Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, in the Austrian city of Salzburg. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a violinist and composer, and young Wolfgang grew up in close contact with music. He showed his extraordinary aptitude for the art early in life. By age four he was playing simple keyboard pieces. A year later he had advanced enough to perform in public. He also wrote his first compositions, a pair of short keyboard pieces, when he was five. Leopold Mozart had achieved moderate success in his own career, but in his son he saw the potential for something far greater, and he determined to make the most of Wolfgang’s precocious musicality. Beginning in 1762, Leopold undertook a series of trips through much of Europe in order to display his son’s talent. During the next four years, Wolfgang performed at the courts of kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and other titled aristocrats in Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England.
Mozart had already taken his first tentative steps as a composer, and he greatly developed this aspect of his musicianship during his later boyhood and early adolescence. He seems to have had little formal training in composition. Rather, he learned from hearing and playing a great quantity of music. By the time he approached his 20th birthday, Mozart had written in a wide range of musical genres: symphonies, concertos, piano pieces, church music, operas, and more. Each year saw his compositional output grow more sophisticated, more assured, more inventive.
Yet Mozart’s early achievements did not produce what his father and, no doubt, he himself most desired: a position in one of the major European capitals. With the novelty of the child prodigy having faded, the European rulers who might have employed Mozart as a court composer evidently came to regard him as merely another of the many capable musicians available to ornament the refined atmospheres of their palaces.
As he approached adulthood, Mozart found himself unhappily tied to Salzburg. He was employed by the Prince-Archbishop as cathedral organist and composer, and as a violinist in the court orchestra, for which he occasionally composed symphonies and other works. But he increasingly found the provincial atmosphere of his native city stifling. A journey undertaken in 1777–78 to the musically lively city of Mannheim and then to Paris failed to yield a professional appointment. Mozart returned to Salzburg shortly before his 23rd birthday, defeated and discouraged. Moreover, he was nursing a heart aching from the death of his mother and his rejection by Aloysia Weber, a singer with whom he had become infatuated in Mannheim.
As it happened, it was not through a fortuitous appointment or enlightened patronage that Mozart left Salzburg and the employ of the Prince-Archbishop, whom he had grown to detest. Rather, he emancipated himself through an audacious act of rebellion. In the spring of 1781 Mozart accompanied the Salzburg ruler on a visit to Vienna. There his resentment boiled over into open defiance. Following a heated exchange, Mozart asked to be released from the Prince-Archbishop’s service. His request was granted “with a kick on my arse” from the court chamberlain.
Mozart remained in Vienna and embarked on a career as a freelance musician at a time when that occupation was uncommon and insecure. From the start he enjoyed considerable success. He obtained a commission to write an opera for the imperial court theater, and he acquired a number of students among Vienna’s musical aristocracy. But it was as a virtuoso pianist that Mozart initially made his strongest impression. “Vienna is certainly the land of the keyboard,” he exulted in a letter to his father, and Mozart dazzled the city’s music-loving public with his playing.
Mozart’s early professional success in Vienna accompanied his attainment of a more personal happiness. Upon arriving in the Austrian capital, the composer renewed his acquaintance with the Weber family, whom he had met in Mannheim. Like Mozart, they had migrated to Vienna for its musical opportunities, Aloysia being now a rising opera singer. There was no question of Mozart renewing his fondness for her; she had wounded his feelings once already, and in any event she had recently married. Instead, Mozart transferred his affection to Aloysia’s younger sister, Constanze.
That development aggravated an already tense situation between the composer and his father. Leopold Mozart disapproved of the Webers generally, and of his son’s relationship with Constanze in particular. But in letters to his father Wolfgang defended the character and virtues of his new love, and in August 1782 he and Constanze married. During the nine years that remained to Mozart, they were a devoted couple. The composer’s letters consistently address or refer to his wife in loving terms. For her part, Constanze provided her husband sympathetic and steadfast support. After his death, she proved an able guardian of his musical legacy.
In 1783 Mozart took an important step toward advancing his career by inaugurating a series of subscription concerts in Vienna. These presentations proved tremendously popular with the city’s music-loving aristocracy and became the composer’s chief source of income. Their programs consisted entirely of Mozart’s own compositions—orchestral pieces, chamber music, and vocal works—as well as improvisations at the piano. But the principal number was always a piano concerto, with the composer performing the solo part. Mozart wrote some 17 piano concertos between 1782 and 1786, and these works embody some of his finest music.
Mozart also found other vehicles for his creativity. In 1785 he began a collaboration with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte on an operatic adaptation of Le marriage de Figaro, a risque romantic comedy with strong political overtones. The result was a masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro. Together Mozart and Da Ponte would produce two other superb operas, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.
Despite the brilliance of his operas, concertos, and other compositions, Mozart’s career reached a zenith five years after he settled in Vienna. In the wake of a ruinous economic recession, his subscription concerts were no longer viable after the spring of 1786. His operatic ventures brought him acclaim but relatively little income, and the court appointment he still hoped for remained elusive. As his fortunes declined, Mozart was reduced to borrowing money from friends and, at one point, pawning his furniture.
With these and other worries weighing heavily on him, Mozart suffered through a creative trough during much of 1790. But the arrival of a new year seems to have brought a renewal of his spirit and determination. After completing a new piano concerto and a substantial quantity of dance music, he set to work on two operas, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”). Both were finished within about half a year. He also found time to compose a concerto for a clarinetist friend, a string quintet, and a number of small pieces. In July Mozart received another commission, one that charged him with writing a Requiem Mass. The composer set about fulfilling this commission in the autumn of 1791 but never finished the work. By November 20 he had fallen seriously ill and took to bed. Two weeks later, on December 5, he died, work on the Requiem only partly done.
Mozart’s death, not quite two months before his 36th birthday, remains one of music’s great tragedies. We can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he been granted more time. Yet the music he did leave us constitutes one of the treasures of human civilization. Countless musicians have extolled Mozart’s work. So, too, have some famous minds who were not primarily musicians. One of them, Albert Einstein, offered this assessment: “Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven ‘created’ his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely ‘found’ it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe, waiting to be revealed.”
Copyright © 2009 by Paul Schiavo