Two of Mozart’s Most Famous Coloraturas

This entry is a reality check for both singers and conductors.  I was fortunate enough to study musicology with the foremost authority on Mozart performance practice for my Masters degree.  It was a very loosely organized class.  And since I was the least educated of my classmates, I dove into the vast library of microfilmed scores dating back to Mozart’s time.  While researching the likes of Gassman, Hasse and Mislivocek I could not resist digging out information on Magic Flute (the role of Queen of the Night in particular – since I have since sung the role – when I do something, I do it thoroughly!) and some of the concert arias. 

In particular, the famous Queen of the Night Vengeance aria:  Der Hoelle Rache.  I made it my business to check out every handwritten early score of this aria both in the Midwest and NYC extant – both on microfilm and monument editions. 

In the Vengeance aria: On the ascents to the repeated high Fs in the major section of the melismas the stacatto markings end on the high Cs.  Above that to the high Fs the lack of staccato markings PLUS the lack of a steady rythmic marking base line in the accompaniment plus the lack of duplication of the vocal line in the accompaniment lead me to believe that Mozart gave the singer the choice to sing these highest phrases as she could on any given night – even slowing down to make them work and singing them legato – far easier than the foolishness we sometimes hear today. 

By contrast the D Minor section repeating the same pattern includes the staccato markings on the high Ds plus a duplication of that line in the orchestra part so clearly Maria Josefa Hofer had stacatto high Ds but not stacatto high Fs.

Maria Josefa Hofer was the first Queen of the Night and she stopped singing the role at the age of 57 (she died at the age of 63 but not before Mozart composed the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for her).  Donna Anna does not go above passing high B flats below high C – so by then her high Fs were most likely a fond memory.

Music critics of the time – if they can be called that  – possibly Edge – was quoted on Maria Josefa Hofer’s singing of the Queen of the Night: “The voice was high (tessitura) and edgy and she had no stage presence.”  High edgy voices are generally bigger voices than the leggieras we hear today in this role, which would support my theory of a bigger voice singing this role in Mozart’s time.  Moreover, this voice was apparently of one sound from the bottom to the top – no switches (see Lange below).

Concert Pitch Today versus Mozart’s time:  Mozart’s high F today would sound at high G in alt – a full step higher than written! Why? Because pitch has changed and the violinists in orchestras like a more brilliant ring to their sound – they tune the strings tighter and tighter and the pitch goes higher and higher.  In Vienna, the pitch is the highest – even higher than in the U.S.A. today.  This plays havoc for singers world-wide.  That’s why we currently have so few REAL basses and contraltos.  We can blame that on the fiddle players in the professional orchestras.

Concert Aria Mia speranza adorata:  Composed for Aloysia Lange.  Mozart loved this voice.  Many of the highest and loveliest concert arias were written for her.  Edge heard her sing Mia speranza adorata at the Burgtheater and his comments: “Her voice was lovely and nearly earsplitting to the B flat below high C and above that to the high F barely audible, but the facility and ornamentation were admirable.”  Translated in vocal terms:  She was a young singer who either had a normal mid-range to top and a weak whistle register above.  We have all heard very young singers with this top sound – and they usually can’t do much with it.  But by today’s vocal standards this dual technique would be decried by every music critic around.  Then you factor in that by today’s standards those high Fs were actually high E flats (with a commensurate lower tessitura for the aria), and there are many singers today who could sing these arias with a better more consistent sound than Mozart ever heard during his short life.

In Sum:  We have to put Mozart in context.  In his hay-day he was the new “contemporary” composer of his day – perhaps as new sounding as Philip Glass today.  It his the historians, music lovers, performers (with their own musical taste and quirks) who have packed all things Mozart into that perfect Tiffany box for preservation so frequently we get a performance steeped in nonsense and lacking humanity – dull pablum.  And if you read the Mozart letters, he was indeed very human, and grateful that his music was being performed at all during his life – like all composers.


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