Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s name is familiar even to people who know little or none of his music. However, Mozart’s fame is based on two different frames of reference: firstly, being the most famous child prodigy in music history (as both a performer and a composer) and secondly, his unquestioned brilliance as an adult composer of Classical symphonies, operas, chamber music, sonatas, church music, and concerti for various instruments. Just days before his fifth birthday, Mozart played a complete piano piece for the first time in his life. His father proudly recorded that it took him half an hour to learn it. He learned another piece a month later, and another a month after that. The next piece he learned he wrote himself–well, maybe! Musical scholars have long questioned the degree to which the child Mozart actually composed at age five. His father, Leopold, who was a noted composer himself, is believed to have greatly “helped” the child with his early compositions.
Under the scrutiny of modern understanding about the abstract nature of music reading and learning musical notation, it seems doubtful that Wolfgang actually composed much of these early works that are now “clumped” together in Köchel’s catalog of the composer’s works as Opus 1 or K. 1. When Mozart actually began to compose, is not really a matter of great importance, for he was truly a child prodigy as a performer at the keyboard and equally on the violin. And as a teenager onwards, his compositions rank among the greatest works ever penned by a musician, and there is no doubt that these works are genuinely his own.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, christened Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756. Wolfgang was the second child of a famous musician. In his twenty-fourth year, Leopold Mozart received an appointment as violinist in the orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg, eventually rising to the position of Vice-Kapellmeister in 1763. He composed fervently and produced a famous violin method, his Violinschule. But as Leopold himself realized, his greatest work was not his own music but his son, Wolfgang. At the age of three, he already sat in front of the harpsichord attempting to find harmonic successions of thirds. When Wolfgang was four, his father began to teach him the elements of harpsichord playing. Music obviously came to him as naturally as breathing. Wolfgang never attended schools of any kind. His non- musical education may not have been extensive, although it included Latin and modern languages (Italian, French, and some English), which were of practical value on his many journeys. Leopold Mozart, recognizing the extraordinary gifts of his two children (for Maria Anna, five years Wolfgang’s senior, was also strongly talented) decided to exhibit his children before all of Europe.
When Wolfgang was six years old, an extensive concert tour took him to the foremost European concert halls and royal courts. Wherever he performed, the sweet charm of his personality and his incredible genius as a performer conquered the hearts of his audience. Francis I of Vienna referred to him as “ein kleine hexenmeister” (a little master-wizard). In Frankfurt, Mozart gave a solo performance: “He will play,” ran the announcement in the Frankfurt newspaper, “a concerto for the violin, and will accompany symphonies on the clavier, the keyboard being covered with a cloth, with as much facility as if he could see the keys; he will instantly name all the notes played at a distance, whether singly or in chords as on the clavier or any other instrument, bell, glass or clock. He will, finally, both on the harpsichord and the organ, improvise as long as may be desired and in any key.” About this Frankfurt performance, Geothe many years later wrote to Eckermann, “I was only fourteen years old, but I see it, as if I were still there, the little man with his child’s sword and his curly hair…A rare phenomenon like that of Mozart remains a truly inexplicable thing.”
In Paris, Wolfgang became the darling of Versailles. He was, as Grimm wrote “so extraordinary a phenomenon that one finds it difficult to believe unless one has seen him with one’s own eyes and heard him with one’s own ears.” The Paris visit was marked by the appearance of Mozart’s first published work, four piano sonatas, composed at age ten. From Paris, the Mozarts came to London, where Wolfgang befriended Johann Christian Bach, music master to the Queen. In London, Wolfgang gave several sensational performances at the Vauxhall Gardens that were the subject of great wonder.
The Mozarts were back in Salzburg in 1766, after an absence of four years. The tour had been a greater success artistically than materially. True, Mozart was given many gifts by royalty, but the principal goal to which Leopold aspired had been unaccomplished: the acquisition of a permanent, lucrative post by Wolfgang in one of the principal European courts.
One year later, the Mozarts were once again on tour. They went to Vienna where Wolfgang was commissioned to compose his first opera, La finta semplice, K. 51. Intrigues created by envious composers, prevented this first opera from being performed. However, another charming early theatrical work of Mozart, Bastien und Bastienne, an opera buffa, was performed in Vienna to much acclaim.
Near the end of 1769, the Mozarts made their first journey to Italy, a journey crowned with glory. In Mantua, they attended a concert of the Philharmonic orchestra which performed a few of Wolfgang’s compositions in his honor. In Milan, they received a commission for Wolfgang to compose an opera for the following year. Bologna brought Mozart into contact with the great Martini, who welcomed the young genius with open arms.
In Rome, Mozart attended a performance of the celebrated nine-part Miserere by Antonio Allegri which could be heard only in Rome during Holy Week performed by the papal choir. By papal decree, it was forbidden to sing the work elsewhere, and its only existing copy was strongly guarded by the papal choir. Any attempt to copy the piece or reproduce it in any form was punishable by excommunication. Mozart, however, had heard the work only once when, returning home, he reproduced it in its entirety upon paper. This incomparable feat soon became the subject for awed whispers in Rome, and it was not long before the Pope himself heard the rumors. The Pope summoned Mozart, but instead of punishing the young genius with excommunication, he showered praise upon him and gave him handsome gifts. A few months later, the Pope bestowed upon Mozart the Cross of the Order of the Golden Spur.
From that time on, young Mozart was constantly performing and writing music. He was the toast of Austria, and he gave many concerts of his compositions and loved to improvise at concerts as well. Wherever he appeared, people gaped in awe at his divine gifts. By his early teens, he had mastered the piano, violin and harpsichord, and was writing keyboard pieces, oratorios, symphonies and operas. His first major serious opera, Mitridate, was performed in Milan in 1770 when he was only fourteen, and to such unqualified raves that the local critics compared him to the great Handel.
To many who are admirers of Mozart’s music, the very human traits revealed in his letters have been disturbing, particularly those to his cousin, Maria Anna Thekla. Almost all of these letters contain crude jokes, puns, and obscenities. Likewise, the composer also wrote canons with similar texts that were later “suppressed,” since they did not fit a wholesome picture of the composer. But these aspects of Mozart’s character should be viewed as the lighthearted side of his personality and not taken seriously.
In 1778 twenty-two year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had gone with his mother to Paris, hoping to enhance his international reputation. He had gone reluctantly and once he got there, he found one obstacle after another. His mother’s health began to fail, and she refused to accept treatment from French physicians until it was too late. On July 3rd, 1778, Mozart wrote a worried letter to his father in Salzburg, not knowing that on the same fateful night his mother would suddenly die: “I have very painful and sad news to give you, which in fact accounts for my not having replied sooner to your letter. My dearest mother is very ill. They have bled her according to custom, which was indeed quite necessary and did her a lot of good. But a few days later she complained of shivering and feverishness. As she became worse by the minute, could barely speak, and lost her hearing, we had to shout to her. Baron Grimm sent his doctor to see her. She is still very weak, still feverish and delirious. They do give me some hope, but I don’t have much. I wavered from hope to fear day and night, but I’m completely reconciled to the will of God, and hope that you and my sister will be too…Let us put aside these sad thoughts, and still hope, but not too much…I have written a symphony for the opening of the “Concert Spirituel,” which was performed to great applause on Corpus Christi day. I was very nervous during the rehearsal because in my whole life I’ve never heard anything go so badly. You can have no idea of the way they scraped and scurried through it twice. I was really very edgy, and I would have been happy to have it rehearsed again, but there wasn’t time. So I went to bed with an aching heart, dissatisfied and angry. The next day I decided not to go to the concert at all, but the fair evening weather made me change my mind. I was nonetheless determined that if the performance went as badly as the rehearsal, I would go into the orchestra , take the violin from the first violinist, and lead myself.”
Several years before the death of his mother, at age fifteen, Mozart had been installed as the concertmaster in the orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Things did not go very well since Mozart did not get along with the Archbishop. Their relations deteriorated to the point where, in 1781, Mozart quit this lofty position and headed for Vienna, quite against his father’s wishes. It was also evident that Mozart grew increasingly restless without the influence of his mother in the family. Tensions between Leopold and his son mounted over time. In Vienna, Mozart was at first kept busy and happy by composing. His first German Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), attained immediate and lasting success. Soon after its first performance in 1782, Mozart married Konstanze Weber, a step for which his father never forgave him. The young couple visited Salzburg the following year; Konstanze sang the soprano solo part in the Mass in C Minor, K. 427 when the incomplete work was first heard at St. Peter’s Church. Mozart, who earlier had distinguished himself as a violinist, now was eager to make a name for himself in Vienna by appearing as a pianist, in concerts given by himself and others.
Many of his Piano Concertos were written during the 1780′s, usually with a specific occasion in mind. When his father came for a visit in 1785, things were still going tolerably well. Mozart’s initial success as a free-lance performing artist, composing nearly all of the music he played, eventually faded since the Viennese tired of his novelty, and their generous support of his work wore off. Although he was still able to support himself, he had become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle that was difficult to maintain. His marriage to Konstanza Weber did not help. She was even less able to control spending than was he. Although Mozart and his family could never be said to have lived in dire poverty, they were forced to move eleven times in the ten years they lived in Vienna, each time to less expensive lodgings.
The Emperor, who thought highly of Mozart, attended several of his “academies” but did little else for him. Eventually, there was an appointment as Court composer, but there were next to no orders for compositions. When a salary was added to the title, it was a meager one, and Mozart’s last years, in spite of some notable successes (Figaro, 1786), were beset by financial worries, aggravated by Konstanze’s many sicknesses and confinements. No longer was Mozart in great demand as a performer and composition teacher. And despite the fact that his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was a hit, life was seldom easy for him. He was a poor businessman, and finances were always tight. Political infighting at the Viennese Court kept him from obtaining the patronage that composers of the period so greatly relied upon, and he descended to a life of genteel poverty.
In 1787, Mozart visited Prague where both Die Entführung and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) had been well received. The composer was already well known and liked when he arrived in the Bohemian capital. He added to these successes by conducting Figaro and other works including the Symphony in D Major, K. 504, and he signed a contract for a new opera to be produced in Prague. Da Ponte again supplied the libretto. Don Giovanni, the result of their collaboration, turned out to everyone’s satisfaction, yet even the most complimentary reviews referred to an aspect of his music that was mentioned with increasing frequency from then on: the difficulty of execution. Many of Mozart’s late works lacked general acceptance because of musical and technical problems with which performers and audiences, accustomed to the lighter fare of Dittersdorf, Wanhal, and other fashionable composers, could not cope. After Don Giovanni, Mozart’s optimism about the future, which had often worried his father, disappeared and reversed itself. There were many setbacks. His lack of success at the Imperial Court may have been partly responsible for the fact that he now was less in demand as a performer. One of his “academies” in 1790 had to be cancelled for lack of subscribers. His last three symphonies, later among his most popular works, were written in 1788 for a concert that did not materialize. The summer of 1788 was one of the worst of times for the already-famous composer. Although he was earning a small salary in return for his service to Emperor Joseph II, he was still in great debt financially, and he had to write a heartbreakingly desperate letter to a close friend, Michael Puchberg, to beg for funds. Puchberg helped, but he could not completely rescue him, and Mozart would never again return to solid financial ground for the remainder of his short life.
Despite these straits, the pen that had produced so many beautiful melodies was hard at work. Even while writing many other minor works,
Mozart composed his final three symphonies in a period of about ten weeks. But despite the speed with which he worked, these are no slap-dash collections of triviality. Each of these symphonies is a superb work. Each is full of invention; yet they are structured so precisely that they have served as instructional material for all following composers. The second of the three, Symphony in G Minor, No. 40, seems to embody Mozart’s own unhappiness at his circumstances in its opening movement; yet at the finish there is a flood of exuberant joy that characterizes so much of his music. Quite possibly, however, Mozart never heard these works performed.
In 1789, another journey took him to Dresden, Leipzig (where he played on Bach’s organ at the St. Thomas Church), and Berlin. Of the six quartets he had planned to dedicate to the King of Prussia only three were written. In general, the trip brought few material results. Once more a request for an opera, this time coming from the Emperor himself, gave him temporary encouragement. Cosi fan tutte, although written under most difficult and depressing circumstances, nevertheless turned out to be a delightful comedy with many farcical touches. It had been played only five times when Joseph II died in February of 1790. Only after the official period of mourning did a few further performances take place.
Sonatas for various instruments account for almost one-fourth of Mozart’s instrumental works. It may be assumed that the composer’s virtuosity on both the violin and piano probably explains this central position given to the sonata genre in his compositions. Today, it is generally believed that although the clavichord, harpsichord, and piano (pianoforte), or fortepiano (as it was sometimes called in the eighteenth century) were available to him, Mozart favored the last-mentioned with its hammer action, which was then rapidly establishing itself. Mozart repeatedly expressed his satisfaction with the tonal possibilities of the Hammerklavier. His detailed and enthusiastic description of the instruments made by Stein of Augsburg fills a good part of a letter to his father dated October 17-18, 1777. The even tone and perfected mechanism of these pianos supplied the tonal characteristics that appeared most desirable to Mozart for a realization of his concept of keyboard style. Only his first four sonatas, published in London at age ten, were ascribed: “pour le clavecin ou le Piano Forte.”
The charming Eine Kleine Nachmusik, a Serenade for string quintet or small string orchestra, is the singularly most popular example of chamber music from the Classical Era. It was written by Mozart in 1787 at age 31. The name means “a little night music” or a little nocturne. It consists of four movements: 1. Fast Sonata 2. Slow Rondo 3. Dance Minuet 4. Fast Rondo All of Mozart’s compositions from the final decade of his life in Vienna came at a prolific rate, but they were only sporadically popular. So Mozart eventually fell back on his teaching jobs and on the charity of friends to make ends meet. But in 1790, when Leopold II was crowned German Emperor in Frankfurt, Mozart was determined to take part. No one had asked the Court composer Mozart to contribute to the occasion, but in an almost desperate attempt to gain official and public recognition, Mozart journeyed to Frankfurt at his own expense and arranged a concert at which he performed two piano concertos “of his own composition” as well as “a new great symphony” and other works. The financial success, Mozart had to admit, was meager, and he left on the following day.
Work on Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) occupied much of Mozart’s time in the first half of 1791, in collaboration with his friend and fellow-Mason, Schikaneder. It was interrupted in July by the appearance of a mysterious messenger from an unidentified patron: Mozart, for a considerable fee, was to compose a Requiem Mass. Attempts by amateur composers to shine with someone else’s work were not unheard of in the days before copyright protection. Mozart, however, in poor health and greatly depressed, was shaken by the experience and obsessed by the idea that this was to be his own Mass for the Dead.
A further interruption came in the form of a last-minute request from Prague to write an opera for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Metastasio’s often-composed libretto La Clemenza di Tito was given to Mozart, who had little more than two weeks to write the music. To accomplish this feat, he enlisted the help of his pupil, Süssmayer, who composed the recitatives. Both of them worked feverishly, even during their three-day journey to Prague. Success was only moderate, and the Empress allegedly referred to Tito as “una porcheria tedesca.” All accounts agree that Mozart’s health had deteriorated visibly and rapidly. The incredible haste with which work on Tito and The Magic Flute had to proceed make this idea plausible. The latter was performed in Vienna on September 30, less than a month after Tito. Death came on December 5, but to the end Mozart felt compelled to continue work on the Requiem, which he did not finish. Fortune never turned for Mozart, and when he died in 1791 at the age of thirty-five, he was buried in an unmarked grave.
To say that Mozart was a composer of undeniable genius is scarcely scratching the surface of this man’s gifts. He wrote music, complete and perfect, down to the last accent and inflection. And his astonishing rate of production continues to stupefy scholars today. In his short life, he composed over 600 works, including 21 stage and opera works, 15 Masses, 41 symphonies, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 27 concert arias, 17 piano sonatas, 26 string quartets and so on. But what makes these numbers doubly unfathomable is the peerless craft with which each piece of music was created. Mozart was a master of counterpoint, fugue, and the other traditional compositional devices of his day; more than this, he was perhaps one of the greatest melody writers the world has ever known. His operas range from comic baubles to tragic masterpieces. His Requiem stands with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion as a supreme example of vocal music.
In recent years, Mozart’s fame has reached new heights on the popularity of the film Amadeus. Music scholars love to poke holes in what is admittedly a fantastic portrait of Mozart’s life and ensuing arguments over his relationship with his musical “rival” Salieri, his method of composing, and the events surrounding his death have created more public misunderstandings about this composer than ever existed before. What the recent Mozart vogue has created for the good, however, is increased awareness of his music, which must be counted among the musical treasures of our civilization.
Along with Haydn, his elder by twenty-four years, and Beethoven, his junior by fifteen years, Mozart is one of the composers who brought the Viennese Classical style to its height. His style is completely unique; when a piece is heard by Mozart, there is no doubt who wrote it. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, each taken for a while into his idiom, then in part rejected, in part absorbed. His mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal perfection, and technical flawlessness, is deeply colored by Italian, Austrian, and German traditions.