It was a bleak, late winter day when the well-heeled citizens of Vienna mounted their coaches for the four mile drive to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph. They were heading for a “Spring Festival on a Mid-Winter’s Day,” as Franz Joseph called it, a party to honor Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen, Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands, and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Christine, on February 7, 1786.
The site chosen for this Spring fling was the Orangerie at Schönbrunn Palace, a spacious greenhouse used for wintering over citrus trees and other plants from the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. The preparations for the banquet included elaborate decorations of exotic flowers, blossoms and fruits, a service of excellent food and for entertainment two stages were erected, one at each end of the long glassed-in building.
The Emperor had issued special orders for the evening’s entertainment, which was to consist of a newly composed, one-act opera buffa by Court Composer Antonio Salieri (Prima la musica e poi le parole — “First the Music and then the Words,” a theme treated again 150 years later by Richard Strauss in his last opera, Capriccio) and a one-act farce by the playwright Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger (Der Schauspieldirektor — “The Impresario”) with an overture and a few interpolated musical numbers by Mozart. Stephanie and Mozart had worked together four years earlier, when they produced The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Mozart was frantically busy composing music for his own Lenten concerts but most pressing were the preparations for The Marriage of Figaro, which was scheduled for its premiere at the Burgtheater on May 1st. He put Figaro briefly aside, however, and composed an overture, two soprano arias, a trio and an ensemble finale for The Impresario between January 18th and February 3rd.
Mozart lavished great care on his little overture, which would have been impressive enough to introduce a much grander work.