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Music review

Hear music written for a clock

A portrait of Ernst Gideon, Baron von Laudon, an Austrian field marshal famous for his exploits in the Austrian-Ottoman war. Wikimedia Commons

On April 10, fortepianists Michael Beattie and Ian Watson perform a lunchtime concert at Emmanuel Church’s Lindsey Chapel, including a piano-duet arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor (K. 594). The piece was originally intended for a different instrument: a mechanical clock. Such clocks, outfitted with automated, miniature pipe organs (Mozart himself referred to it as “ein Orgelwerk”), were luxury items in the late-18th and early-19th centuries — Haydn wrote music for clocks, as did Beethoven. But K. 594 was composed for a somewhat unusual performance.

Mozart had already fulfilled a commission for another mechanical clock; he wrote of his wish to finish the piece — which he considered a chore — and then “slip a few ducats into my dear wife’s little hand.” (Only a fragment of this piece survives.) The F minor Fantasia was written at the behest of Josef Deym von Strítez, a Bohemian nobleman. Forced out of the Austrian army for killing a rival in a duel, Deym adopted the name of Joseph Müller and opened a popular museum of curiosities in Vienna, which included a gallery of his own wax effigies of famous people.


One of Deym’s most popular wax figures was of Ernst Gideon, Baron von Laudon, an Austrian field marshal who was, at the time, famous for his exploits in the then-raging Austrian-Ottoman war. (The war was largely a disaster for both sides; Laudon’s capture of Belgrade constituted one of the few triumphs.) After Laudon’s death in 1790, Deym placed his wax figure in a glass coffin; at particular hours and (for an extra charge) the public could sit and view the memorial while a mechanical clock played funeral music — Mozart’s K. 594 and K. 608, on alternate weeks.

Deym cast Mozart’s death mask (though all copies of it have disappeared), and went on to marry Josephine Brunsvik (remembered today for her rather serious love affair with Beethoven). None of the actual clocks that Mozart wrote music for survived; but K. 594 and K. 608 entered the repertoire in arrangements for both organ and piano duet, to future generations’ delectation — and occasional despair, as with Julius Rietz, a friend of Mendelssohn and a leading figure in 19th-century German musical life. “And those were written for mechanical clocks,” Rietz sighed. “What now is left for us to do?”


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri