Picture of MozartK. 490 and K. 505: An Inquiry Regarding Mozart's "Second Thoughts"

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

It is not very often that one finds reason to differ with Mozart's artistic judgments; when they are right, as they are in the vast majority of his completed works, they carry the conviction of sheer genius. But in rare instances, even a master will make missteps. It is therefore instructive to study a case in which, I believe, Mozart wrote something that was less than top quality, realized this, and gave us his "second thoughts" in a follow-up work. Such appears to be the case with the recitative and aria, K. 490 ("Non piu, tutto ascoltai--Non temer, amato bene"), which he designed as an insertion into a private performance of Idomeneo in 1786.

Contrasting views

Before delving into the problem posed by K. 490, it would be well to note that not all writers on Mozart have been equally certain of the inferior nature of this piece compared with its "follow-up," the recitative and aria K. 505 (set to an edited version of the same words as K. 490). In fact, the great Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, in his book Mozart: The Golden Years, seems to put K. 490 on a level with the greatest operatic masterpieces of the composer:

We fare better with his next compositions: two new insertions for a performance of Idomeneo, with a cast mostly of noble amateurs, held in the private theatre in the palace of Johann Adam, Prince Auersperg (1721-95): the first is a duet for Ilia, soprano (Anna von Pufendorf), and Idamante, tenor (Baron Pulini), 'Spiegarti non poss'io' (K. 489), instead of the older duet No. 20; and the Scena con Rondo with a ravishingly beautiful violin solo (Mozart's friend, the young Count August Hatzfeld, a canon of Eichstaett Cathedral in Germany) and tenor (Baron Pulini), 'Non piu, tutto ascoltai' (recitative) and 'Non temer, amato bene' (K. 490), to replace the beginning of Act II. 'Non temer' must be accounted one of the most touching arias in all Mozart--the equal of anything in Figaro. The other singers in this performance, on which Mozart obviously lavished his frustrated love for an opera he could not hope to see staged, as it should have been, in the Burgtheater, included Countess Hortense Hatzfeld, nee Comtesse Zierotin (the wife of August's half-brother, Clemens), as Elettra, and Giuseppe Antonio Bridi from Rovereto as Idomeneo (he later erected a memorial to Mozart's memory in his garden at Rovereto).{1}

Compare this high praise for K. 490 with the summary dismissal of K. 505 in the same book, which is not even mentioned by its name or Koechel number:

On 27 December 1786, Wolfgang completed his farewell gift to Nancy Storace, the Scena con Rondo with piano solo--'For Mad:selle storace and me', wrote the composer in his catalogue.{2}

But in fact Prof. Landon's appraisal stands opposed to the more usual evaluation of K. 490 as, at best, a dry run for K. 505. In his landmark biography of Mozart, Alfred Einstein writes that "it is puzzling to know just what [the composer] had in mind in connection with the first of these arias," which he thinks

seems like a study for the second; it is like a perfect concert piece of rather neutral emotion, compared with the other one, into which Mozart poured his whole soul. In the first version, the violin plays a concertante duet with the voice; in the second the voice and piano carry on a dialogue so intimately interwoven and so heartfelt that one feels the particular intention in every measure. And at the same time the aria is so extended that it seems more like a concerto movement than an aria . . . . Few works of art combine such personal expression with such mastery--the intimacy of a letter with the highest grandeur of form.{3}

An even more severe criticism is given by Paul Hamburger in The Mozart Companion, where not only is K. 490 condemned as "an occasional composition" (while "K. 505 comes from the heart"), but the recitative receives particular scorn for being "as lengthy and boring as Mozart could be in 1786"! While Hamburger grants that part of the length of this recitative results from the amount of text Mozart had to set, he nevertheless condemns the aria as well for being "vastly inferior to K. 505. Compare in both works the ends of the recitatives and--an important juncture--the beginnings of the arias. . . ." {4}

The present writer is not going to deny the validity of Prof. Landon's unique opinion, since so many subjective factors go into any artistic evaluation. But as far as I can tell, K. 505 is far more frequently performed and recorded than is K. 490, which suggests that the judgment of posterity has been on the side of Einstein and Hamburger, rather than on Landon's side.

Biographical data and its implications

The biographical data also tends to support the valuation of K. 505 over K. 490. It is well known that the later aria was written for Nancy Storace, whom later writers alleged was romantically involved with Mozart. Although such reports probably owe more to vivid imaginations than to fact, {5} it seems fair to regard the aria as, in Einstein's words, "the transfiguration of a relation that could not be realized except in this ideal sphere." {6} Nancy Storace and her brother Stephen had a close association with Mozart, and she had played Susanna in the world premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro. {7} It is only natural that her impending departure--whether or not she and Mozart were physically intimate--would produce an emotional response in the composer, and that he possessed the genius to express it touchingly in a work like K. 505.

It seems evident that K. 490 had less favorable circumstances around its conception. Not only was it composed as a way of refurbishing old music--as an insertion into the opera Idomeneo, which was being performed privately by "noble amateurs," as we have seen from Landon--, but on the very date that Mozart's catalogue records him writing this aria, March 10, 1786 {8}, Volkmar Braunbehrens writes that there was a distraction not far from the composer's door. A nobleman named Franz Zaglauer von Zahlheim, convicted of robbing and murdering his fiancee, had been sentenced to death by torture through the personal intervention of Emperor Joseph II. Joseph overrode the intended leniency of the courts to impose a gruesome punishment on the murderer: "glowing hot pincers" applied to Zalheim's chest, then breaking of the bones of the deceased on the wheel "from the feet upward." The first stage of this execution, Braunbehrens states, "began a few hundred yards from [Mozart's] home. The bustle in the streets and the shouting of such a large crowd could certainly have been heard from his lodgings." {9}

Of course, this author insists that the "content" of this aria and that of its companion piece (the duet, K. 489, another replacement number for Idomeneo) do not "in any way reflect the tempestuous events of that day." {10} Furthermore, Alan Tyson's pioneering work with Mozart autographs should warn us against pressing the point too far by assuming that the dating of a work in Mozart's personal catalogue means that he wrote that whole work on that date. {11} Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine such an unusual execution making it more difficult for Mozart to concentrate his thoughts on the music at hand.

A musical "glass ceiling"?

And in fact, it seems to me that it is precisely in the allegro moderato-- which concludes the aria and is thus the likeliest portion to have been written on March 10, 1786--in which there is something of a "falling off" of inspiration. The recitative and the andante of "Non temer" are very effective, if a little stagy (one should remember that Mozart was trying to make the music fit into his "opera seria" of 1781, so perhaps the true-to-life manner of Figaro, being composed at the same time as K. 490, should not be expected). However, Mozart was hampered, in my opinion, not only by the need to make this aria vocally grateful for Baron Pulini, the tenor {12} who sang Idamante, but by trying simultaneously to make it a virtuoso piece for his friend Count August Hatzfeld, the violin soloist.

In compromising between the demands of both parties, Mozart is less than successful in the allegro moderato, where he chooses a theme that is more suitable to the violin solo than to the voice. I here provide a MIDI version of the opening sixteen bars of K. 490's allegro moderato [mm. 66-82 in the full score] {13} to help illustrate my point:

buttonPlay the MIDI file excerpt from Mozart's K. 490 (4kb).

[Note: The excerpt, in type 1 General MIDI format, contains violin solo on channel 1, voice on channel 2, and accompaniment (rendered here as piano) on channel 3.]

One will notice that the main theme here is rendered in two different ways, given the respective ranges of violin and voice. The violin is able to move up the scale during the second half of the theme (bars 70-74 of the allegro moderato) to f''', producing a satisfying climax. But a comparable range was obviously not possessed by Baron Pulini. When the voice repeats the theme, the limit is f'' (f' when performed by the tenor Baron), and this note is rather adamantly stated and restated. (See the illustration below, where the second half of the theme is compared in the solo violin and in Idamante's part.)

K. 490, Musical illustration

Although the highest note in Idamante's part is in fact b-flat'' (tenor: b-flat'), Mozart perhaps avoided it for fear of taxing Pulini's upper range excessively. Thus there is no upwardly-moving musical climax to the vocal statement of the theme. In my opinion, this is an unsuccessful compromise.

A possible reason for the theme's structure

Now it might be suggested that the very limitation of the theme in the vocal part represents a frustration which strikingly underscores the words being sung by Idamante:

Alme belle, che vedete
Le mie pene in tal momento,
Dite voi, s'egual tormento
Puo soffrir un fido cor?

("Kind souls who see/my anguish at this moment,/say if a faithful heart/can suffer such torment as this.") {14}

Under this view, the unsatisfied nature of the musical phrase in the voice, which reaches a "glass ceiling" in that f'' which is transcended by the violin, would reflect the longing which Idamante can neither evade nor fulfill under his present circumstances. I arrived at this idea after much reflection, and at least it allows Mozart's theme to have been more the product of his shaping and control than something born of haste and compromise.

Parallels between K. 490 and K. 505

If K. 490 stood alone in Mozart's output as the only setting of these words, it might be easier to grant that this thematic design was deliberate, despite the uneasiness caused (to me, anyway) by the lack of climax in the voice. But since he reused the words at the end of 1786--with slight deletions in the recitative--for the concert aria K. 505, it seems that he himself realized that something had not been achieved in the earlier piece and wished to try again.

Nor are the words the only point of correspondence between the two works; much of the "game plan" of K. 490 is reused in K. 505, including the concertante element (with piano solo rather than violin), the vocal "rondo" (a slow section followed by a fast one in the aria), and some interesting turns in the music itself. For example, the words "Stelle barbare, stelle spietate" ("barbarous stars, pitiless stars"), which occur initially in the slow sections of either aria, are brought back in either's allegro sections, in both cases in the tonic key's minor vi. (K. 490, in B flat, has this portion in g minor, bars 96ff.; K. 505, in E flat, has it in c minor, bars 111ff.) And in either aria, the words provoke a flurry of scale runs and arpeggiated figurations from their respective instrumental soloists. But while this outburst in K. 490 is certainly dramatic, can anyone reasonably assert that the parallel passage in K. 505 does not exceed it in a very substantial way? The difference between K. 490, good music by a great composer, and K. 505, in which the same composer is fully in touch with his genius, is striking in this and several other instances.

The discussion of K. 505 given by Paul Hamburger {15} brings out several architectural masterstrokes and inspired touches by Mozart in this piece, and should be consulted by the reader interested in a judicious technical analysis. Some of Mozart's ideas, as I have suggested above, appear in embryo form in K. 490, but there can be little doubt that they are improved upon and solidified in the aria he wrote for Nancy Storace.


In summary, I neither wish to conclude that K. 490 is a masterwork on a par with Figaro, as does Landon, nor that it is an "occasional composition" hardly worth discussing, as Hamburger implies. Even the lesser works of a genius are instructive, especially when the appraisal of these works varies from scholar to scholar--or from scholar to (in my case) interested amateur. My conclusions are certainly not urged with any dogmatism, but simply as my own exploration of an interesting subject. My research in the matter has hopefully been in line with Bacon's admonition: "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider." {16}

Autumn 1996
(Musical illustration graphic added 6 Aug 2001.)


{1} H.C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, NY: Schirmer, 1989, pp. 183-4.

{2} Ibid, p. 185. There are two other brief mentions of performances of K. 505 on pp. 187 & 206.

{3} Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work, trans. Arthur Mendel & Nathan Broder. London: Oxford UP, 1945, pp. 370-1.

{4} Paul Hamburger, "The Concert Arias," in The Mozart Companion, ed. H.C. Robbins Landon & Donald Mitchell. NY: Norton, 1956, p. 331.

{5} Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life. NY: HarperCollins, 1995, p. 452.

{6} Einstein, p. 74.

{7} Volkmar Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791, trans. Timothy Bell. NY: HarperCollins, 1990, p. 284.

{8} See the work list in Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Mozart, NY: Norton, 1982, p. 187.

{9} Braunbehrens, pp. 271-4.

{10} Ibid, p. 274.

{11} "The date on the score or in the Verzeichnüss [i.e., Mozart's personal catalogue] is likely to correspond to the time at which the work was completed, and we should bear in mind that some parts may be earlier" (Alan Tyson, Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987, p. 157; cf. also pp. 30-32).

{12} I should here mention the fact that Mozart actually wrote Idamante's part in this aria in the soprano clef, although the duet K. 489 is written (as expected) in the tenor clef. Perhaps he hoped to reuse this piece later as a concert aria, or wished to keep the vocal characterization of K. 490 consistent with Idomeneo, in which Idamante's part falls within the mezzo soprano range. (If he regarded K. 489 as a one-time substitute, that would explain his use of the tenor clef for Idamante there.) My MIDI example follows the written score and assumes a soprano voice singing K. 490.

{13} Beginning the bar count afresh at the start of the aria, as I do also when referring to bars in K. 505.

{14} Translation by Gwynn Morris from the booklet accompanying Vol. 45 of the Philips CD "Complete Mozart Edition" (catalogue number 422 545-2).

{15} In The Mozart Companion, op. cit., pp. 351-6.

{16} "Of Studies," in Francis Bacon, The Essays, ed. John Pitcher. London: Penguin, 1985, p. 209.

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