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unfinished picture of Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Prodigy

Mozart was born in Salzburg on the 27th January 1756 and baptised the following day in the Cathedral. He was the last of seven children of which only two survived infancy. Mozart later used the names 'Wolfgang Amadeus', but he was Christened 'Johannes, Chrystomus, Wolfgangus Theophilus', the first two names being the those of the saints for the day of his birth. 'Wolfgangus' comes from the Germanic tradition, and 'Theophilus' corresponds to the Latin 'Amadeus' or 'Love of God'. In those days Salburg was the seat of government of a principality of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by an Archbishop. Under the Hapsburgs, who controlled Austria-Hungary, the concept of Austrian nationality was less clear cut than it is today, and Mozart's contemporaries in Salzburg probably regarded themselves as Bavarian, the nearest major city being Munich, capital of Bavaria.

Mozart's father, Leopold, came from a family of artisans, masons, weavers and bookbinders, who lived in Ausberg near Munich. Leoplold was a well educated man and he was a competent composer, although his works followed the conventions of the time and had none of the brilliant originality which blossomed in his son Wolfgang. Nevertheless, young Mozart had a music teacher on hand to nurture his prodigious talent. Apart from fathering Mozart, Leopold's greatest claim to postumous fame is his treatise on violin playing which is still well regarded today.

Mozart must surely be the most amazing musical prodigy of all time. Aged four he was able to play piano exercises set for his sister, Nannerl, who was five years older. At five he composed short keyboard pieces, using his own form of notation, and at six he taught himself to play the violin$. Aged eight to nine he could play at sight, improvise freely and mimic the styles of contemporary music. The musical community were amazed and Leopold knew he had a prodigy to direct and he took up the challenge with great energy.

$Note: Given that his father was the author of a treatise on violin playing this fact is surprising, but it is often stated in authoritative reference works. Possibly his father didn't know he had started!

On Tour

Leopold had the spirit of an entrepreneur, and he lost no time in showing off the amazing talent of his son Wolfgang and the skill of his daughter Nannerl, who was a fine pianist when aged only eleven. In the period from 1762 to 1771, he arranged tours of Europe, which took young Mozart into the courts of kings, rulers and viceroys. The Seven Years War had come to an end, and the nobility had the leisure and the wealth to entertain and enjoy music. The tours covered the major European centres, where trade was booming and many of the rich were interested in music and ready to be entertained by the spectacle of a musical prodigy.

In January 1762 Leopold presented his son and daughter, aged six and eleven, at the court of the Elector of Bavaria, and in the September of that year they travelled to the Imperial Court in Vienna. From 1763 to 1766, the Mozart family went on a continuous tour, their itinerary including many parts of Germany, the Netherlands, Paris, London, and Geneva. Between 1767 and 1771 they made further tours to Vienna and the Italian cities, Milan, Florence, Naples, Bologna and Venice. In some cases their stays in European capitals lasted several months - fifteen in London, for example. Life on tour was very hard for two young children. The roads were bad in many places, and although they had some periods of great luxury in palaces, much of their accommodation lacked comfort, particularly in winter. The children had periods of illness - both had typhoid when Wolfgang was nine (Nannerl nearly died) and both had smallpox when Mozart was eleven. Mozart also had bouts of fever. They were expected to perform in public for long periods and Mozart gave demonstrations of his improvisational and sight reading skills at private sessions. It was exploitation, of course, but such were the times, and Leopold clearly loved his children and wanted them to succeed in life.

It is almost unbelievable that during the time of these tours, whilst still a child, Mozart was able to write music in most genres, including symphonies, operas and concertos. Much of this early work lacks maturity, and is now seldom heard, but by the age of fourteen, in 1770, he had been commissioned to write an opera, 'Mitridate', which achieved success in Milan.

Style Maturing Over Half a Century

Verdi had a long and productive career as a composer of opera, starting in his mid twenties and continuing until he was eighty. Over more than fifty years his work showed progressive development, from the vigorous and tuneful, but harmonically simple opera of his youth, to the sophisticated masterpieces written in his middle years and old age.

In the ten years which followed the success of Nabucco in 1842, Verdi wrote sixteen operas, a series which culminated in three of his best known works: 'Rigoletto' (1851) 'Il Trovatori' (1853) and 'La Traviata' (1853). From 1853, the pace of his work slackened and following the premiere of 'Aida' in 1871 he stopped writing for eight years. Then, in 1879, aged seventy three, the master of opera took up the challenge of writing 'Otello', an opera based on Shakespeare's play, and he spent seven years perfecting a work which broke new ground in Italian opera. Undoubtedly influenced by contemporary Wagner, he wrote 'Otello' in a style where each act is a musical whole construct, like a symphony, rather than a collection of set pieces. In 1893, aged eighty, Verdi produced 'Falstaff, a work having the wit and joy of life expected from a composer half his age.

Search for Work

Once Mozart reached puberty, he no longer had the appeal of a child wonder, and the struggle to make a living began. One might think that success would come easily and immediately to a musical genius, but it was not to be. His father worked as a musician in the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, this being the one reliable source of income for the family. However, neither Leopold nor the court were entirely happy with the working relationship. The court accepted Leopold's long absences during the tours with his son in Europe, but at the same they time did not approve of his "begging" in foreign places, as they saw it, and Leopold resented the promotion of other musicians over his head - mostly Italian. Mozart was appointed Concert Master to the Court Orchestra in 1769, but he and his father were unhappy with this relatively minor post, because of the constraints it placed on his composing and his prospects. The job was at first unpaid, being in the form of an apprenticeship, but he later received a very modest wage.

In 1777 Prince-Archbishop Colloredo dismissed Mozart, and came very close to dismissing his father Leopold. Mozart, then aged twenty one, set out with his mother to find his fortune. Letters between father and son, of which many remain, show that Leopold wanted be in charge of this tour, but the archbishop forbade him to go and he could only operate by remote control. In October 1777, Mozart reached Mannheim, where he found little work but fell in love with seventeen-year-old Aloisia Weber. When his father wrote telling him to look for work further afield, Mozart moved on to Paris reluctantly, but he had no greater success there. Finding nothing but a minor post as an organist, the musical genius had to swallow his pride and return to Salburg, where Archbishop Colloredo was, by now, prepared to reinstate him as Concert Master and Court Organist. Worse still his mother, whom he loved dearly, died in Paris and on his way back via Mannheim he found that Aloisia Weber had lost interest in him.

Break With Salzburg

In 1781, when Mozart was twenty five, the Salzburg Court moved as a body to the Court of Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in Vienna, and this was the event which finally caused Mozart to break from the Salzburg Court and from the control of his father. Under the control of the Salzbug Court, while in Vienna, he was constrained musically, treated as a second class servant, and denied the chance to play at concerts where the Emperor was a guest. He was in no doubt about his musical ability, and he resented this treatment. Already under criticism from the Chamberlain of the Salzburg Court for his lack of deference to nobility, he committed further indiscretions, making his rebellious feelings clear to his employers. There is no record that he was formally dismissed, but one account says that he wrote several letters of resignation and was then physically kicked out of the court by the Chamberlain. When the court returned to Salzburg, Mozart stayed in Vienna, determined to make his own way in life. By this time he had fallen in love with Constanze Weber, sister of Aloisia, and this was a further reason for his staying, since the Webers had now moved to Vienna from Mannheim.

Success in Vienna

In the Vienna of the 1780s a sizeable aristocracy enjoyed music and the theatre - some visited the theatre every day! They were well educated musically, and many played musical instruments. They were, however, a fickle audience, quickly bored, and their behaviour was a far removed from that of the reverential concert goer of modern times - at the theatre they conversed, ate and drank, walked about and even gambled during musical performances. With his great talent for composition, and his mastery of improvisation, Mozart was ideally adapted to this environment, and after his break with Salzburg he achieved consistent success for the first time in his life. He worked hard at his craft, with an energy that belied his father's criticism: In a letter to a nobleman in 1782, Joseph wrote that that his son was 'indolent and lazy' when successful, but was too 'impatient' when considering his future. More fairly, Mozart's success in Vienna was probably as much due to his enterprise in organising private concerts and musical events as to his musical ability. It is salutary to think that that Mozart scored only part of his brilliant improvisations on the pianoforte, so that in the modern repertoire that we may be denied some of the most sparkling moments from his work. Nevertheless, he scored no less than fifteen piano concertos in the period from 1782 to 1786, a form music of which he was, virtually, the inventor.

Sponsorship

Had Mozart had a less extravagant lifestyle and had he managed his finances better, he may have achieved a reasonably secure life in Vienna, but with fluctuating fortunes in an uncertain world of music he fell into debt from time to time, often having to move house to adjust to his financial status. (There is also suspicion that he was a gambling man.) He needed the steady support of sponsorship, of the kind which fostered Haydn's prodigious musical output while he was at the Esterházy Palace, but Mozart was a proud man, with a personality that did not react well to authority, and he did not explicitly ask for sponsorship. It was not until 1787 that he obtained a post as Chamber Musician at the court of Joseph II, a virtual sinecure for a man of his ability, requiring him only to produce dance music for court balls. This post paid only 800 florins a year, barely a fifth of the income of a top singer in the theatre, but with this support Mozart was freed to compose more and to extend his range to include works for wind ensembles and to encompass a wider orchestral scoring. Joseph II was a progressive ruler, one who respected Mozart's genius, but he was influenced by the tastes of the time, and declared Mozart's work to be too complex. His famous remark after hearing the opera 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' was reported as#; "Too beautiful for our ears, dear Mozart, and monstrous many notes".

Passion for Opera

From an early age Mozart was thrilled by opera and the theatre, and later his greatest ambition was the chance to compete in the opera field on equal terms with the Italians, who at that time dominated the opera scene in Vienna, being preferred to Germanic composers. Mozart's successes in opera marked turning points in his life, his earliest success with the public at large being 'Mitridate', which was performed in Milan in 1770 when he was only fourteen. The success of 'Idomea', in 1781, was a factor his break from the court of Salzburg, and the success of 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' in July 1782 is said to have given him sufficient confidence in his prospects to propose to Constanze Weber. In all, Mozart wrote twenty two operas, of which some six are performed regularly in major opera houses around the world today and a further six performed with lesser frequency. The humanity, richness and passion of Mozart's opera is undeniable, yet in the writing there was a struggle to balance his instinct for pure music against the practical demands of singer and stage, and even a musical genius had to learn this craft the hard way. In October 1781 he showed his point of view by writing "In an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music".

The Real Mozart ?

Outside the world of music Mozart has sometimes been portrayed as a coarse buffoon with no social graces, no common sense and a rebellious streak. More than 200 years after his death, with mainly family letters to tell us his story, how can we really know the real Mozart and make such judgements? From the point of view of the 21st century, it is difficult understand the attitudes which men and women of 18th Century Vienna had to love, marriage, sex and to life in general. Life was hard - only two of Mozart's six children by Constanze survived infancy.

The bawdy jokes and explicit sexual references, which Mozart wrote to his cousin Maria Thelka Mozart, when he was twenty one (and later to his wife), appear to paint a picture of a young man still not past adolescence, emotionally, with an unhealthy obsession with toilet functions - yet writing in this vein was common in those days, even among mature adults, with terms of endearment often being mixed with explicitly coarse allusions. His rebellious, non-deferential attitude to authority was probably more a sign of self-confidence in the face of the arrogance and ignorance of his employers than of immaturity. His father also had a critical views of the Salzburg establishment, but was probably more discreet.

picture of Mozar's wife Constanze

His letters show that he had great respect for his father and great love for his mother and his family. When he married Constanze Weber, aged twenty six, his letters show a balanced attitude to marriage, saying that her personal qualities more than compensated for her lack of beauty - he loved her dearly. She was a loyal and loving wife (pictured left).

Playwrights and film makers have made much of his 'paranoia' in his last days, when he was faced with rivalry from composer Salieri, and his belief that he was being poisoned. However, composers and performers in 18th Century Vienna were all engaged in a struggle for recognition, with no copyright to protect their work. In those times the effect of illness producing toxic symptoms were less understood than today, and being convinced that poisoning was to blame for illness was common. Who knows - he may have made a jest to cheer himself up - saying something like; "I think that ****** Salieri is poisoning me".

One of Mozart's last acts was to persuade his wife to delay news of his death until she had tipped off the court organist to apply for his job at the St Stephen's Cathedral. Surely this shows he was a man of thoughtful and sincere character.



Requiem

Mozart did not enjoy good health for much of his life, in common with many living in those times. This is not surprising, since he was fed barley water and not milk as a baby, the belief in those times being that breast feeding was for the lower class. Wet nursing was not considered. His constant touring in childhood exposed him to infection and harsh conditions. The precise nature of his problems in adulthood cannot be known, but the most accepted theory is that he suffered from rheumatic fever and associated heart problems, brought on by childhood illness. The last stage of his fatal illness was accompanied by symptoms of fever and vomiting and his death has been attributed to urĉmia.

By a macabre coincidence he was writing a requiem, amongst other works, at the time of his last illness. This has led to wild speculation that he was writing it for himself and that he thought that the grim reaper had commissioned it. Certainly Mozart had long accepted his fragile mortality for he had written; "I never lie down in my bed without reflecting that perhaps I, young as I am, may not live to see another day". In reality he probably did not expect to know who the commissioner was, or care very much, since he often received requests through agents. In fact it is now known to have been Count von Walsegg, a musician who sometimes bought works and passed them off as his own. He wanted it to mark the death of his young wife. Mozart died before he could finish the requiem, and with the family in debt it was imperative that the fee should be earned in full, and so Constanze gave the task of completion to his pupil and assistant, Süssmayr, although not until after some work by a another pupil of Mozart.

No one knows where the bones of this great musician now lie, for his funeral in 1791 was of the lowest standard, where several bodies were buried together without coffins and covered with lime and where the site could be reused within seven years. Such a miserable end for a genius who excelled in every musical genre of his time.

Mozart's Music

In Mozart's day the fickle public were generally not content to keep listening to the same music, and to survive in their profession composers were required to keep producing new material. (Rather like the modern popular music scene!) Mozart, a musical genius, responded to this demand with an enormous output of work, working with great energy despite poor health and difficult family and working circumstances. This short history cannot provide a comprehensive review of his works, but some idea of the scale of his composition over his short, thirty five year life is given by the following table. (Present day authorities often do not agree on the total in each category and they use terms such as "about or "nearly". Similarly some of the following is approximate and represents only the established, published work.)

Symphonies.

41

Operas and Operettas

22 (of which 6 are regularly performed today at major venues)

Piano Concertos

27

Other Concertos

For Violin (5), Oboe, flute, clarinet, horn (4), flute and harp, violin and viola.

String Quartets

27 (6 dedicated to Haydn)

String Quintets

6

Masses

17

Piano Sonatas

18

Violin Sonatas

40

Works for Wind Band

Includes a Clarinet Quintet

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