The Palace of Emperor Chen – Two Poems (Or Mozart in Prague)

On one of his travels across time, Shangyin landed in Prague. It was January 1787. During a brief stint as a reporter for Prager Oberpostamtszeitung , he interviewed the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was a little under 5 feet tall, with an unusually large head topped with a mass of carrot colored hair. He walked very straight, even in the bitter cold, as though to defy his height, and his movements were quick but jerky, as though stars were exploding within his limbs. Although his ruddy face was pockmarked with scars from a childhood case of smallpox, it was remarkably expressive, an effervescence of creation. A small scar above his right eye would turn dark when he frowned. His lips, although small, seemed to swell with passion, and his eyes looked through people and things, as though into a third, mysterious space. As he settled into the chair, and fussed about his collar, Shangyin posed his first question.

How did your performance go last night? What do you think the audience was thinking as they listened?

Damn it, I was shorter than they expected. Indeed, the orchestra players, especially the double bass player, towered over me. How this infirmity aches my heart! I stood up after the performance and expected rousing cheers, and there were rousing cheers. But the people who clapped their hands did not know where to look. It seemed to me they were applauding the clarinets, horns, but above all the bass player! (He laughed softly)

You seem very happy. Was it the success of your Symphony?

The Prague[1] was a marvelous success. I received over a thousand florins…or maybe it was two thousand?  The city loved the first performance, and lionized me for days. These Bohemians hum my tunes as though there is no tomorrow. A little shit of a man (excuse me for my language) came up to me in the street one day, and declared, “Herr Mozart, I am a Franciscan friar from Ireland. And I was thinking of returning there later this year. Your music has reminded me why I so love this part of the world. If it weren’t for you there would be no music.”  Can you believe that such things are said of me? Another priest I met was an arrogant ass and a simple-minded little wit of his profession. When he was a little drunk, which happened soon, he started on about music. He sang a canon, and said: I have never in my life heard anything more beautiful. He started. I took the third voice, but I slipped in an entirely different text: ‘P[ater] E: o du schwanz, leck mich im arsch’ [“Father Emilian, oh you prick, lick me in the ass”]. Sotto voce, to my cousin. Then we laughed together for another half hour[2].

In Prague? All the cultured people? One minute they are sick of me, and treat me like a leper. The next, they kiss my feet. If only they did not feel obliged to praise me, for then it becomes worse, and one is treated like a dog the moment popular approbation diminishes and the star sinks. God bless the dying and drop loads of horse-shit on the wicked! What praises are then, and only after they are dead, rained upon them. Excuse me for these wild thoughts Mr Shangyin, you know how irreverent I can be. I do not mean to be blasphemous…

The interview continued for a while, and then Mozart stood up, walked to the piano. While Shangyin looked on, dumbfounded, Mozart played one of his sonatas. Afterwards, he explained.

“There is one god, and his name is Bach. The work I just played is inspired by him, but with my heart, my passion. It is a simple, but easy sonata. Some pianists complain that my music has too many notes, but in fact one should play it not too fast, particularly the middle movement, which is about moonlight and kisses.”

Inspired, Shangyin composed the following poems:

玄武开新苑,  xuán wǔ kāi xīn yuàn,

龙舟宴幸频。  lóng zhōu yàn xìng pín。

渚莲参法驾,  zhǔ lián cān;shān;shēn fǎ jià,

沙鸟犯句陈。  shā niǎo fàn jù chén。

寿献金茎露,  shòu xiàn jīn jīng lù;lòu,

歌翻玉树尘。  gē fān yù shù chén。

夜来江令醉,  yè lái jiāng lìng zuì,

别诏宿临春。  biè;bié zhào sù;xiǔ lín chūn。

Poem 1

On Xuanwu Lake the new garden unfolds

The dragon boat often hosts banquets for the fortunate.

The lotus entices the Imperial carriage driver

The sand gull disobeys the Chen Palace rules.

Golden hands and arms rise with the gift of long life [3]

The sound of music shakes dust off the jade trees.

Jiang Ling gets drunk when night arrives

The Emperor orders him to doze in the Spring Pavilion.


茂苑城如画,mào yuàn chéng  rú huà,

阊门瓦欲流。chāng mén wǎ yù liú。

还依水光殿,hái;huán yī shuǐ guāng diàn,

更起月华楼。gèng;gēng qǐ  yuè huá lóu。

侵夜鸾开镜,qīn yè luán kāi jìng,

迎冬雉献裘。yíng dōng zhì xiàn qiú。

从臣皆半醉,cóng;zòng;cōng chén jiē bàn zuì,

天子正无愁。tiān zǐ zhèng;zhēng wú chóu。


Poem 2

The city’s luxuriant garden is like a painting

The heavenly gates flow like a mirage

Water shines by the temple

Moonlight rises over the towers

Night invades the Phoenix mirror [4]

In winter, the pheasant fur coat is welcomed

All the nobles, half drunk, are hosted

The Emperor truly has nothing to worry about!

Musical Interlude: Mozart Sonata No 18 in D Major K576 played by Mark Obama Ndesandjo

This is the last of Mozart’s piano sonatas, the only one of six ‘easy’ sonatas he completed as a commission for a certain countess. Of all his 18 piano sonatas, it is deeply profound, and most ambiguous.

[1] Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504

[2] Shangyin learned later that this story was paraphrased directly from one of Mozart’s letters.

[3] The poem refers to an emperor who in vain sought the elixir of immortality.

[4] A mirror with a frame in the shape of a phoenix.

2 thoughts on “The Palace of Emperor Chen – Two Poems (Or Mozart in Prague)

  1. Mark, your rhetorical and musical talents are in full bloom here, as are those of Shangyin and Dr. Mozart.
    Cheers from the city of cherry blossoms (back in DC).


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