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I discovered ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’  by Eduard Mörike a few years back, when I was browsing in my favourite bookstore. At that time, Penguin had come out with the ‘Penguin Red Classics’ edition and I loved the covers of the books in that edition. I got a few Penguin Red Classics, but for some reason I didn’t get ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’. Since then I have been thinking about it and coveting it 🙂 But unfortunately, whenever I requested for it in my favourite bookstore here, the bookstore folks always told me that it was not available. A few weeks back I decided that I will search for this book online and I was happy to find that it is still in print and available. I ordered it, and it arrived last week. The slim novella took me only around a day to read. I finished it just now. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.

Mozart is creative, brilliant and charming. But is he also a thief?

Making his way to Prague for the opening of Don Giovanni, the great composer playfully tries to steal an orange from a Bohemian family’s garden. But no sooner has he taken the fruit than he is caught by a furious gardener. Desperate to escape, Mozart frantically scrawls an apologetic note to the owners of the tree.

Soon, he finds himself not only forgiven but welcomed by a family who have adored the beauty of his music and are stunned to find the celebrity wandering lost in their orangery. And when they reveal it is their daughter’s wedding, there can only be one guest of honour : the musical genius Amadeus.

What I think

I want to say one thing about the ‘Bohemian family’ mentioned in the above summary, before talking about the book. Here ‘Bohemian’ doesn’t mean people who “practise an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians can be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds”, as is commonly implied today. ‘Bohemian’ in the above passage implies the classical and straightforward meaning – “a resident of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, either in a narrow sense as the region of Bohemia proper or in a wider meaning as the whole country, now known as the Czech Republic.” Language has changed so much today, when compared to earlier, simpler times, that words that were once straightforward and implied their literal meanings have taken on a sinister life of their own and imply more complex things today. Some time back I was talking to one of my friends about a picture that he had sent me. My friend’s brother was there in the picture and I told my friend that his brother looked like him. My friend replied back saying that he didn’t know whether I was insulting him or his brother. I asked my friend to explain what he meant by that and my friend said that it was a joke and he also explained to me what the joke was. It made me think about the modern proclivity of using simple words and sentences to refer to complex things or imply complex meanings after multiple levels of abstraction. If a non-native speaker of any language learns the language using books and CDs or even goes to language school, he / she won’t be able to even suspect the heavy cultural weight behind every word that is spoken. It is pretty scary and could lead to disasters in everyday conversations. So, ‘Bohemian’ in the above passage doesn’t necessarily mean people who practise an unconventional lifestyle, but could mean people who live in a particular geographic location. They might be normal people who live a conventional life which is quite opposite to the other meaning of ‘Bohemian’. In that way, this word could be its opposite too – that is the geographical Bohemian could be the opposite of the cultural Bohemian.

Sorry for the long yarn, back to the book 🙂

‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’ is a delightful little novella. It is around 90 pages and can be read in one sitting. It describes a day and a night that the Mozarts spend at a noble family’s home, on their way to Prague. How Mozart is caught stealing an orange, how the garden owners discover his identity and how Mozart and his wife are celebrated and welcomed into their household and how the evening pans out form the story. While reading this book, I felt like I was reading an episode in one of those massive Russian novels, like ‘War and Peace’. I wish Eduard Mörike had expanded this novella into a full-fledged novel.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Forest

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a forest before, and it never entered my head till now what sort of a thing it is, this whole tribe of trees standing together! No human hand planted them, they all arrived here by themselves, and there they stand, just because they enjoy living and keeping house together. You know, when I was young I used to travel around all over Europe, I’ve seen the Alps and the sea and all the great and beautiful things of creation : and now by chance here I am, poor simpleton, standing in a pine-wood on the Bohemian border, amazed and enraptured to find that such a thing actually exists and is not merely una finzione di poeti, like nymphs and fauns and other things they invent, and not just a stage wood either, but one that has really grown out of the ground, growing tall on moisture and the warmth and light of the sun! This is where the stag lives, with his extraordinary antlers zig-zagging out of his head, and so does the funny little squirrel and the wood-grouse and the jay.”

Praise

“My dear child, what can I say? You are like the sun in the sky, which sings its own praises best by shining and warming us all! When one’s soul hears singing like that, it feels like a baby in its bath : it laughs, it is amazed, it has not another wish in the world. And believe me : hearing one’s own music rendered with such purity, such simplicity and warmth, indeed with such completeness – that’s not a thing that happens to one every day in Vienna!”

The Simple Life

He had found himself fully identifying with the man, feeling how seriously he had taken his small piece of business, how anxiously and conscientiously he had considered and reconsidered the prices, although they differed by only a few pence. He thought of the man coming home to his wife, telling her what a good bargain he has made, and the children all watching for his knapsack to be opened in case there was something for them in it too; and his wife hurrying to serve him the light meal and the cool glass of home-brewed apple cider he has saved up all his appetite for till now!

      If only one could be so happy, he reflected, so independent of other people, so entirely relying on Nature and her bounty, however hard one might have to work for it! And yet even if my art does impose a different task on me, one after all that I would not exchange for any other in the world; even so, why does this mean that I must live in circumstances that are the very opposite of such an innocent, simple existence? If only I had a small property, a little house at the edge of a village in lovely countryside, what a new lease of life that would be! Busy all morning with my scores, and the rest of the time with my family; planting trees, inspecting my fields, going out with the boys in autumn to shake down the apples and pears; sometimes a trip into town for a performance or whatever it might be, from time to time inviting a friend or two home – how wonderful! Ah well, who knows what may yet happen.

The Magic of Music

How we wish we could here convey to our readers at least a touch of that singular sensation which can strike us with such electrifying and spellbinding force even when one unrelated chord floats from an open window, when our hearing catches it as we pass, aware that it can only come from that unknown source; even a touch of that sweet perturbation which affects us as we sit in a theatre while the orchestra tunes, and wait for the curtain to rise! Is it not so? If, on the threshold of any sublime and tragic work of art, whether it be called Macbeth or Oedipus or anything else, we feel a hovering tremor of eternal beauty : where could this be more the case, or even as much the case, as in the present situation? Man simultaneously longs and fears to be driven out of his usual self, he feels that he will be touched by the infinite, by something that will seize his heart, contracting it even as it expands it, as it violently embraces his spirit. Add to this the awe inspired by consummate art, the thought that we are being permitted and enabled to enjoy a divine miracle, to assimilate it as something akin to ourselves – and such a thought brings with it a special emotion, indeed a kind of pride, which is perhaps the purest and most joyful feeling of which we are capable.

      The fact, however, that the present company were now to make the acquaintance for the first time of a work that has been fully familiar to us since our youth, gave them a standpoint and a relationship to it that were infinitely different from ours. And indeed, apart from the enviable good fortune of having it communicated to them by its author in person, they were far less favourably placed than we are; for a clear and perfect appreciation was not really possible to any of those who heard it, and in more than one respect would not even have been possible if the whole opera could have been given to them in unabbreviated form.

The Candle

And all the time he was playing, despite all the indescribable beauty of the music and through all its mysterious terror, this apprehension lived on in the depths of her consciousness, till in the end she was startled and shocked to hear him mention his own similar forebodings. The conviction, the utter conviction grew upon her that here was a man rapidly and inexorably burning himself out in his own flame; that he could be only a fleeting phenomenon on this earth, because the overwhelming beauty that poured from him would be more than the earth could really endure.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’. I am glad that I was able to track it down after so many years and finally read it. I read in Wikipedia that Eduard Mörike was a poet too and so I hope to explore some of his poems in the future. If you like novellas based on historical personalities and real events, you will enjoy ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’.

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