Mozart hadn’t composed in the archaic genre of opera seria for ten years when the impresario Guardasoni asked if he would write an opera to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The libretto was by Metastasio, and had been a huge success for him, already being set to music by Caldara, Gluck, Galuppi, Sarti, Mysliviˇcek and Naumann. Mozart asked Caterino Mazzola to tighten up the text as there was a lengthy section in the middle of the drama that would have tried the patience of the dignitaries at the royal performance. This reduced the drama to two acts. Mozart was just putting the finishing touches to Die Zauberflöte when he commenced work on the new opera.
Although he had enjoyed a great run of successes with his comic operas, he could hardly produce such a work for this grand occasion. The subject of Titus may have appealed to him; Mozart may have seen in the Roman emperor the same Masonic ideals and qualities of forgiveness and tolerance that he had portrayed in Die Zauberflöte. Mozart was working flat out at this time, and his health was declining rapidly. To have the opera ready in time for the Prague premiere on 6 September 1791, he asked his pupil Süssmayr to compose the recitatives. Mozart had taken just four weeks to complete the work. He would be dead in the December of that year, aged 35.
La Clemenza di Tito was politely received, but the opera’s noble characters, and the fact that it contains some of the composer’s greatest music saw its gradual appreciation by the public. It was the first Mozart opera to be performed in the UK, in 1806, but the first US performance was not until 1952 in Tanglewood.