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Tempus Fugit - Poem by gershon hepner

In 1790 Mozart nearly got a great commission
to write an opera on Shakespeare’s “Tempest”.
Instead of this, when death became a major premonition,
he wrote his Requiem, and fugit tempused.

He though that Hamlet’s Ghost speech was too long, and would have gained
by being shorter, but could not carpe diem
to make his life a little longer, though he never waned,
not even when he wrote his Requiem.


Inspired by an article I found on Mozart forum.com, “Mozart and Shakespeare's The Tempest, ” by Dennis Pajot:

Although Mozart himself probably never knew it, he was considered to compose an opera on Shakespeare's The Tempest.
In 1790 the Weimar courtier Friedrich Hildebrand von Einsiedel sent an adaptation of the Shakespeare work he made into an opera libretto to his friend, the poet Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter in Gotha. For several years this work, to be known as Die Geisterinsel was worked on by Gotter, and eventually became known as his work. As early as Mach 24,1791 Gotter wrote to Einsiedel that Heinrich Beck (an actor friend of Gotter) recommended Mozart as composer of the libretto. But on April 7, Beck wrote to Einsiedel that he did not think Mozart would be interested, as 'he composes everything for Vienna where German opera is not given, only Italian opera'. Beck recommended Dittersdorf for the job. A month later Gotter tells Einsiedel he spoke to another actor friend of his [Schröder], who also thought Mozart had too much work for the opera buffa, and thought Dittersdorf 'would not measure up to a subject of this sort'. Schröder recommended Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwenke of Hamburg. Word was spreading, for on October 31,1791 the Göttingen poet Gottfried August Berger wrote his pupil August Wilhelm Schlegel of Gotter's 'marvelous free adaptation' of The Tempest and that 'Mozart is composing the piece'. Three days later Gotter wrote Einsiedel the piece was almost ready to be sent to Mozart: 'After a joint revision of the work, a letter, with the first act, goes immediately to Vienna'. However it is clear Mozart did not confirm he would set the libretto to music: 'We may with certainty be allowed to anticipate a prompt and obliging answer from Mozart...In the unhoped-for case, however, that he is overburdened with work, I would be in favor of Reichard above all'.

From the next known correspondence it is unclear if this 1st Act was sent, or any text at all. Gotter writes to Einsiedel on December 15,1791 (apparently unaware Mozart had died 10 days previous) : 'I know Mozart's moral character too little to judge the extent to which his discretion can be relied upon. However, the more distant I am in general from the distrust, so the more willingly I agree with your suggestion that the entire work be sent to him immediately'. It is possible Mozart asked for the entire text, but there is no known correspondence or other documentary evidence this is the case. More likely Gotter and Einsiedel thought if Mozart saw the whole work he would be more inclined to set it.

The next correspondence between Gotter and Einsiedel on January 7,1792 shows by this time they knew Mozart had died and new composers are being considered. From the preface to the 1802 Gedichte von Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter we have confirmation the libretto was never sent: 'It was decided to have Die Geisterinsel set to music by Mozart; the famous artist died, however, before the manuscript could be sent to him'.

Suggestions for other composers were numerous. In addition to those already mentioned, among the more famous were Andre Grétry, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Paul Wranitzky, and Joseph Haydn. Eventually Die Geisterinsel was set to music by Freidrich Fleischmann and first performed at Regensburg in 1796. Following that it was also set by Reichardt, Rudolf Zumsteeg, Friedrich Wilhelm Haack and Johann Daniel Hensel-all before 1800.

Would Mozart have set the libretto and how would it have fared? No-one can know, but some have given it thought. Alfred Einstein in Essays in Music was of the opinion Mozart probably occupied himself in his last weeks with this work-at least in thought. In fairness to Einstein though, he do not have all the documents listed above, only the October 31,1791 letter stating 'Mozart is composing the piece'. However Einstein felt in the long run that Mozart would not have composed the opera. Einstein felt Mozart 'never composed a duplicate in the field of opera', meaning because he composed Zauberflöte he would not compose Geisterinsel as the two had too much in common. Einstein saw almost all the characters in Zauberflöte as having a parallel in The Tempest. Sarastro is related to Prospero; Tamino and Pamina to Ferdinand and Miranda; Caliban to Monostatos; and his mother to the Queen of the Night. The 3 boys had parallels in Ariel and his following. In addition Einstein believed 'Mozart would soon have realized that Gotter's Geisterinsel was a magic opera and nothing more, without the deeper charm and meaning which had made Schikaneder's text seem to him bearable and even attractive'. Indeed, others have been harsh on Gotter's libretto, but it has had some defenders. [See Thomas Bauman North German Opera in the Age of Goethe pages 310 to 322) .

An interesting letter from Gotter on March 2,1793, might help us imagine some problems that might have come about between Mozart and the poet. Karl Dittersdorf had been sent a draft of the libretto in late 1792. He sent some suggestions for revisions back to Gotter. Gotter wrote 'The suggestion of Herr von Dittersdorf for shortening the opera betrays too clearly the children of what kind of spirit are the insipid poetic products that for some time now he has thought to compose and to send into the world to the exasperation of good taste'. With this we must keep in mind Mozart's dealings with some of his librettists, especially those with Giambattista Varesco regarding Idomeneo. And keeping in mind that Gotter was unhappy with Dittersdorf's suggestions for shortening his opera, here is Mozart's thought on one Shakespeare moment, in regard to Idomeneo:

'Imagine yourself in the theatre, and that the voice must be terrifying-it must be terrifying-it must be penetrating-and one must believe that it is real-how can this be believed, when the speech is too long, for during this time the hearer will become increasingly sure that it is meaningless? If the ghost's speech in Hamlet were not so long it would have a better effect.-This speech can easily be made shorter and will gain more by it than it will lose'. Possibly Gotter and Mozart might have clashed, but of course there is no way of knowing.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 12/15/09


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