The Composer Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (German, 1756–1791) was a prolific
and influential composer of the Classical era. He was a child prodigy and
composed over 600 works during his short life of 35 years. Many of his
compositions are acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber,
operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of
classical composers, and his influence on subsequent Western art music is
profound. Many believe that he was the greatest talent of all composers.
The Childhood and Youth of Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the youngest of seven children
of Leopold Mozart and Anna Maria. Only Wolfgang and his elder sister Maria Anna
called Nannerl survived infancy. Wolfgang Amadeus was born in Salzburg which
was at that time part of the loose confederation called “Holy Roman Empire of
the German Nation”. During Mozart’s time, there was no German nation-state that
he could have been a citizen of. Now, Salzburg it is part of Austria.
Mozart’s father was a minor composer and an experienced
teacher. During the year of Mozart’s birth, he published a textbook for
learning violin which achieved success. When his sister was seven, their father
taught her keyboard while Mozart, aged 3, looked on and then mimicked her with
good success. So their father decided to give Mozart piano lessons too. At the
age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his
father who wrote them down. Mozart's father was his only teacher and along with
music, he taught his children languages and academic subjects.
During Mozart's youth, his family made several European
journeys in which he and Nannerl performed as child prodigies. These trips were
often difficult and travel conditions were primitive. The family had to wait
for invitations and reimbursement from the nobility and they endured long,
near-fatal illnesses far from home: first Leopold in London, summer 1764, then
both children in The Hague, autumn 1765. During these trips, Mozart met a
number of musicians and acquainted himself with the works of other composers. A
particularly important influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom Mozart visited
in London in 1764 and 1765.
In 1764, at 8 years old, Mozart wrote his first symphony. It
is probable that his father transcribed most of it for him.
From December 1769 to March 1771, Mozart and his father
traveled through Italy. In Rome, Mozart heard Gregorio Allegri's Miserere twice
in performance in the Sistine Chapel and wrote it out from memory, thus
producing the first unauthorized copy of this closely guarded property of the
From 1773 to 1777, Mozart was employed as a court musician
by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Mozart had a
great number of friends and admirers in Salzburg and had the opportunity to
work in many genres, including symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses,
serenades, and a few minor operas. In 1775, Mozart developed an enthusiasm for
violin concertos and produces a series of five which remained the only ones he
ever wrote. In 1776 he turned his efforts to piano concertos, culminating in
the E-flat concerto K. 271 of early 1777, considered by critics to be a
Despite these artistic successes, Mozart grew increasingly
discontented with Salzburg and redoubled his efforts to find a position
elsewhere. One reason was his low salary, but Mozart also longed to compose
operas. However, the court theater was closed in 1775 and the other theater in
Salzburg was largely reserved for visiting troupes.
In 1777, at age 21, Mozart resigned his position at Salzburg and ventured out in search of employment, with visits to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Munich. Mozart finally returned to Salzburg in 1779 and took up his new appointment as court organist and concertmaster with a threefold salary compared to before, but his discontent with Salzburg remained undiminished.
In 1781, at age 25, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his employer, Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo, was attending the celebrations for the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. Mozart was offended when Colloredo treated him as a mere servant and particularly when the archbishop forbade him to perform before the Emperor at Countess Thun's for a fee equal to half of his yearly Salzburg salary. The resulting quarrel came to a head when Mozart attempted to resign and was refused. The following month, permission was granted but in a grossly insulting way: the composer was dismissed literally "with a kick in the arse", administered by the archbishop's steward, Count Arco. Mozart decided to settle in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer.
The quarrel with the archbishop went harder for Mozart because his father sided against him. Hoping fervently that he would obediently follow Colloredo back to Salzburg, Mozart's father exchanged intense letters with his son, urging him to be reconciled with their employer. Mozart passionately defended his intention to pursue an independent career in Vienna. The debate ended when Mozart was dismissed by the archbishop, freeing himself both of his employer and his father's demands to return. Mozart's resignation was a revolutionary step, and it greatly altered the course of his life.
In Vienna, Mozart moved in with the Weber family, a musical family from Mannheim that Mozart knew from his travel in 1777. At that time, he had fallen in love with Aloysa, one of the four Weber daughters. Aloysia was now married and Mozart's interest shifted to the third Weber daughter, Constanze. The couple were finally married in August 1782, the day before his father's consent arrived in the mail. The couple had six children, of whom only two survived infancy.
From the beginning, Mozart's new career in Vienna in 1781 began well. He performed often as a pianist, notably in a competition before the Emperor with Muzio Clementi and he soon had established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna. He also prospered as a composer, and in 1782 completed the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), which achieved a huge success. The work was soon being performed throughout German-speaking Europe and fully established Mozart's reputation as a composer.
From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. Since space in the theaters was scarce, he booked unconventional venues: a large room in an apartment building, and the ballroom of a restaurant. The concerts were very popular, and the concertos he premiered at them are still firm fixtures in the repertoire.
With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted a rather plush lifestyle. They moved to an expensive apartment, bought a fine fortepiano and a costly billiard table. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school and kept servants. Saving was therefore impossible.
Around the end of 1785, Mozart moved away from keyboard writing and began his famous operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1786 saw the successful premiere of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. Its reception in Prague later in the year was even warmer, and this led to a second collaboration with Da Ponte: the opera Don Giovanni, which premiered in October 1787 to acclaim in Prague, but less success in Vienna in 1788. The two are among Mozart's most important works and are mainstays of the operatic repertoire today, though at their premieres their musical complexity caused difficulty for both listeners and performers.
Around 1786 Mozart had ceased to appear frequently in public concerts, and his income shrank. This was a difficult time for musicians in Vienna because of the Austro-Turkish War: both the general level of prosperity and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined. In 1787 the young Ludwig van Beethoven spent several weeks in Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart. No reliable records survive to indicate whether the two composers ever met.
In December 1787, Mozart obtained a steady post under aristocratic patronage. Emperor Joseph II appointed him as his chamber composer, a post that had fallen vacant the previous month on the death of Gluck. It was a part-time appointment, and required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual ball. Emperor Joseph's aim was to keep the esteemed composer from leaving Vienna in pursuit of better prospects. The modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived. Mozart began to borrow money. Major works of the period include the last three symphonies Nos. 39, 40, and 41, all from 1788, and the last of the three operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Così fan tutte, premiered in 1790. Around this time, Mozart made long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the spring of 1789, and to Frankfurt, Mannheim, and other German cities in 1790. The trips produced only isolated success and did not relieve the family's financial distress.
Mozart's last year 1791 was, until his final illness struck, a time of great productivity. He composed some of his most admired works: the opera The Magic Flute, the final piano concerto K. 595 in B-flat, the Clarinet Concerto K. 622, the last in his great series of string quintets K. 614 in E-flat, the motet Ave verum corpus K. 618; and the unfinished Requiem K. 626. Mozart's financial situation began to improve. Wealthy patrons in Hungary and Amsterdam pledged annuities to Mozart in return for the occasional composition. He is thought to have benefited from the sale of dance music written in his role as Imperial chamber composer. Mozart made a start on paying off his debts.
Mozart fell ill in September 1791 and his health deteriorated in November when he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting. Mozart was nursed in his final illness by his wife and her youngest sister, and was attended by the family doctor. He was mentally occupied with the task of finishing his Requiem.
Mozart died in his home on 5 December 1791 aged 35. The cause of Mozart's death cannot be known with certainty. Researchers have posited at least 118 causes of death, including acute rheumatic fever, streptococcal infection, trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment.
Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom. Later reports say that no mourners attended, which is too consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time. The expression "common grave" refers to neither a communal grave nor a pauper's grave, but to an individual grave for a member of the common people (i.e., not the aristocracy). Common graves were subject to excavation after ten years; the graves of aristocrats were not.
Mozart's modest funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer: memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were well-attended. Indeed, in the period immediately after his death, his reputation rose substantially. There was an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for his work, biographies were written, and publishers vied to produce complete editions of his works.
Photo: "Croce-Mozart-Detail" by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819) - . Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons