An Imperial Wedding and an Unfulfilled Promise

Mozart composes “Ascanio in Alba” for Archduke Ferdinand’s Wedding

Ascanio in Alba: Silvia and Alceste

Salzburg Festival 2006 Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Ascanio in Alba: Alceste and Silvia

Ascanio in Alba: Alceste and Silvia

Salzburg Festival 2006 Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

In 1771 a further journey to Milan was planned: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was to compose a celebratory opera for the wedding of Empress Maria Theresia’s son Archduke Ferdinand Karl to Maria Beatrice d’Este. The latter had heard Mozart’s music in concert and wished to have an opera composed by the musical genius for her wedding.

Father and son Mozart were cordially bid welcome at the court in Milan. Hopes for employment grew, as the young couple were most certainly in need of their own composer.

In barely three weeks, Wolfgang composed the music for this serenata teatrale in two acts.

A shepherd couple as allegory of the bridal pair

In the country of Alba, inhabited by nymphs and shepherds in mythical times, lives Ascanio, son of the goddess Venus. Venus stands for Empress Maria Theresia, Ascanio for the young archduke. Maria Beatrice is personified by the nymph Silvia, who has to pass a test as the future bride of the king to prove her virtue. After various confusions the lovers find each other and are destined to rule side by side.

The preparations for the performance go well

Wolfgang was already familiar with the orchestra in Milan, his friend Giovanni Manzuoli, a famous castrate, sang Ascanio. The notes virtually tumbled from Mozart’s quill onto the paper. The premiere took place on October 17, 1771, at the Teatro Ducale in Milan and was a tremendous success.

The newly-weds were equally enchanted. Ferdinand Karl promised Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart the position of court composer. But he did not reckon with his host, in this case his mother Maria Theresia. She denied her consent for the appointment, the Mozart family were deeply disappointed.