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Wolfgang Mozart

by James HargroveMay 24, 2022,
Wolfgang Mozart

Mozart's operas, concertos, symphonies, and sonatas had a significant impact on the development of classical music.

Who Was Wolfgang Mozart?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a multi-instrumentalist who began performing publicly at age six. Mozart linked himself with a number of European venues and patrons during the course of his career, creating hundreds of sonatas, symphonies, masses, chamber music, concertos, and operas characterized by vivid emotion and intricate textures.

Early Life

Mid-18th century Central Europe was through a time of transformation. The vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire had fragmented into a number of minor, semi-autonomous principalities. The outcome was competitive rivalry for identity and recognition amongst these towns. The nobility controlled the government of tiny city-states like Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague, and they commissioned painters and musicians to amuse, inspire, and entertain. The music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras shifted toward more robust compositions and intricate orchestration. One of the most gifted and prodigious musical composers of all time was born in the little city-state of Salzburg.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756. He was the only surviving child of Leopold and Maria Pertl Mozart. Leopold was a talented violinist, composer, and assistant concertmaster at the Salzburg court. Anna Maria Pertl, the mother of Wolfgang, was born into a middle-class family of community leaders. His only sister was Maria Anna, also known as "Nannerl." With their father's support and direction, both of them were exposed to music from a young age. Leopold taught Nannerl to play the piano when she was seven, while Wolfgang, who was three, observed. By imitating her performance, Wolfgang immediately demonstrated a sophisticated command of chords, intonation, and timing. Soon, his father began tutoring him as well.

Leopold was a dedicated and task-oriented instructor for his two children. He made the classes enjoyable yet insisted on hard effort and accuracy. Thankfully, both of the children excelled in these areas. Recognizing their unique abilities, Leopold spent a great deal of time on their instruction in music and other topics. Wolfgang showed early evidence of surpassing his father's instruction by composing at age five and exhibiting exceptional skill on the keyboard and violin. Soon, he would play the piano, organ, and viola.

In 1762, Mozart's father accompanied his eleven-year-old daughter Nannerl and six-year-old son Wolfgang to the Bavarian court in Munich on the first of multiple European "tours." The siblings performed as young prodigies before the courts of Paris, London, The Hague, and Zurich. Mozart met several famous musicians and grew acquainted with their compositions. Particularly significant was his contact with Johann Christian Bach (the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach) in London, who had a significant impact on Mozart. Traveling in rudimentary conditions and awaiting invitations and payments from the nobles, the journeys were lengthy and grueling. Mozart and other members of his family frequently became gravely ill and were forced to curtail their performance schedules.

Budding Young Composer

Mozart, at 13 years old, and his father left Salzburg for Italy in December 1769, leaving his mother and sister behind. It appears that Nannerl's professional music career was finished at this time. According to the norm of the period, she was no longer authorized to display her creative ability in public because she was approaching marriageable age. Leopold intended to demonstrate his son's talents as a singer and composer to as many new audiences as possible. Hence the Italian excursion lasted longer than the others (1769-1771). While in Rome, Mozart witnessed a performance of Miserere by Gregorio Allegri at the Sistine Chapel. He composed the whole music from memory, only returning to repair a few small mistakes. During this period, Mozart also composed Mitridate, re di Ponto for the Milanese court. As a result of later commissions and journeys to Italy, Mozart composed two more operas: Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1782). (1772).

In March 1773, Mozart and his father returned from their final vacation in Italy. Archbishop von Schrattenbach, the benefactor of his father, had died, and his successor was Hieronymus von Colorado. The new archbishop hired young Mozart as deputy concertmaster with a little pay upon their return. Young Mozart was able to compose symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, and serenades, as well as a few operas, during this time period. His fondness for violin concertos led to the creation of the only five he ever composed. In 1776, he shifted his focus to piano concertos, culminating in the early 1777 composition of Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat major. Mozart was 21 years old.

Mozart was dissatisfied with his position as assistant concertmaster and the stifling milieu of Salzburg, despite his success as a composer. He was ambitious and felt he could do more there. Archbishop von Colloredo was annoyed with the grumbling and immaturity of the young genius. In August 1777, Mozart embarked on a journey to search for a more lucrative job. Anna Maria joined Wolfgang on his journey to the towns of Mannheim, Paris, and Munich, while Leopold was denied permission to go by the archbishop. There were first numerous tempting work opportunities, but they all finally fell through. He was forced to pawn some precious personal belongings in order to cover his travel and housing expenses. The lowest moment of the journey occurred on July 3, 1778, when his mother grew ill and died. Leopold obtained a better position for his son as court organist in Salzburg after learning of his wife's death, and Wolfgang returned shortly thereafter.

Making It In Vienna

Mozart returned to Salzburg in 1779 and composed a number of religious compositions, including the Coronation Mass. In 1781, he also penned the opera Idomeneo for Munich. Mozart was summoned to Vienna in March of that year by Archbishop von Colloredo, who was attending Joseph II's inauguration to the Austrian throne. Mozart was outraged by the Archbishop's cold welcome. He was regarded as a simple servant, housed with the servants, and prohibited from performing for the Emperor for a price equivalent to half of his annual pay in Salzburg. Following a dispute, Mozart offered to leave his position. The Archbishop first objected but eventually gave up after being abruptly dismissed and physically removed from his presence. Mozart opted to settle in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer, and for a while, he shared the home of Fridolin Weber with his companions.

Mozart rapidly found employment in Vienna, teaching, composing music for publishing, and performing in a number of performances. He also begun writing an opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). In the summer of 1781, it was claimed that Mozart was considering marrying Constanze, the daughter of Fridolin Weber. Recognizing that his father would disapprove of the marriage and the disruption of his work, young Mozart wrote his father immediately to dismiss the possibility of a wedding. In December, though, he requested his father's blessing. While it is clear that Leopold disapproved, the conversation between father and son is unknown since Constanze allegedly destroyed Leopold's letters. However, Mozart's later correspondence revealed that he and his father clashed significantly on this issue. He was in love with Constanze, and her mother actively urged their marriage, so he felt in some manner committed. The wedding ultimately took place on August 4, 1782. In the meanwhile, Leopold eventually agreed to the marriage. Constanze and Mozart had six children, but only two, Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver, survived infancy.

As 1782 progressed into 1783, Mozart grew enamored with the music of Bach and George Frederic Handel, which resulted in multiple pieces in the Baroque style and affected many of his subsequent works, including parts from Die Zauberflöte and the conclusion of Symphony No. 41. During this period, Mozart and Joseph Haydn became admiring friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, string quartets occasionally staged spontaneous performances. From 1782 through 1785, Mozart dedicated six quartets to Haydn.

European Fame

The opera Die Entführung was an instant and enduring success, enhancing Mozart's reputation and brilliance across Europe. With the significant income from performances and publications, he and Constanze lived an extravagant lifestyle. They resided in one of Vienna's most prestigious apartment buildings, sent their kid to an expensive boarding school, employed maids, and had an active social life. In 1783, Mozart and Constanze visited his father and sister in Salzburg. Leopold was still a hesitant father-in-law, and Nannerl was a dutiful daughter, so the visit was somewhat chilly. However, the stay inspired Mozart to begin composing a mass in C minor, of which only the "Kyrie" and "Gloria" portions were completed. Mozart joined Freemasonry in 1784, a fraternal institution dedicated to humanitarian service, moral rectitude, and the promotion of brotherhood. Mozart was well esteemed among the Freemason society, attending meetings and participating in activities. Mozart's music also became heavily influenced by Freemasonry.

From 1782 through 1785, Mozart split his time between self-produced solo performances and the composition of three to four new piano concertos every season. Mozart used odd locations, including vast halls in apartment complexes and ballrooms in luxury restaurants when it was difficult to find available theatre space for hire in Vienna. 1784 was the most productive year of Mozart's performing career. During a span of five weeks, he participated in 22 concerts, five of which he created and led as a soloist. In a typical performance, he would perform a variety of existing compositions, improvisations, and his many piano concertos. Occasionally, he conducted performances of his symphonies. Mozart had a special relationship with his audiences, who were, in the words of Mozart scholar Maynard Solomon, "given the chance to witness the evolution and completion of a major musical genre." During this period, Mozart also began to keep a record of his own work, which may have been an indication of his understanding of his place in musical history.

Midway through the 1780s, Wolfgang and Constanze Mozart's lavish lifestyle began to take its toll. Despite his reputation as a pianist and composer, Mozart was experiencing severe financial hardship. Mozart connected himself with European aristocrats and believed he should live as one. He believed that court appointment was the greatest method to obtain a more steady and substantial salary. This would be difficult, however, due to the court's penchant for Italian composers and the influence of Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. The connection between Mozart and Salieri has been the topic of inquiry and myth. Mozart and his father, Leopold, felt animosity and mistrust towards Italian musicians in general and Salieri in particular, as seen by their correspondence. Mozart's death was followed by decades of accusations that Salieri had poisoned him. The 20th-century play Amadeus popularised this notion by Peter Shaffer and the 1984 film of the same name by Milos Foreman. In reality, however, there is no foundation for this notion. Despite the fact that both composers frequently competed for the same jobs and public attention, there is no indication that their relationship went beyond that of regular professional competition. Both loved the other's art and, at one time, cooperated on a cantata for voice and piano entitled Per la recover salute di Ophelia.

Mozart met the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, a composer and poet from Venice, near the end of 1785, and they collaborated on the opera The Marriage of Figaro. It premiered well in Vienna in 1786 and was welcomed much more enthusiastically in Prague later that year. This success led to a second collaboration between Mozart and Da Ponte on the opera Don Giovanni, which debuted in Prague in 1787 to widespread acclaim. Notable for their melodic intricacy, the two operas are among Mozart's most significant compositions and remain staples of the contemporary operatic repertory. Both works include a nefarious aristocrat, but Figaro is more comedic and depicts intense social tension. The ensembles of both operas, which have a strong relationship between musical and dramatic significance, are perhaps their most significant accomplishment.

Final Years

In December 1787, Emperor Joseph II elevated Mozart to the position of "chamber composer" left vacant by the death of Gluck. The act was both a tribute to Mozart and an inducement to prevent the renowned composer from leaving Vienna for richer pastures. It was a low-paying part-time position that required Mozart to create dances for the yearly balls. The tiny revenue was a fortunate windfall for Mozart, who was battling with debt since it allowed him to pursue more of his personal artistic goals.

In the late 1780s, Mozart's circumstances began to deteriorate. He was performing less, and his salary decreased as a result. Austria was at war, and both the national wealth and the aristocracy's capacity to fund the arts had deteriorated. Midway through 1788, Mozart moved his family from the center of Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund, ostensibly to save living expenses. In actuality, though, his family spending remained considerable, and the new home gave just extra space. Mozart began to borrow money from his friends, but he was nearly always able to pay it back when a commission or concert arose immediately. During this time, he composed his last three symphonies and the 1790 premiere of Cosi Fan Tutte, the last of the three Da Ponte operas. During this time, Mozart traveled enormous distances from Vienna to Leipzig, Berlin, Frankfurt, and other German towns in an attempt to resurrect his once-great popularity and the financial circumstances of his family, but he was unsuccessful in both endeavors. 1788-1789 was a dark phase for Mozart, who, in his own words, had "black thoughts" and severe despair. Historians believe he may have suffered from a sort of bipolar disease, which may explain his bouts of frenzy and brilliance.

In 1790 and 1791, when he was in his mid-thirties, Mozart had a time of musical output and personal growth. During this period, Mozart composed some of his most acclaimed pieces, including The Magic Flute, the last piano concerto in B-flat, the Clarinet Concerto in A major, and the unfinished Requiem. With repeated performances of his compositions, Mozart was able to regain a substantial portion of his popular renown. In exchange for occasional compositions, wealthy benefactors in Hungary and Amsterdam guaranteed annuities to alleviate his financial status. Due to this fortunate change of events, he was able to repay several of his obligations.

During this time, however, both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's mental and physical health declined. In September 1791, Mozart was in Prague for the premiere of the opera La Clemenza di Tito, which he had been commissioned to compose for Leopold II's inauguration as King of Bohemia. Mozart momentarily recovered to conduct the Prague premiere of The Magic Flute, but in November, he became further unwell and remained bedridden. Constanze and her sister Sophie rushed to his side to try to nurse him back to health, but Mozart's mind was absorbed with completing the Requiem. Thus, their attempts were futile.

Death And Succession

Mozart died at the age of 35 on December 5, 1791. Due to the limitations of postmortem diagnosis, the cause of death remains unknown. Officially, the cause is listed as severe miliary fever, which refers to a skin rash that resembles millet kernels. Since then, several speculations surrounding Mozart's death have emerged. Some have ascribed it to recurrent rheumatic fever, a condition he endured throughout his life. His burial reportedly attracted few mourners, and he was interred in a communal cemetery. During the period, only aristocrats and nobles were permitted to participate in public mourning and be buried in designated graves since both practices were considered Viennese custom. However, his memorial ceremonies and performances in Vienna and Prague were attended by a large number of people. After his passing, Constanze sold several unpublished works to pay off the family's substantial obligations. She was able to secure a pension from the emperor and hosted numerous lucrative Mozart memorial performances. Constanze was able to obtain some financial security as a result of her work, enabling her to send her children to private schools.

Mozart died at an unusually early age for the historical era. Yet, his spectacular ascent to popularity and success at such a young age is reminiscent of modern musical performers whose shine burnt away far too quickly. Mozart was considered one of the greatest composers of all time at the time of his death. His work was frequently difficult and discordant and demanded a great level of technical skill from the players who performed it. His compositions remained secure and popular throughout the nineteenth century, as biographies were published about him, and other artists frequently performed his music. His work influenced many subsequent composers, including Beethoven. Mozart, together with his companion Joseph Haydn, created and refined the big forms that characterized the classical period: symphony, opera, string ensemble, and concerto. Particularly, his operas demonstrate an incredible psychological understanding, unprecedented at the time, and continue to captivate artists and music enthusiasts to this day.

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