• Michael Nyman
  • Letters, Riddles and Writs (1991)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 3sx/1110/pf/bgtr/3vn.va.2vc
  • Contralto, Countertenor, Bass
  • 30 min
  • Jeremy Newson
  • English

Programme Note


Mozart’s interface with his father, as evidenced through his letters, was undoubtedly the composer’s single most difficult relationship. Letters, Riddles and Writs explores this and also the question of music ownership: his father, who schooled him, sought to control his every action, be it with work, money, or women. Nyman’s music is derived from Mozart and the song texts are taken from father-son correspondence and a set of riddles Mozart wrote for the Carnival in 1782.


Letters, Riddles and Writs was conceived for television. It was one of six half-hour programmes, commissioned in homage to Mozart in the bicentennial year of his death in 1991, and was screened worldwide last Autumn. The idea behind these programmes was to provide a creative opportunity for composers today, while at the same time quietly underlining the apparent paradox of massive-scale anniversary celebrations to great creative artists whose lives frequently end in perjury.

The six composers - Michael Nyman, Judith Weir, Louis Andriessen, Misha Mengelberg, HK Gruber and Mathias Ruegg, were invited to choose their own film directors to collaborate in creating homages to Mozart, whatever that might imply; the brief merely required that there must be some 'hook' or connection. In effect, something of a riddle was posed.

The generic title to the 'collection' of programmes, NOT MOZART, heralds ambiguity. Michael Nyman, a sometime musicologist and music critic, with his director/collaborator Jeremy Newson, chose to explore the nature of Mozart's relationship with his father, and the question of ownership of music. The Greek chorus, or referees, are Haydn and Beethoven.

From the evidence of Mozart's letters, there can be no doubt that the single most difficult relationship he experienced was with his father. Here was a man who, as well as fathering him, had taught him virtually all he knew, but who sought to control his every action, be it with work, money, or women, by alternating overwhelming pressures of guilt with tantalising offers of praise, praise that Mozart craved in his child-locked state of emotional dependency. In LETTERS, RIDDLES AND WRITS Leopold is a conflation of father-figures; - his real father, sarastro, and the Swiss 19th century music critic, Hans-Georg Naegli (who was particularly negative about Mozart's music).

For a programme entitled LETTERS, RIDDLES AND WRITS it may come as some surprise that all the music is derived from Mozart, and all the sounds texts are taken from correspondence between Mozart and his father. Of all the writings between them, the Carnival riddles which Mozart sent to his father in 1786 must rank as the strangest* It appears that on February 19, 1786 during the Carnival in Vienna, a masquerader dressed in the clothes of an Oriental philosopher, handed out a sheet of paper on which was written eight riddles and fourteen proverbs, entitled, EXCERPTS FROM THE FRAGMENTS OF ZOROASTER. The masquerader and author was Mozart. Mozart sent a copy to his father who was clearly impressed, making it available to Lorenz Hubner, editor of a Salzburg newspaper who, short of material, published one riddle, and seven of the proverbs in the issue of 23 March 1786. The author was not credited. It was not until 1970, that the remaining riddles, written in Mozart's hand were found again - in the Staatbibliothek Preussicher Kulturbesitz in Berlin. Two of them had been rendered ineligible, evidently by Cosnstanze Mozart's second husband, George Nissen, who had been responsible for censoring 'objectionable' passages in other Mozart letters.

Riddling was particularly popular in Europe in the 1780's, and Mozart was far from alone in contributing to this interest - Goethe, Schiller, Voltaire and Rousseau. Mozart loved codes, ciphers,puns and scatological language. Solomon suggests that the role of these riddles sent by Mozart to his father, one year after his last visit to Vienna, in their apparent psycho-sexual connotation were a final challenge to his father's authority. Mozart, unable to gain Leopold's approval (for in reality there was no approval to give, Leopold having become immensely jealous of his son's achievements), nor able to free himself from Leopold's suffocating domination, chose to communicate his ambiguous feelings through the ambiguity of riddles. The texts of the two riddles which Nyman sets are as follows:

1. "We are many sisters; it is painful for us to unite as well as to separate. We live in a palace, yet we would rather call it a prison, for we are securely locked up and must work for the sustenance of men. The most remarkable thing is that the doors are opened for us quite often, both day and night, and we still do not come out, except when one pulls out by force"

2. "I am an unusual thing; I have no soul and no body; one cannot see me but can hear me; I do not exist for myself; only a human being can give me life, as often as they he wishes, and my life is only of short duration, for I die almost at the moment in which I am born. And so, in accordance with men's caprice, I may live and die untold times a day. To whose we give life I do nothing - but those on whose account I am born I leave with painful sensations for the short duration of my life until I depart."

Solomon believes that Mozart's riddles belong to the tradition of salacious or obscene riddling. The intended solution of the first riddle is, the apparently innocent "teeth". But there is an implication of erotic activity perhaps in a brothel from which the occupants (the sisters) cannot escape. To this day, a 'hot tooth' in german slang means 'a chick'. Equally, the verb "to die" has many other associations. If the meaning of the verbal riddles is ambiguous, Nyman's music poses yet more riddles.

Nyman draws freely on Mozart's own work; re-orchestrating it exotically to expose unexpected tunes in the harmony; slowing down and speeding up key thematic motives that belie their origin; repeating or contracting thematic phrases; turning well-loved solos into duets. And presaging, astonishingly, the plagiarism (or quotation) by a 19th century composer, hitherto unsuspected………In all Nyman thinly veils his original material to provide a marvellously fluent re-interpretation, and transformation, and in doing so, a highly sophisticated and immensely ingenious game of 'spot the tune'.

LETTERS, RIDDLES AND WRITS whilst ostensibly about Mozart, is as much about the composer today, perhaps, in particular, Nyman himself. Could the attention he sees from the 'classical' music fraternity, be an echo of Wolfgang's failure to recognise the short comings of his creator?

* We are indebted to the American musicologist, Maynard Solomon, for his enthralling article MOZART'S ZOROASTRIAN RIDDLES, published in the psychoanalytical journal AMERICAN IMAGO, which discusses in detail the substance of Mozart's Carnival riddles, and the circumstances under which they were written.

© Michael Nyman