Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in Austria, the son of Leopold, Kapellmeister to the Prince-Archbishop of
Salzburg. By the age of three he could play the piano, and he was composing by the time he was five; minuets from this period
show remarkable understanding of form. Mozart’s elder sister Maria Anna (best known as Nannerl) was also a gifted keyboard
player, and in 1762 their father took the two prodigies on a short performing tour, of the courts at Vienna and Munich.
Encouraged by their reception, they embarked the next year on a longer tour, including two weeks at Versailles, where the
children enchanted Louis XV. In 1764 they arrived in London. Here Mozart wrote his first three symphonies, under the
influence of Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian, who lived in the city. After their return to Salzburg there
followed three trips to Italy between 1769 and 1773. In Rome Mozart heard a performance of Allegri’s Misere; the score of
this work was closely guarded, but Mozart managed to transcribe the music almost perfectly from memory. On Mozart’s first
visit to Milan, his opera Mitridate, r di Ponto was successfully produced, followed on a subsequent visit by Lucia Silla. The
latter showed signs of the rich, full orchestration that characterizes his later operas.
A trip to Vienna in 1773 failed to produce the court appointment that both Mozart and his father wished for him, but did
introduce Mozart to the influence of Haydn, whose Sturm und Drang string quartets (Opus 20) had recently been published.
The influence is clear in Mozart’s six string quartets, K168-173, and in his Symphony in G minor, K183. Another trip in search
of patronage ended less happily. Accompanied by his mother, Mozart left Salzburg in 1777, travelling through Mannheim to
Paris. But in July 1778 his mother died. Nor was the trip a professional success: no longer able to pass for a prodigy, Mozart’s
reception there was muted and hopes of a job came nothing.
Back in Salzburg Mozart worked for two years as a church organist for the new archbishop. His employer was less kindly
disposed to the Mozart family than his predecessor had been, but the composer nonetheless produced some of his earliest
masterpieces. The famous Sinfonia concertante for violin, violo and orchestra was written in 1780, and the following year
Mozart’s first great stage work, the opera Idomeneo, was produced in Munich, where Mozart also wrote his Serenade for 13
wind instruments, K361. On his return from Munich, however, the hostility brewing between him and the archbishop came to a
head, and Mozart resigned. On delivering his resignation he was verbally abused and eventually, physically ejected from the
Without patronage, Mozart was forced to confront the perils of a freelance existence. Initially his efforts met with some success.
He took up residence in Vienna and in 1782 his opera Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail (The abdication from the Seraglio) was
produced in the city and rapturously received. The same year in Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral Mozart married Constanze
Weber. Soon afterwards he initiated a series of subscription concerts at which he performed his piano concertos and
improvised at the keyboard. Most of Mozart’s great piano concertos were written for these concerts, including those in C,
K467, A, K488 and C minor, K491. In these concertos Mozart brought to the genre a unity and diversity it had not had
before, combining bold symphonic richness with passages of subtle delicacy.
In 1758 Mozart dedicated to Haydn the six string quartets that now bear Haydn’s name. Including in this group are the quartets
known as the Hunt, which make use of hunting calls, and the Dissonance, which opens with an eerie succession of dissonant
chords. Overwhelmed by their quality, Haydn confessed to Leopold Mozart, ‘Before God and as an honest man I tell you that
your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.’ The pieces are matched in excellence in Mozart’s
chamber music output only by his String Quintets, outstanding among which are those in C, K515, G minor, K516 and D,
Also in 178 Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte collaborated on the first of a series of operatic masterpieces. Le nozze di Figaro
(The Marriage of Figaro) was begun that year and performed in 1786 to an enthusiastic audience in Vienna and even greater
acclaim later in Prague. In 1787 Pragues National Theatre saw the premiere of Don Giovanni, a moralizing version of the Don
Juan legend in which the licentious nobleman receives his comeuppance and descends into the fiery regions of hell. The third
and last da Ponte opera was Cos fan tutte (Women are all the same), commissioned by Emperor Joseph II and produced at
Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1790. Its cynical treatment of the theme of sexual infidelity may have been responsible for its relative
lack of success with the Viennese, who responded with such enthusiasm to the comedy of Figaro.
Mozart wrote two more operas: the opera seria La clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Tito) and Die Zauberflte (The Magic
Flute). The latter was commissioned by actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder to his own libretto. Its plot, a fairy tale combined
with strong Masonic elements (Mozart was a devoted Freemason), is bizarre, but drew from Mozart some of his greatest
music. When produced in 1791, two months before Mozart’s death, the opera survived an initially cool reception and gradually
won audiences over.
The year 1788 saw the composition of Mozart’s two finest symphonies. Symphony No.40, in the tragic key of G minor,
contrasts strikingly with the affirmatory Symphony No.41 Jupiter. Neither helped alleviate his financial plight, however, which
after 1789 became critical. An extensive concert tour of Europe failed to earn significant sums. A new emperor came to the
Austrian throne but Mozart was unsuccessful in his bid to become Kapellmeister. He was deeply in debt when in July 1791 he
received an anonymous commission to write a Requiem. (The author of the commission was in fact Count Franz von Walsegg,
who wished to pass off the work as his own.) Mozart did not live to finish the Requiem. He became ill in autumn 1791 and died
on December 5; his burial the next day was attended only by a gravedigger. Rumours that Mozart had been poisoned
abounded in Vienna after his death, many suggesting that rival composer Antonio Salieri was responsible. Many now believe a
heart weakened by bouts of rheumatic fever caused his death.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria in January of 1756. By the age of four,
he had exhibited such extraordinary powers of musical memory and ear-sophistication that his
father, Leopold (a highly esteemed violinist and composer in his own right) decided to sign young
Wolfgang up for harpsichord lessons. At five, he was composing music; at six, he was a keyboard
virtuoso, so much so that Leopold took Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna on a performance
tour of Munich and Vienna.
From that time on, young Mozart was constantly performing and
writing music. Wherever he appeared, people gaped in awe at
his divine gifts. By his early teens, he had mastered the piano,violin and harpsichord, and was writing keyboard pieces,
oratorios, symphonies and operas. His first major opera,
Mitridate, was performed in Milan in 1770 to such unqualified
raves that critics compared him to Handel.
At fifteen, Mozart was installed as the concertmaster in the
orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Things did not go very
well; Mozart didn’t get along with the Archbishop, and relations
deteriorated to the point where, in 1781, he quit this lofty
position and headed for Vienna – quite against his father’s wishes.
It has been told that Mozart once said, ‘Since I could not have
one sister, I married the other.’ Whether or not this quote is true, the facts remain the same. Three
and a half years after a young musician named Aloysia Weber refused Mozart’s marriage proposal,
he married her younger sister Constanze, on August 4, 1782.
What sort of person was Constanze Weber?
Mozart, who nicknamed his bride Stanzerl,
described her this way, ‘She is not ugly, but at the
same time, far from beautiful. Her entire beauty
consists of two little black eyes and a nice figure.
She isn’t witty, but has enough common sense to
make her a good wife and mother …. She
understands housekeeping and has the kindest
heart in the world. I love her and she loves me….’ .
Constanze Mozart’s life was far from easy. From
June 1783 to July 1791, she bore six children. The
Mozarts’ first child, Raimund Leopold, died at the
age of two months of an ‘intestinal cramp’ while his
parents were away on a visit to Salzburg. Their
third, Johann Thomas Leopold, lived less than a
month, their fourth, Theresia, six months, and their
fifth, Anna Maria, only one hour. The Mozarts were left with only two surviving children, whom
Wolfgang barely had time to know. When he died, the eldest was seven years old, and the
younger only six months. After Mozart’s death, Constanze met and evetually married Nikolaus von
Nissen, an official in the Danish Embassy, and it was he who raised Mozart’s sons. von Nissen
died in 1826, and Constanze in 1842.
The two boys led fairly uneventful lives. The elder, Karl Thomas (b. 1784), ended up as a minor
official on the staff of the viceroy of Naples in Milan. He died in 1858. The younger, Franz Xaver
Wolfgang, inherited his father’s musical inclinations, if not all of his talent. He composed and
conducted extensively throught Europe, but perhaps the last word on this ‘Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart the Younger’ was best spoken by George Bernard Shaw in a letter he wrote in 1897. ‘Do
you remember the obscurity of Mozart’s son? An amiable man, a clever musician, an excellent
player, but hopelessly extinguished by his father’s reputation. How could any man do what was
expected from Mozart’s son? Not Mozart himself even.’
Wolfgang and his father, Leopold had never regained the closeness they had shared in earlier days,
but they reached a peace with each other, and maintained a steady corresponence. Leopold died
in Salzburg on May 28, 1787, at the age of 67. Wolfgang had news of his father’s illness in April,
at which time Constanze was ailing as well. This turn of events left him greatly depressed, and his
own health took a turn for the worse. His music from the preceding decade was only sporadically
popular, and he eventually fell back on his teaching jobs and on the charity of friends to make ends
meet. In 1788 he stopped performing in public, preferring to compose.
Mozart may have died of a number of illnesses. The official diagnosis was miliary fever, but the
truth is that the physicians who attended him were never quite sure what Mozart died of. He
suffered from rheumatic pain, headaches, toothaches, skin eruptions, and lethargy. A common
theory today is that Mozart died of uremia following chronic kidney disease. Another possibility is
rheumatic fever. Regardless of the cause, Mozart became bedridden for the last two weeks of his
life. He died at shortly after midnight on December 5th, 1791, aged thirty-five years, eleven
months, and nine days.
Mozart’s legacy is incestimalbe. A master of every form in which he worked, he set standards of excellence that have inspired
generations of composers.
Some of his representative works
Symphonies Nos. 25, 29, 38, 39, 40 41 Jupiter
Piano Concertos Nos. 19, 20 ; 27
sinfonia concertante for violin and viola
String Quartets: the Hunt, the Dissonance
String Quintet No.4 in G minor, K516
Le Nozze di Figaro