WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART’s La Clemenza di Tito, written in 1791, was extremely popular for thirty years or so after it was commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II. Although it was initially somewhat overshadowed by the coronation itself (Maria Luisa wrote to her daughter-in-law Maria Theresa de Bourbon, ‘almost all of us went to sleep’), and although it was perhaps not optimally performed (Mozart’s 1808 biographer Niemetschek describes ‘a pitiful castrato and a prima donna… whom one had to consider a lunatic’), it had become a favorite by the end of its run, and was performed often between 1791 and 1830. (For the record: it is not clear that the singers were all that bad. Mozart seemed to like them well enough; perhaps Niemetschek was trying to explain the initially chilly reception for what he described as Mozart’s ‘most perfect work.’) For popular works such as Tito, arrangements such as the one being played this evening were made for many different combinations of instruments, simply so that the music could be taken home.
As the 19th century began to heat up, and romantic aesthetics took root in artistic circles, La Clemenza di Tito quickly lost its standing. On the compositional end, it began to seem excessively formal and antiquated; and on the political end, it must have come to seem rather backward-looking: it was, after all, written in praise of an (allegedly) benevolent Roman Emperor for the coronation of a (hopefully) benevolent Austrian Emperor. The 19th century came to prefer Mozart’s more socially and formally anarchic works, especially Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. Only in the last 30 years or so, as interest in contextual history has grown, has it once again become a staple of the operatic repertoire.