A Zeitgeist-Opera by Mozart

Composed, reworked, left alone, picked up again…

Tobias Philipp Freiherr von Gebler (1720/22–1786)

Engraving by Johann Ernst Mansfeld (1738–1796) Early 1770s Source: Wikimedia
The Kärntnertortheater in Vienna

The Kärntnertortheater in Vienna

Engraving, 18th century Source: Wikimedia

Hardly anything is known about how this opera by Mozart came into being. It is based on a play by Tobias Freiherr von Gebler. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed the stage music in 1773. Most likely, it premiered in April 1774 at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna and was not a big success.

The opera by Mozart, however, is in tune with the contemporary fashion of Mozart’s time: Egypt was en vogue. But freemasonry and the ideals of enlightenment influenced the work, perhaps one of the reasons why Mozart - who was later to become a freemason - was attracted to the material. The play “Thamos, King of Egypt” is the last in a series of twelve by Gebler.

The story of this heroic drama is set in the city of the sun, Heliopolis, in 3000 BC and tells the fate of the ancient Egyptian king Menes and his son Thamos - a political play full of intrigues, love, murder and mysticism.

Operas by Mozart: music in instalments…

Mozart was commissioned by Gebler to compose the music for two choir-pieces as early as 1773. Whether the music between the acts already existed for the premiere is not known. Years later, in 1779, Mozart reworked the material. He reworked the choir-scenes, created five additional instrumental pieces and wrote further choir music. However, the Mozart compositions were mostly used as stage music for another drama: “Lanessa, a tragedy”, by Karl Martin Plümicke. Even later, a Latin text was added to Mozart’s music to make it appropriate for liturgical occasions.  

Mozart Amadeus Mozart was probably fully conscious of the failure of the play. On February 15, 1783, he wrote to his father that he wished “that it would exclusively be performed for its music”.