» Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bust

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together got to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Critical Essay by
Louise Thomas, D.M.A.
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
Director of Keyboard Collaborative Arts
College of Performing Arts; Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the composer who more than anyone defined the musical apex of Viennese Classicism, was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756 and died in Vienna in 1791.

As renowned musicologists Cliff Eisen and Stanley Sadie have remarked, Mozart’s music is

“distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply colored by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions.” 

From the writings that remain, it is clear that Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, was devoted to the comprehensive education of both of his surviving seven children, Wolfgang and his beloved sister, Nannerl. The young Wolfgang showed remarkable promise, beginning to create piano compositions at the tender age of 5 and displaying considerable “lively and charming” talent and technical facility as a performer (from the diary of the contemporary extensive chronicler, Count von Zinzendorf). Concert tours throughout Europe commenced in 1762 to perform for major figures of the nobility, including Empress Maria Theresa and her consort, Francis I. 

Over the next decade, European travels featured prominently in the young Mozart’s life, overseen and managed by his father, who was by all accounts a hard task-master. The benefits, though, of such diverse experiences had a profoundly positive impact on the budding composer/performer. Mozart was able to soak up music that he might not have heard otherwise, as he came into contact with leading composers and performers of the era and found his way into high society.

It was the elder Mozart’s idea to try to secure an opera commission for his son in the late 1760s. Political intrigue put a halt to the idea then, but Mozart had already composed Bastien und Bastienne. It was only a matter of time until he made his mark on the most respected musical genre.

An extensive tour of Italy in 1770, which includes the famous story of Mozart writing down Allegri’s Miserere from memory, also witnessed significant development of Mozart’s brilliance as a child prodigy.

After that tour, Mozart was to remain in Salzburg during most of the 1770s, in the middle of political instability in the archdiocese and at court. His compositional output at this time was extensive: Masses, symphonies and chamber music. Socially, the Mozart family grew in stature, especially with Leopold’s position as head of music at court. However, the ambitions of Leopold Mozart to secure even more elevated postings for himself and for Wolfgang were not realized. The young Mozart, who was by now well-nigh the most established composer of instrumental and secular vocal music in Salzburg, gradually began to pull away from the Salzburg court. Ultimately, both Leopold and Wolfgang were dismissed from court, and this necessitated that Wolfgang look to Germany for gainful employment as a composer. He set out with his mother for Germany and then traveled on to France for an unsuccessful trip, and where Frau Mozart fell gravely ill, sadly passing away. It is at this time of family grief that we see strife and antagonism in the letters between father and son. Wolfgang unhappily returned to Salzburg to his former life, and it was during the late 1770s that the Coronation Mass was composed, as well as many other important sacred works.

A critical moment occurred in 1780, with the commission for the “serious opera,” Idomeneo, in Munich. Copious and invaluable notes remain, surrounding the early writing of this opera and the adaptations that occurred during rehearsal. The opera was a triumph, and Mozart was then summoned to Vienna by the Archbishop of Salzburg. Again, Mozart felt stifled by the political treatment that he endured, and by June 1781, he left the Salzburg court service for the last time, spending the rest of his career based in vibrant and culturally active Vienna.

Mozart’s keyboard playing was renowned, and his improvisational prowess and technique were the envy of all, as described in a challenge event at the time with the Italian composer and keyboardist Muzio Clementi. Mozart was also a gifted pedagogue, and taught the successful composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel when Hummel was only 8 years old. Notes from the composer Thomas Attwood, who also studied with Mozart, are still in existence and show the methodical way in which piano lessons with Mozart were structured. Numerous keyboard works date from the early 1780s, as do the violin sonatas, but it is the 1782 opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail that significantly advanced Mozart’s career. The composer has left us a wonderful report of how he approached the word-setting and the dramatic elements, in contemporary letters to his father.

Marriage to Constanze Weber occurred shortly thereafter, and the couple settled in Vienna.  Although his bride is never presented as being an intellect or a wit, Mozart did acknowledge that she had “plenty of common sense and the kindest heart in the world,” so the union itself appears to have been a happy one, their constant financial troubles notwithstanding. The couple had six children, two of whom survived beyond childhood.

Die Entführung was performed to great acclaim in Vienna along with the Haffner Symphony, improvised variations, and piano concertos. What followed was the most productive period of Mozart’s life. The young composer was in high demand in the cultural hub that was Vienna at the time, and worked at fever pitch, composing and performing some of his most outstanding works. It is during this time that the piano concertos K.449-K.503 were written, and they are among the most exquisite, formally complex works in the genre. A review of a 1784 Tonkünstler-Societät concert noted “the deserved fame of this master, as well-known as he is universally valued” (Wiener Zeitung, Dec. 24, 1784). Earlier that year, Leopold Mozart had written to Nannerl describing a party at Mozart’s home during which the renowned older composer Joseph Haydn told him, “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. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

The first collaboration between Wolfgang Mozart and the shrewd contemporary librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was Le Nozze di Figaro after the play by Beaumarchais. The opera was a huge success and, as one might expect, caused some professional jealousy, famously with another popular composer of the time, Antonio Salieri.

Figaro is a deeply compelling work, both musically and dramatically, and the libretto of da Ponte provides comic yet biting commentary on social constructs such as classism and gender differences. A performance of the opera in Prague followed, which resulted in yet another opera commission – again, in collaboration with da Ponte. Don Giovanni also dealt with social issues and contained arias that stand out in the operatic repertory to this day.

The question often arises about Mozart’s masonic connections: in 1784, he had indeed become a Freemason, and as such was part of a brotherhood of liberal intellectuals, but as Eisen/Sadie purport, the group to which Mozart belonged concerned themselves less with political ideals and more with the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Still, some masonic concepts and musical structures made their way into the opera Die Zauberflöte. (The opera features people and things that come in threes, for example.)

From this point on, Mozart was to turn his attention away from concertizing and to the composition of his last symphonies. The death of Leopold Mozart was a blow and eventually saw the dissolution of the good relations that had existed between Wolfgang and Nannerl.

The last few years of Mozart’s life were a financial struggle, as from the late 1780s the income from concerts had disappeared. Although Mozart was a working composer, with publications and commissions, it appears as if the day-to-day living expenses in the Mozart household were not managed prudently, leading to considerable financial stress. 

The final collaboration with da Ponte took place in 1789-1790 with the creation of the opera Così fan tutte. It was another roaring success, even alongside criticism of its morality. Following the death of Joseph II, the Emperor Leopold II acceded to the throne in Prague, and to celebrate this occasion Mozart wrote the coronation opera La Clemenza di Tito.

Mozart’s last year, 1791, saw an extensive publication output of his music, including the innovative clarinet concerto. That summer, he was commissioned to write a Requiem for a local nobleman whose wife had passed earlier that year. Mozart had completed one of the movements and sketched several more before falling ill and succumbing to a fatal rheumatic inflammatory fever in the winter. The purported stories about him being poisoned to death do not stand up to scrutiny. According to traditional burial protocols at the time, the composer was laid to rest with a few mourners present.

Mozart’s reputation was at a high point following his death. One cannot use the word genius lightly, since it is a problematic word that implies someone who has had gifts somehow magically bestowed to them from the heavens. Yet, Mozart is a prime example of a composer and performer who had both an innate and early talent as well as a cultural status that gave him rare opportunity – one that he fully realized, bequeathing to us awe-inspiring compositions that may be considered second to none.

In 1795, the Teutschlands Annalen des Jahres 1794 wrote that “In this year … nothing can or may be sung or played, and nothing heard with approbation, but that it bears on its brow the all-powerful and magic name of Mozart.” Eisen and Sadie point out that “contradictory as the numerous biographical tropes surrounding the composer's life may at first seem, they nevertheless add up to a remarkably consistent picture of Mozart as an artist and personality distinctly outside the norm. And it was this notion of Mozart's lack of connection to the real world that set a course for Mozart scholarship – whether biographical, analytical or editorial – up to the end of the 20th century.” As they posit, “much remains to be done” in the area of scholarship to understand the magnificent, complex contributions made to the field of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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