Libby Larsen

Libby Larsen

Written by Harry Clark
Original score by Libby Larsen

3W: one is a soprano, one must be a classical pianist who also enjoys spoken word

“I was blinded as a child. I have no memory of its cause though I do at times late night awake with a sensation of suffocation, an unbearable pressure atop me.” Maria Theresa von Paradis

In January of 1777, Maria Theresa von Paradis, age 18, was brought by her father to the Viennese clinic of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, age 44, for medical examination and possible treatment for her blindness. Dr. Mesmer determined that the lack of sight was not medical but “blindness dictated by the unconscious.” Mesmer, equally reviled and revered for his groundbreaking treatment of illness via his discovery—“animal magnetism”—saw the potential cure of von Paradis as the ultimate vindication of his method. Binding the two together, beyond the doctor/patient relationship, was their adoration of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mesmer, an ardent amateur cellist and glass harmonica player, befriended the Mozart family early on. The premiere performance of the 12-year-old Mozart’s opera Bastien und Bastienne took place in the elaborate outdoor theater of Mesmer’s home, Landstrasse on the Danube. Paradis, a child prodigy on piano, met the young Mozart on one of his journeys from his native Salzburg to Vienna, and the two played four-hands together. Subsequently, Mozart dedicated a piano concerto for her use during Maria Theresa’s extensive three-year tour of Europe and England.

When I sent this brief description to my longtime friend and first-rate composer Libby Larsen, here’s part of what she wrote as a response to agreeing to write the incidental music for the play.

The curious history of Marie Paradis, sightless child, piano virtuoso, composer and colleague of W.A. Mozart, captured my heart and my creative imagination the moment Harry told me her story. As a child prodigy, like Mozart, Marie’s parents built a career for her as a touring curiosity, marketing her musical talent and her physical abnormality in order to attract the lucrative middle-class ticket buyer. What is deeply moving about Marie Paradis’ story is not that she was talented nor that she was blind. It’s that she was human. A child. A soul and spirit.  A Wunderkind. As was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The spirit of their times is carried through the music they created. The music I compose reflects the internal lives of the play’s characters—their souls and spirits if you will—as they operate and develop in the drama. It is Mesmer’s instrument, the glass harmonica, which bridges both worlds. Libby Larsen

Thank you, Libby.

The story of Mesmer’s fateful treatment of Maria and the aftermath could have served as a libretto for a Mozart opera, for it contains evil parents, fortune-telling gypsies and dying canaries, the instrument of the devil and the angels (the glass harmonica), riffs on sightedness and unsightedness, electric shock and new-age treatments, with the Queen Empress and Benjamin Franklin in cameo roles!

NEA40thLogoBlue This production was made possible with a grant from the NEA