Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Mozart is one of the most famous and enduring composers of all time. His music represents the high point of the Classical period, demonstrating a mastery of the sonata, concerto, and symphony. He has been the subject of poems, plays, novels, and films. Even the most casual listener recognizes his most familiar melodies, such as the opening phrases of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Symphony No. 40, or the Rondo alla Turca from the Piano Sonata No. 11.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria. His father, Leopold, was a noted composer and gave him most of his musical instruction, alongside his older sister, Nannerl. His immense musical talents revealed themselves at an early age. He was already composing by the age of 5. His father arranged for several tours throughout Europe during his childhood, where he played for royalty and gained a reputation for his keyboard and violin playing, as well as his compositional and improvisational skills. While on a trip to England, he met J.C. Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who had an influence on Mozart’s composing style, especially in his piano concertos. During this time, he wrote his first complete opera at the age of 11, as well as one of his earliest pieces to enter the concert repertory: the sacred solo motet Exsultate, Jubilate.

Mozart began his musical career working for the Archbishop of Salzburg, where he wrote his 5 violin concertos, as well as several early symphonies and piano sonatas. Mozart disliked his employer and wanted to leave Salzburg. He travelled to France with his mother, where he wrote his “Paris” Symphony, but she died during the trip, forcing him to return home. After a series of clashes with the Archbishop, he finally secured his release and left for Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life.

After his arrival in Vienna, he lived with the Weber family. He was previously attracted to one of the daughters, Aloysia, an opera singer, but after her rejection, he began courting her younger sister, Constanze, who he married shortly afterwards. (Constanze was a cousin of the German opera composer Carl Maria von Weber.) Although his father opposed the marriage, the couple were devoted to each other. Vienna offered Mozart the opportunity to hear the music of other composers. He especially loved the music of J.S. Bach and Handel and learned a great deal of counterpoint technique from studying their scores. He wrote one of the first original operas in German, (The Abduction from the Seraglio), on a commission from the Emperor, Joseph II. He also wrote his great Mass in C minor, during a visit to see his father and sister in Salzburg. On a few occasions, Joseph Haydn would visit Vienna. The two composers became great friends and played string quartets together. During one of these trips, they played a set of Mozart’s new quartets (dedicated to Haydn), that included the “Hunt” and “Dissonance” quartets. Haydn told Leopold Mozart that:

“I assure you before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer that I know personally or by reputation.”

Mozart had hoped to secure a position at court, but was only offered freelance commissions. In order to earn a living, he wrote several piano concertos, which he performed as soloist and conductor, including the Piano Concerto No. 21, (used in the film “Elvira Madigan”) and the Piano Concerto No. 24 in A. Although he earned a comfortable living at times, he was not good with finances and often struggled with poverty, especially at the end of his life.

During the 1780’s, Mozart began writing operas again and produced some of the greatest works in the genre, including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, (“Don Juan”), and Così Fan Tutte. He also wrote the last of his great symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 41, the “Jupiter”, and for his friend Anton Stadler, he wrote a Clarinet Concerto and Quintet for clarinet and strings, (as featured in the final episode of the television show M*A*S*H). He finally secured a small post from the Emperor, which paid little, but allowed him to continue living in Vienna, although he made several trips to other cities in Europe, such as Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and Prague, in the hopes of raising funds from concert appearances and commissions. He also may have met the young Beethoven at this time during the younger composer’s trip to Vienna. One source tells of a meeting of the two where Mozart commended Beethoven’s developing talent, but the historical accuracy of this meeting has never been firmly established.

As Mozart’s finances got worse, he became depressed and his health began to fail. However, his final year, 1791, saw him produce some of his greatest works, including the previously mentioned Clarinet Concerto, the opera The Magic Flute, a sacred motet, Ave Verum Corpus, and his last work, left unfinished at his death, the Requiem. Although a legend developed that rival composer Antonio Salieri poisoned him, (the basis for the plot in Peter Shaffer’s play and subsequent film, Amadeus), there is no truth to the story. He fell seriously ill and died while singing parts of the “Lacrimosa” section of the Requiem. Although many theories have been put forth, the most likely cause of his death was rheumatic fever. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Despite this, hundreds of people attended memorial concerts given for him and sales of his music substantially increased. In his short 35 years, he produced over 600 works in every major musical form. His music is a model of clarity and elegance, balancing simplicity in structure with deep emotional power. He stands with Bach and Beethoven as one of the greatest composers in history.

Although he has often been portrayed as a childish, egotistical, and profane man, the testimony from his contemporaries and even his own letters give evidence of a profound man of prayer and faith, generous to others even when he was in desperate need. His unequaled and seemingly effortless talent created many rivals and jealous enemies, but also established good friends and admirers. As he noted in one of his letters:

“Let us put our trust in God and console ourselves with the thought that all is well, if it is in accordance with the will of the Almighty, as He knows best what is profitable and beneficial to our temporal happiness and our eternal salvation.”

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