Famous Composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Famous Composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  Sonatica Blog

In the 1750s when Joseph Haydn, expelled from school, was still a struggling Viennese street-busker, there lived a hundred and fifty miles away to the west at Salzburg (on the third floor of the house now numbered 9 Getreidegasse) a worthy musician named Leopold Mozart and his wife Anna Maria, nee Pertl. Of their six children only two survived for more than a few months: one was a girl, the other a boy. The girl, born in July 1751 and christened Maria Anna, was a clever child who had already learnt to play the harpsichord by the time her brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart joined the family circle on 27th January 1756.

His aptitude for music was even more extraordinary: at the age of three his prowess on harpsichord and piano rivalled that of his seven-year-old sister, and he started to compose when he was five. The pieces Wolfgang wrote in those days were short and simple but, far from resembling the jejune efforts of most infantile composers, they were competent little affairs and would hardly be out of place in (say) the Papageno scenes of The Magic Flute, which belonged to his last year on earth.

Presently Leopold Mozart resigned the permanent post which he held at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg (Sigismund von Schrattenbach) in order to exploit - and who shall blame him? - the precocity of his children. From 1762 until 1766 he exhibited them in turn at Munich, Vienna, Brussels, Paris, London, the Hague, Berne, Zurich - and between-whiles at many other centres of musical culture in western Europe. Everywhere they went, and above all in Paris, the Mozart prodigies were acclaimed and feted. When they returned to Salzburg ‘sister Nannerl’ had become a mature young lady of fourteen and Wolfgang an oncoming adolescent of ten. Having already completed many instrumental and choral works which demonstrated instinctive ability and exceptional talent in melodic construction, in harmony, even in counterpoint and orchestration, he was now determined to tackle opera; after a year or so in Vienna (where he composed La finta semplice and Bias lien und Bastienne) his father took him on two tours of Italy (Mitridate and Lucio Silla).1 They were followed, after a short stay at home, by return visits to Vienna and northern Italy (and the composition of La finta giardiniera, the most accomplished of his teenage operas). By this time, however, Leopold Mozart had re-entered the service of the Church and the new Archbishop (Hieronymus von Colloredo) held strong views on absenteeism; consequently, when in 1777 Wolfgang, never a time-waster, set out from Salzburg for a second visit to Paris it was his mother and not his father who accompanied him. They broke their journey at Mannheim where he fell in love with Aloysia Weber, daughter of a well-known local musician and herself a promising soprano singer. His feelings appeared to be reciprocated but there was no formal engagement.


Thus far Mozart’s career, despite occasional disappointments and difficulties, had on the whole been astonishingly successful; his character had remained unspoilt because he was inwardly content in the knowledge that success had been achieved through hard work and merit. This happy state of affairs was too good to last: in Paris the fickle public which fifteen years earlier had been so eager to applaud an infant phenomenon was now indifferent; Mozart’s sole new compositions of any importance were the charming ballet Les Petits riens and the ‘Paris’ symphony. Moreover, for the first time in his life he was brought face to face with personal tragedy when his devoted mother fell ill and died. A few months later he turned his back on Paris for ever and rejoined the Webers - who meanwhile had moved their home to Munich. Here he learnt that Aloysia had just run away with an actor; this crowning blow shattered his nerves, and it was a thoroughly disillusioned young musician who slunk back to Salzburg early in 1779. He was only twenty-three but already the wheel of fortune had revolved through a full cycle.

Leopold Mozart helped to restore his son’s self-respect by securing him a permanent job as organist at the court of his own employer, Archbishop Hieronymus. This appointment gave Wolfgang a chance to settle down, and rather more than a year later he completed his most ambitious opera yet - Idomeneo. The libretto was inept, but it had the practical advantage of having been written by a clerical colleague at the ecclesiastical court, and his new employer viewed the first production at Munich with favour; presently he summoned its composer to join him, not at his palace in Salzburg, but at the more modest establishment which he maintained in Vienna. Here Mozart took his meals in the servants’ hall. ‘The two valets,’ he wrote to his father, ‘sit at the head of the table, and I have the honour to be placed above the cooks; during dinner there is a good deal of coarse silly joking, but not with me, for I do not speak a word but what I am obliged, and that with the greatest circumspection.’ Not being sufficiently well educated to appreciate the prevailing niceties of social precedence, Mozart complained of his treatment to his lordship’s high steward, but the interview had a hurtful ending: according to the historian Otto Jahn the high steward literally kicked him out. (‘[Dann] warf er ihn mit einem Fusstritt zur Tiir hinaus.’) Fortunately however - and partly through the agency of Christian Gottlob Stephanie, a man-of-the-theatre who had an entree to court circles - Mozart’s talents were soon brought to the notice of none other than Emperor Joseph II, who was keenly interested in music and saw no reason why operas should nearly always be settings of Italian words. Mozart was therefore encouraged to embark upon a German opera - to be neither too light nor too heavy - and forthwith produced Die Entfiihrung aus dem Serail (libretto by Stephanie) which had it first performance in July 1782. Although very well received - by the aged Gluck, among others - it failed to break down the long-standing tradition that Italian was the language of opera and, indeed, is itself more generally known (except in German-speaking countries) as Il Seraglio. 2

After his hasty departure from the arch-episcopal household Mozart had gone to live with his old friends the Webers - now settled in Vienna - and had transferred his affections to Aloysia’s younger sister Constanze. A few weeks after the successful production of his new opera (whose heroine was named after her) they became man and wife. Leopold Mozart was furious, for he had always regarded the Weber family with disapproval - and in truth they were a very easy-going and bohemian crowd. When the wedding took place he relented to the extent of sending a conventional message of good wishes, but the closely sympathetic relationship between father and son, which already for some years had been showing signs of strain, was now completely severed. (Leopold, who died five years later, was in many ways a tyrannical parent, but he deserves credit for having done all in his power to promote contemporary world-wide recognition of the incomparable genius whom he had begotten.) Constanze, now Mrs Mozart, was in almost every respect the exact opposite of Mrs Haydn: she was devoted to her husband and genuinely anxious to further his success but far too scatterbrained (and possibly, be it whispered, too intemperate) ever to make a good housewife. Consequently Mozart’s marriage, unlike Haydn’s, paid reasonable dividends - but it showed little capital appreciation: except when professional engagements took him away from Vienna (to Salzburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Prague) he led a disordered existence in frowsy and uncomfortable lodgings. A n occasional guest was Haydn - when up in town from Eisenstadt or Esterhaza; the two men very properly formed a mutual admiration society, and with Constanze’s enthusiasm outweighing her other shortcomings Mozart set out to produce his finest masterpieces.


Every musician owes a debt of gratitude to the Austrian bibliographer Ludwig von Kochel, who in the early 1860s compiled a comprehensive catalogue of Mozart’s works (revised in 1937 by Alfred Einstein). The ‘Kochel numbers’ are invaluable for identifying pieces with no specific title and are in reasonably accurate chronological sequence. Mozart’s output during the first eight years or so of his married life comprised roughly K.390 to K.565 inclusive, and if any student runs his eye down that list he will agree, I think, that it includes most of the works in which the composer touched the heights of supremacy that have assured him of immortality. Here is a selection.

(a) The ‘Linz’ and ‘Prague’ symphonies (K.425 and 504) where Mozart came strongly under the influence of Haydn and which at the time of their composition were unsurpassed for beauty of melody, clarity of expression and technical assurance.
(b) The Fantasy in C minor (K.475) which was the summit point of his music for keyboard alone and was notable for some astonishingly daring harmonic sequences.
(c) No less than sixteen piano concertos which are all so excellent that it would be invidious to single out any as pre-eminent; yet at grievous personal risk I venture to suggest that K.453, 466, 467, 488, 491 and 503 are the pick of the bunch.
(d) The so-called ‘Haydn set’ of six string quartets, all of which approach perfection; the superb string quintet in G minor (K.516, five movements) which achieves it; six trios for violin, cello and piano of almost comparable merit.
(e) The captivating orchestral serenade entitled Eine kleine Nachtmusik (K.525).
(f) The operas The Impresario (one act), The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. Figaro, if played in the right spirit and judiciously cut in Act IV, is the best opera buffa ever written - with Cosi fan tutte as runner-up. That Don Giovanni is often regarded nowadays as an operaseria should not blind one to the fact that it was dubbed by its composer as a dramma giocoso. (Although Mozart was not insensitive to Gluck, all these operas adhered, in general, to Italian tradition.)
(g) Three works which remain supreme examples of classical symphony: K.543 in E flat major, K.550 in G minor and K.551 in C major (the ‘Jupiter’), where Mozart improved upon Haydn’s manner with an intensity of feeling which the elder man had never (so far) been able to express.

All these superb compositions (in which his astonishing flair for creating, developing and instrumenting melodies of great beauty reached its apex) belonged to the years 1782- 90, a period during which Mozart was enjoying fairly good health, and when in December 1790 he took a somewhat emotional farewell of Joseph Haydn on the eve of the latter’s departure for London his sole misgiving was on behalf of his ageing friend who had never previously ventured abroad and might not be able, he felt, to stand the strain of all that tiring travel. Mozart underestimated both the strength of Haydn’s constitution (he lived for another eighteen years) and his own unfortunate tendency towards neurasthenia - which now became increasingly evident.

The following summer (Constanze had gone to the country to recuperate from illness) he was at work simultaneously on the clarinet concerto K.622 (a carefree composition), La Clemenza di Tito (an operatic piece d’occasion) and The Magic Flute, which was the brain-child of a clever and unscrupulous impresario named Emanuel Schikaneder whose pantomimic German libretto appealed to the composer (contradictorily both a practising Catholic and a practising Freemason). Planned, like Die Entfuhrung, as a Singspiel, The Magic Flute contained some of Mozart’s most sublime music (as well as some of his most naive) but all along he was obsessed with a feeling of frustration; presently the taut threads began to snap and he fell prey to morbid depression. When he received a mysterious commission to compose a Requiem from a tall dark stranger (who later turned out to be little more than a leg-puller) the shadows were grievously lengthening and he became convinced that this was to be his own Requiem. And so it proved: on 5th December 1791 (the Requiem still incomplete) he died after a fit of delirium.

There was an element of pathos about it all: old and true friends like his father and Haydn were either dead or far away; new fair-weather friends like Schikaneder and his associates proved broken reeds; Constanze, hysterical with grief, was incapable of coping with the emergency. So Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the greatest composer of his generation and perhaps of all time, received a pauper’s burial: to this day his grave is unidentified. His memorial lies in his music - the finest memorial anyone could wish for.

1 Nannerl was left behind; she later married into the nobility and eventually outlived not only her husband and her brother but also Beethoven, Weber and Schubert.

2 Die Entfiihrung was, strictly speaking, a Singspiel (song-play), that is to say a work in which songs were interspersed with spoken dialogue.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.