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The Man Who Knew Mozart
Lorenzo Da Ponte, New York bookseller and Pennsylvania grocer, was a charming ne’er-do-well in the eyes of his fellow Americans. He happened, also, to have written the words for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro .
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
He went to Pennsylvania in hope of getting his hands on some of his in-laws’ money.
Da Ponte never did see any Grahl money. When old John Grahl died, his son Peter managed the estate so badly there was soon nothing left. When Nancy’s sister died, she left money to Nancy and the five Da Ponte children but not a cent to Lorenzo. She obviously recognized his talent for losing money. Years later Da Ponte kept her memory alive in his Memoirs with invective and insinuation.
In 1818 Da Ponte moved to Philadelphia. A letter from Nancy to Charles Hall dated June 12, 1819, says, “Mr. Da Ponte has a very good prospect in this city but the expenses are great. …” The “good prospect” never materialized, and by the end of the year Da Ponte was back in New York.
He was seventy years old. He had two serious accidents on the road between Sunbury and Philadelphia but was lucky enough to receive treatment for his broken bones from the American medical pioneers, Dr. Philip Syng Physick and Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, and his health was now excellent. Friends like Moore had been sending small loans and urging him to take up teaching again. When Da Ponte arrived back in New York, he donated sixty volumes of Italian classics to the New York Public Library. They became the foundation of the country’s first Italian collection. He enrolled his son Joseph at Columbia College and began the work of recruiting new pupils.
Da Ponte returned to a New York markedly different from the one he had left eight years before. For one thing, there were many more Italian émigrés, and several of them were making their living by teaching their native language. They couldn’t help looking upon Da Ponte as a serious rival, so he blamed one of them when a libelous anonymous pamphlet was circulated to the parents of his pupils. The pamphlet accused Da Ponte of, among other things, ill-treating and starving to death one of his former students—a young woman who Da Ponte was quickly able to prove was alive and the mother of five children.
New York had now become something of a cultural capital, home to writers and artists such as James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F. B. Morse (who later painted a portrait of Da Ponte), Richard Henry Dana, and William Cullen Bryant. Da Ponte flourished, and his sense of purpose as chief spokesman for Italian culture in America seems to have been fully restored. In 1821, when King George IV of England brought a divorce action against his queen, naming an Italian as one of her lovers, a New York City councilman tried to defend the queen in print by violently attacking the character and accomplishments of Italy. Da Ponte hired a public lecture room to blast back. In front of what one daily newspaper called “one of the most numerous assemblages of wit and fashion which ever graced a lecture room in this city,” Da Ponte spoke eloquently about Italian art, poetry, and music.
“I was, as may be believed, at the peak of happiness when the bitterest of human disasters plunged my family into despair and tears,” Da Ponte wrote in his Memoirs . His son Joseph fell ill with consumption and died in June 1821 at the age of twenty. Unable to continue his classes, Da Ponte was invited by John R. Livingston, the father of one of his pupils, to spend some time at his summer home on the Hudson. There Da Ponte read Byron’s “The Prophecy of Dante,” which had just been published. He later wrote, “A certain analogy which, allowing for due proportions, I seemed to find between Dante’s vicissitudes and my own gave me the desire to translate that work into Italian verse.” His Italian translation, one of the first ever made of Byron’s work into another language, was published in New York at the end of 1821. It was highly praised in Italy, but whether the poet himself ever saw it is not known.
Da Ponte’s next important books were his four volumes of Memoirs , published in New York, in Italian, between 1823 and 1827. He had begun writing them in 1807, partly to better establish himself as a literary and cultural personage and partly to provide a textbook that his students would be required to buy and read. He had also been eager to settle a few scores.
These decidedly mixed motives produced a very odd narrative, almost totally unreliable as history and recounted in a whining tone that combines self-congratulation with paranoia His work with Mozart (whose name he almost continuously misspells as “Mozzart”) gets extremely short shrift; the Irish singer Michael Kelly, who had no literary pretensions and employed a ghost for his own memoirs, tells us much more about Mozart and the first performances of Figaro than does Da Ponte, who wrote its libretto. Yet the Memoirs are often curiously moving. In the words of Arthur Livingston, they show Da Ponte “ever in the strange predicament of being as honest at heart as he was shrewd and scheming of will.” The struggle between heart and will is present on every page of the Memoirs , and more often than not, the scheming will wins.
On September 5, 1825, Da Ponte was appointed professor of Italian at Columbia College—the first person to hold that title. The Moores helped him get it, and though he was proud of the honor, he soon found it to be largely ceremonial. Like most language professorships at the time, it carried with it no salary; he still had to go out and recruit paying pupils.