka is well known as the villa in which Mozart enjoyed staying with his musician friends, the Duscheks, during his visit to Prague, and where he composed several numbers for his Don Giovanni. On the summit of a hill near the villa stands a pavilion. In it, one day, Frau Duschek slyly imprisoned the great Mozart, after having provided ink, pen and notepaper, and told him that he was not to regain his freedom until he had written an aria he had promised her to the words “bella mia fiamma, addio”. Mozart submitted himself to the necessary; but to avenge himself for the trick Frau Duschek had played on him, he used various difficult-to-sing passages in the aria, and threatened his despotic friend that he would immediately destroy the aria if she could not succeed in performing it at sight without mistakes.”
Bernard Wilson, commenting on the story, adds: “There seems to be some corroboration of this account in the aria itself. The words Quest’ affano, questo passo è terribile per me are set to an awesome tangle of chromatic sequences artfully calculated to test the singer’s sense of intonation and powers of interpretation. Apparently Mme. Duschek survived the passo terribile, since the autograph bears her name in Mozart’s hand!”
In 1789 Josepha Duschek sang the work along with other beautiful arias at concerts given by Mozart in Dresden and Leipzig, during his German tour of that year. Various authors, of which Alfred Einstein and Maynard Solomon, have suggested that Mozart and Josepha had also lived a romantic affair, not only a musical one. This suggestion was disapproven by subsequent scholarship, because: “the available information does not permit such assertions to be made with certainty”. Same goes for the story of the relationship between Wolfgang Mozart with Anna (Nancy) Storace, the renowned prima donna of the Viennese Opera in the years which were Mozart’s best in Vienna (on which Lynette K. Erwin wrote in her book “So Faithful a Heart”). As far as Mozart’s private life is concerned, there would probably have been more information had it not been for the “cleaning” of his biography by Constanze and her second husband, Georg Nissen. “Bella mia fiamma, addio!” or “Ch’io mi scordi di te?… ” tenderly speak of special moments in Mozart’s life. As Hermann Abert says on “Ah, lo previdi”: “the setting of the aria affords eloquent proof of the profound effect that this kind and beautiful woman had on his highly susceptible heart”. “Bella mia fiamma, addio!”… composed for Josepha Duschek, “Ch’io mi scordi di te?… Non temer, amato bene!”… composed for Nancy Storace. Both of them were extraordinarily gifted as musicians, both had wonderful voices, both of them were women ahead of their time and were not afraid to express it. And no matter how little information we have, enough has reached us as to know that Wolfgang had always been impressed by women musicians who were both gifted and bold. Those women “brought out the whole gallant side of his character and the music he dedicated them reflects his inner involvement”.
So many years after that day in Prague, we can portray in our mind how it must have looked like when Josepha Duschek took Mozart for a walk, in the garden of the villa…
… then locked the great Wolfgang in the pavillion, with a supply of what he needed to write the aria he had promised! Which he did – but not without taking his revenge! A most unusual one!
So… this is what happens when a gifted soprano plays a trick on a great composer :
Lilian Sukis’ wonderful rendering of Bella mia fiamma
I chose Lilian Sukis’ rendering of this aria also because of the special quality of her voice, which I feel may resemble that of Josepha Duschek’s, as it was described by her contemporaries
The aria was set on the text of D.M. Sarcone’s Cerere placata, based on the myth of Proserpina and her mother Ceres.
Bella mia fiamma, addio! Non piacque
al cielo di renderci felici.
Ecco reciso, prima d’esser compito,
quel purissimo nodo, che strinsero
fra lor gli animi nostri con il solo voler.
Vivi! Cedi al destin, cedi al dovere!
Dalla giurata fede la mia morte t’assolve;
a più degno consorte…oh pene!
Unita vivi più lieta e più felice vita.
Ricordati di me; ma non mai turbi
d’un infelice sposo la rara rimembranza
il tuo riposo.
My dearest love farewell! It did not
please heaven to make us happy.
Lo, severed before yet completed
is that holy knot that bound our
spirits together in a single will.
Live! Yield to fate, yield to duty!
My death will absolve you from
the faith you pledged—oh grief!
Live a happier and more carefree life.
Remember me, but never let the
occasional memory of an unfortunate
betrothed disturb your peace.
Photo credits specified where available,
score images courtesy of Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg,
other images from the internet, assumed to be in the public domain.
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