Mozart’s music can be heard to hover: between innocence and experience, ideality and sensuousness, comedy and tragedy, sympathy and mockery, intimacy and transcendence. It offers no blind faith yet no paralyzing doubt; it is not just a longingly imperfect reach for the infinite (Schiller’s sentimental art) nor just a comfortably perfect grasp of the finite (Schiller’s naïve art); it is childlike yet knowing.Scott Burnham
When J.S. Bach died in 1750, you can imagine that many in the musical world might have said: “What a genius. We won’t see his like again.” They were right. For about 6 years.
Mozart was born into a musical family in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a noted violinist and teacher. Mozart’s maternal grandfather was also a gifted amateur musician. So he had the music gene on both sides of the family.
The first inkling that Leopold got that his son might be special was when Wolfgang was 5. Wolfgang the Toddler loved to watch Leopold instructing his older sister at the harpsichord. By 3, he was playing chord progressions. By 4, he was playing actual works. But when the 5-year old Wolfgang presented a “score” that he had scrawled out, his father and his friends initially just laughed at the toddler’s imitation of musical notation — just a bunch of random dots! They stopped laughing when Mozart seated himself at the harpsichord and started playing his composition. Yeah, that’s our Mozart!
W.A. Mozart, Minuet in G, K.1
By 6, Mozart had taught himself to play violin, in addition to whatever keyboard he was presented with. Viola soon followed. Mozart the Child began filling out the family trio and pretty soon settled right into the local orchestra in Salzburg. Fame and fortune were right around the corner.
For three years, Mozart traveled to European capitals with his father and sister, playing for the aristocracy who were singularly bemused by tiny prodigy. Stories of his escapades abound. Presented with a theme, he was asked to compose variations on the spot. Mozart sat down and played for half an hour. His first symphony dates from his time in London and reflects the influence of a composer he met there, one J.C. Bach, J.S.’s youngest son. Mozart was 8 at the time.
W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 1, K. 16
During an extended stay in Vienna, the 11-year old Mozart decided to try his hand at opera. He wrote two.
W.A. Mozart, La finta semplice
Later that year, he assumed the post of honorary Concertmaster at the Salzburg court. And that takes us through the pre-teen years.
At 13, Mozart and his father took another tour. This is the one that took him to Rome, where the pope gave him the honor of hearing Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and which Mozart copied down from memory, ending the papacy’s monopoly on the most beautiful music ever composed. During his time in Italy, Mozart studied Italian opera, still the key calling card to the best court positions of the day. He composed several operas, along with assorted symphonies, quartets, and divertimentos. Here’s a personal favorite from this period, which I played in camp when I was about the same age as Mozart when he composed it. Unreal.
W.A. Mozart, Divertimento, K. 136
At 18, Mozart came into his maturity as a composer. Finding Salzburg too confining, and opportunities not sufficiently lucrative, Mozart hit the road again. This time, his mother accompanied him. The trip was a disaster. Turned away in Munich, Mozart headed to Paris, where he found some work. But this is where tragedy struck. His mother fell ill and, while waiting for a proper German doctor to treat her, died.
Mozart was now 21. Whether it was true loss, guilt, age, or a combination of all three that led Mozart to a different emotional place we will never know for sure. But for the first time, that dark minor coloration that characterizes his best works begins to creep into his compositions. And, here, from Paris, a first masterpiece.
W.A. Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K. 364: II. Andante
I love the Sinfonia Concertante so much, so much so that it will warrant its own entry in the coming weeks.
In the wake of his mother’s death, Mozart left Paris, stopping in both Munich and Mannheim on his way home. He arrived home in 1780. Mozart was now nearly 24. Over the next 11 years, he would compose works that form the backbone of the classical repertorie to this day. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was beyond the man’s abillity. Opera? Do you prefer seria or buffa? Maybe German singspiel? Or perhaps something new–a contemporary style of opera that pushes Gluck’s innovations further? Sure, want drama or comedy? How about both? Prefer oratorio? No problem. Symphonies? Check. Chamber works, concertos, sonatas? Mozart wrote them all, and wrote them all with such skill and craft that they remain as exemplars of their kind, right through to today. I will do my best to chronicle some of these in the coming weeks.
But what about the man? Well, Mozart was a bundle of contradictions. Like the great rock stars of today, Mozart was highly compensated. In his latter years, he was easily among the top wage earners in Vienna. But, also like a rock star, he spent more than he earned. Showing disdain for the life of a court composer (i.e., the hired help), Mozart lived as an aristocrat and used his fame to freelance as a composer. In so doing, Mozart created the business model for composers that endures to this day.
Mozart was a quick wit and flirtatious to a fault. He was also an intellectual, a Freemason, who exchanged views on a wide range of subjects with the most prominent men in Vienna. But he was also obscene, obsessed with with–how to put this delicately–scatalogoical subjects. His extremely inappropriate letters to his mother, cousin, and various other women reveal what we today would call a pretty serious kink. He even composed a six part canon about it (I will not translate the German):
W.A. Mozart, Canon in B Flat for Six Voices: Leck mich im Arsch, K. 231:
Mozart the Composer was hardly God’s transcriber, as he is so often portrayed. Yes, he carried around significant chunks of scores in his head. But the idea that he simply transcribed what was in his head to paper with no corrections? Ridiculous. The fact is that, like a great painter, Mozart did a lot of sketch work–bits of composition that he thought up and wrote down lest they be forgotten. He frequently started a composition, only to put it away for months if not for years. He constantly re-wrote his music until he got it exactly right. Few bits of these sketches or drafts remain. We likely have his wife, Constanze, to thank for this. Perhaps she didn’t like scraps of paper lying around all over the house; perhaps she didn’t want anything of Mozart’s to become public that wasn’t pristine and perfect. We will never know.
And that doesn’t even include the frequent editing that Mozart must have also been doing inside his head. Combined with the prodigous output over the last 11 years of his life, you have to agree with Constanze’s assessment: Mozart worked himself to death. Mozart may have been a genius, but he was also an incredibly hard and diligent worker, a perfectionist to the last. And that, in the end, is why his legacy is so formidable–Mozart was nothing less than the Michael Jordan of music.
The real Mozart died at 35. Not as a pauper, but as a very rich man with even richer debts. He was buried in a common grave in Vienna, as was customary for anyone not of the aristocracy. His funeral mass was held at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in the center of downtown Vienna. And yes, his Requiem debuted there, in his honor.
In closing, I will leave you with a bit of fantasy, courtesy of musicologist Alex Ross, who postulated about what modern critics might say about Mozart’s anniverisary programming, had he lived until 70.
Opera houses focus on the great works of Mozart’s maturity–“The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” the two-part “Faust”–but it would be a good thing if we occasionally heard that flawed yet lively work of his youth, “Don Giovanni.”Alex Ross