Think of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and chances are it isn’t London which immediately comes to mind. But it was in a home in Belgravia that the then-precocious eight-year-old composed his first symphony.
Mozart, his father Leopold, mother Anna Maria and his elder sister Maria Anna spent almost a year-and-a-half in London, between April, 1764, and July, 1765, as part of a European grand tour. Having initially taken lodgings above a barber’s shop in Cecil Court in Soho, they moved to the more rural setting of 180 Ebury Street, then known as Five Fields Row, in August so his father could recover from a serious illness which apparently developed after he caught a cold.
Mozart and his sister were both child prodigies and during their London sojourner performed in various London theatres and for King George III and Queen Charlotte at Buckingham Palace on several occasions. But, with his father now needing quiet, they were forbidden to play instruments in the house and so, according to his sister’s writings, in order to keep himself busy it was there that he composed his “first symphony for all the instruments of the orchestra, especially for trumpets and kettledrums”.
While the work she was referring to is now lost, Mozart did go on to compose the symphony that is now seen as his first at the same time. Known as K.16 in E flat major, it was first performed at the Haymarket Little Theatre in February, 1765.
Leopold did recover and so the family moved back to Soho – lodging at 20 Frith Street to be précise – in September, 1764. It was there that Mozart met the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christian, who was to be a key influence on his musical style. They left the property – and brought their time in England to an end in July, 1765, amid waning public interest in their performances (they gone from performing for the Royal Family to entertaining pub patrons). The family continued with their European tour before eventually returning to their home town of Salzburg (Mozart later settled in Vienna where he died at the young age of 35).
Mozart’s time at the Ebury Street residence (and the composition he wrote there) is commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque (albeit this one is brown) which was erected by the then London County Council in 1939. Following damage in the war, it was reinstated in 1951. There’s also a statue commemorating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in nearby Orange Square. Designed by Philip Jackson, it was erected in 1994.