Print this page

Sources returnpage

Mozart

Category: Musician or composer

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  (1756 –1791), was according to Wikipedia a ‘prolific and influential Austrian composer of the Classical era’.  He also died very early, aged only 35, but still managed to compose over 600 works.  He has written so many works, that a unique number is assigned, in regular chronological order, to every one of his known works. Known as the Köchel catalogue number, each work is referenced by the abbreviation "K." followed by this number.

His music during his lifetime was well received and he enjoyed huge success.  There was none of the vitriolic criticism often heaped on composers by critics.  He was lauded and supported throughout his career and the concert halls where he played his pieces were often packed. 

 

Whilst Mozart was clearly no plagiarist, other composers of the time had a profound influence on him and his style of music.  Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, for example, around 1784. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart dedicated six quartets to Haydn (K. 387, K. 421, K. 428, K. 458, K. 464, and K. 465).  Mozart always had a gift for absorbing and adapting valuable features of others' music. In London as a child, he met J. C. Bach and heard his music. In Italy he encountered the Italian overture and opera buffa, both of which deeply affected the evolution of his own practice. And as Mozart matured, he progressively incorporated more features adapted from the Baroque. Some of his quartets from 1773 have fugal finales, probably influenced by Haydn.

Mozart was a versatile composer, and wrote in every major genre, including symphony, opera, the solo concerto, chamber music including string quartet and string quintet, and the piano sonata. These forms were not new, but Mozart advanced their technical sophistication”.

I am well aware that Mozart has a huge following in classical musical circles and is still enjoyed.  But this site is about all things ‘heavenly’ and Mozart’s music is on the whole not heavenly in that he did not receive inspiration from songs heard in his head, he worked the songs out.  Thus he was immensely competent as a composer and musician, as the quote above says he was technically superb, but not in the strictest sense, inspired.  But there are occasions when this was not true and something broke through, which I will explore.

Maria Anna Mozart

Mozart was born in Salzburg. This was the capital of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, a ecclesiastical principality in what is now Austria, then part of the Holy Roman Empire.  He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. His elder and surviving sister was Maria Anna (1751–1829), nicknamed "Nannerl".   Mozart’s father was a minor composer, violinist and music teacher.

When Nannerl was seven, she began keyboard lessons with her father while her three-year-old brother looked on. She said that:

He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good. [...] In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier. [...] He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time. [...] At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down”.

And indeed this is a good summary of a child who was a musical prodigy, learning both the violin and piano.  His father gave up composing when his son's musical talents became evident and Mozart's father became his only teacher. Along with music, he taught his two children languages and academic subjects.

During Mozart's youth, his family made several European journeys in which he and Nannerl performed as child prodigies including the Imperial Court in Vienna and Prague.  Mozart wrote his first opera Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770), which was performed with success, aged 14.  Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772) followed, along with the solo motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165. 

In 1773, aged 17, Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. In 1775, Mozart wrote a series of five violin concertos (the only ones he ever wrote). The last three—K. 216, K. 218, K. 219—are now staples of the repertoire. In 1776, aged 20, he turned his efforts to piano concertos, culminating in the E-flat concerto K. 271 of early 1777.  The premiere of Mozart's opera La finta giardiniera was performed in Munich in 1775, when he was 19.

Things however were not all going smoothly for him despite his prestigious output. He fell in love with Aloysia Weber, but this came to nothing.  Many promising prospects of employment also came to nothing, and Mozart was forced to travel all over Europe looking for work.  He fell into debt and took to pawning valuables.  Then Mozart's mother was taken ill and died on 3 July 1778.  During this time he composed two pieces - the A minor piano sonata K. 310/300d and the "Paris" Symphony (no. 31), which are almost manic in their speed and complexity.

There is just the hint of arrogance in Mozart’s approach which, although it did not affect his output, certainly affected his relationships with other people.  In 1781, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his employer, 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 employee” and they argued. Mozart attempted to resign and was refused. The following month, permission was granted, but the composer was dismissed literally "with a kick in the arse", administered by the archbishop's steward, Count Arco. The quarrel with the archbishop went harder for Mozart because his father sided against him. Hoping fervently that he would 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. And he did.  Mozart's resignation has been described as a "revolutionary step", and it greatly altered the course of his life.

Mozart's new career in Vienna began well. He soon "established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna" and also prospered as a composer, and in 1782 completed the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"), which premiered on 16 July 1782 and achieved considerable success.

Constanze Mozart

Meanwhile, Mozart had moved in with the Weber family, who had moved to Vienna from Mannheim. Aloysia, who had earlier rejected Mozart, was now married to the actor and artist Joseph Lange. Mozart's interest shifted to the third Weber daughter, Constanze. The courtship “did not go entirely smoothly”.  The couple were finally married on 4 August 1782, when Mozart was 26.  The couple had six children, of whom only two survived infancy.  From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season.

In 1783, Mozart and his wife visited his family in Salzburg. His father and sister were cordially polite to Constanze, but the visit prompted the composition of one of Mozart's great liturgical pieces, the Mass in C minor.

With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted ‘a rather plush lifestyle’. They moved to an expensive apartment, with a yearly rent of 460 florins.  Mozart bought a fine fortepiano from Anton Walter for about 900 florins, and a billiard table for about 300. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school, and kept servants. Saving was therefore impossible, and “the short period of financial success did nothing to soften the hardship the Mozarts were later to experience”.

Around the end of 1785, aged 29, Mozart began his famous operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1786 saw the successful premiere of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. This led to a second collaboration with Da Ponte: the opera Don Giovanni, which premiered in October 1787 to acclaim in Prague, and also met with 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 technical complexity caused difficulty for both listeners and performers”.

Toward the end of the decade, Mozart's circumstances worsened. Around 1786, aged only 30, he ceased to appear frequently in public concerts, and his income shrank.  Mozart began to borrow money, most often from his friend Michael Puchberg; "a pitiful sequence of letters pleading for loans" survives.

It also appears that Mozart was ill, and the general hypothesis now being promoted is that he, like numerous others of the time was suffering from heavy metal poisoning – principally lead.  The hypothesis explains much of his argumentative behaviour and the inability of either his own children or his siblings to survive or thrive.  He might well have been born with lead poisoning passed on by his mother.  He suffered all the standard symptoms of heavy metal poisoning including depression.  Mozart's physical appearance tends to support heavy metal poisoning, too, he was described as “remarkably small, very thin and pale”.  He was thus not a well man.

He also appears to have had bouts of mania.  Major works of the period include the last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) all from 1788, aged 32; the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte, premiered in 1790; and the Little Masonic Cantata K. 623, premiered on 15 November 1791.  It is worth noting that Mozart became a Freemason in 1784, and freemasonry played an important role in his life: he attended meetings, a number of his friends were Masons, and on various occasions ‘he composed Masonic music’.

Portrait of Mozart by Johann George Edlinger,
done in Munich in 1790, a year before the composer died
the portrait makes him look a lot more robust than
he was described by his friends

In his last years, he composed 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.

And it is these works which show true inspiration.  In the end it was financial hardship [Mozart's financial situation was a source of extreme anxiety to him by 1790] and a terrible death from lead poisoning, which produced his inspirational  works.

Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the 6 September 1791 premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito.  He continued his professional functions for some time, and conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute on 30 September. His health deteriorated on 20 November, at which point he became bedridden, sufferingfrom swelling, pain, and vomiting.  Mozart was nursed in his final illness by his wife and her youngest sister. He was mentally occupied with the task of finishing his Requiem, but he died in his home on 5 December 1791 (aged 35) at 1:00 am.

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.