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Tomorrow will commemorate 250 years since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria - and some 245 years since this prodigy among prodigies fashioned his first pieces for keyboard under the helpful eye of his father, Leopold. The world has changed radically since 1756, but Mozart remains a constant.
Even though Jews were scarce in the elite circles of Berlin and Vienna during the second half of the 18th century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart maintained several Jewish connections during the Golden Decade of the liberal Joseph II von Habsburg (1780-1790).
Three Jews (two baptized) were among Mozart's documented friends:
The first was Fanny von Arenstein (1758-1818): born in Berlin as Franzeska Itzig, she was the daughter of a well-known financier/mint-master. Her grandfather was a poor horse trader who (just like Moses Mendelssohn) at the end of the previous century had entered Berlin through the Rosenthal Gate, which was reserved for "cattle and Jews."
Despite his religion, his son Daniel Itzig, Franzeska's father, gradually rose to a high social status by controlling most of the mint houses in Prussia. His daughter Franzeska was a brilliant teenager, absorbing culture and philosophy in the Mendelssohn literary salon. She was betrothed to the son of an emancipated Viennese Jew, Nathan von Arenstein. Being the most privileged Jews in Vienna, the newlyweds were quickly integrated into the salons of culture.
Franzeska, now Fanny, brought with her the Mendelssohn philosophy books, and one volume ended up on Mozart's table. They were probably introduced after a concert in 1780 at which Fanny played the piano, accompanying Frau Weberin (Aloysia), sister of Constanze, the future Mrs. Mozart.
Fanny and Wolfgang's relationship deepened when Mozart moved into the large dwelling occupied by the Arenstein family, at 175 Graben, in the center of Vienna. This occupancy was possible in the Golden Decade because of Joseph II's imperial edict canceling his mother Maria Theresia's severe anti-Jewish decrees. The edict, however, was soon to be cancelled.
Mozart lived on the third floor of this house for nine months, starting in December 1781, together with the servants and coachmen. The Arensteins were subscribed to Mozart's concert seasons, and Mozart was invited to dine with them. In this house Mozart composed an opera (Abduction from the Seraglio), the Haffner symphony, three concertos and chamber music.
MOZART'S second Jewish friend was Baron Raimund Wrtzlar von Plankenstern (1752-1810), son of a wealthy Jew involved in real estate. Originally from Offenbach, their title and permission to settle in Vienna were due to their financial transactions with the imperial and princely courts, as well as by baptism.
At that time (1782-3) Mozart lurched from one financial crisis to another, paying off one debt with another loan. Starting in December 1782, he lived in the Wetzlar Little Herberstein house for three months.
The Baron put the third floor, with its large rooms, at Wolfgang's disposal for ball dancing, soirees and concerts. Present were some of the Jewish aristocracy - the Arensteins, the converted Sonnenfels, Baron Guderen, the older Baron Carl Abraham Wetzlar, and many gentile aristocrats.
In this house, Mozart met the Abbey Da Ponte (his third friend). In 1783, Mozart found more definitive lodging in the Judengasse 3, and the Baron eventually paid for his move. Upon the birth of Mozart's son, Raimund Wetzlar became godfather. In a long letter to his father on June 18, 1783, Mozart wrote that "the Baron, a wealthy Jew, is a good and true friend of mine." However, there is no further mention of him in Mozart's correspondence.
The final known Jewish friend was Lorenzo Da Ponte : (1749-1838). Following the premature death of his mother, his father, aged 41, married a Catholic girl 24 years his junior and converted the entire family, changing their surname to Da Ponte - the name of their protective local bishop.
Lorenzo proved to be precocious and opportunistic. In order to endear himself to the priest of his seminar, he declared his "joy at being received into the Church." He showed keen interest in literature, less in religion ("which is against my inclination"), and soon was in charge of the seminar's library.
Not many times in his long and turbulent life was Lorenzo's Jewish origin mentioned, but sometimes rivals and enemies used it as a weapon. Priesthood was a good way to receive an education, and was an entry ticket into society as well as a way out of poverty. Both these benefits, however, lasted only until the death of the kindly bishop.
Life in the seminar was not to his liking, and Lorenzo left for Venice. He was anti-establishment, and was eventually expelled from both the Church and from Veneto. His enemies screamed: "Go back to the ghetto!"
Lorenzo was soon searching for work, and composers Antonio Salieri and Vincente Martin y Soler, both employed at the imperial court, befriended him. Lorenzo started to write librettos for them - a new genre of literary work. Soon he became successful, and the emperor protected him against both his new enemies and the protesting Church.
This situation brought him to the attention of Mozart. Their artistic collaboration resulted in three brilliant librettos set to music, the operas: Le marriage if Figaro in 1786, Don Giovanni in 1787 and Cosi fan tutte in 1790.
Lorenzo's name would be forever tied to Mozart, but his welcome in Vienna was short-lived. Following the death of the liberal emperor in 1790, Da Ponte's rivals at court prevailed. They fuelled intrigues and falsified letters. Lorenzo's appointment at the court was terminated and he left in 1790, first to England and later to New York. Mozart himself lived another year .
Undoubtedly, Mozart's genius would have flourished in any event; however, it's gratifying to see that his Jewish friends facilitated his way in dire times.