Like J.S. Bach, Mozart (January 27, 1756 - December 5, 1791) had little interest in establishing new forms within Classical music: he was more committed to the idea of synthesis and the perfection of forms already in existence. Thus it is only in the area of the concerto that he could be said to have moved the music forward in any substantial way. However, again like Bach, the supreme quality he brought to previously defined forms places him in the front rank of musical geniuses.
Baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus, Mozart was the seventh-born child of a musically gifted and personally ambitious father, Leopold, the son of an Augsburg bookbinder. By dint of his determined character, Leopold eventually attained the positions of Court composer and vice-Kapellmeister to the Salzburg establishment of Count Thurn und Taxis, Canon of Salzburg. Leopold was an able composer, and his "Toy Symphony" is still regularly performed, but the accomplishment most admired during his lifetime was a treatise on violin playing published in 1756, the year of Wolfgang's birth.
Both Wolfgang and his elder sister, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl), were child prodigies. Wolfgang was given lessons by his father from the age of four, and within a year he was not only playing duets with his sister, but composing little minuets in imitation of the pieces his father set him. His progress continued to be prodigious and by early 1762 Leopold believed the two children were ready to be introduced to the world. All three Mozarts were presented at the Court of the Elector of Munich and later in the same year their burgeoning reputations led to an appearance at the Emperor's Viennese Court at Schönbrunn Palace, where little Wolfgang's talent and artless behavior (which included jumping into the Empress's lap and kissing her) made him the object of everyone's indulgence.
Over the next few years the Mozart family followed a pattern of increasingly ambitious tours to various cities throughout Europe, including Paris, London, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Munich, as well as giving concerts to the aristocracy of Salzburg and Vienna. Another pattern which emerged from the tours, however, was not so propitious: the regular illnesses suffered by all the family, but by the two children in particular. It has since been speculated that these illnesses had a generally weakening effect on the boy's constitution, leaving him vulnerable in later life, although Nannerl outlived Wolfgang by 28 years.
In 1768, and by imperial command, Wolfgang composed a full-length opera, La finta semplice (The Simple Pretense, K. 51) to words by Coltellini, and also saw a private production of his short operatic work Bastien und Bastienne (K. 50). He was now aged 12. An extended tour of Italy (1769-71) by father and son met with unprecedented success: Wolfgang was given a private audience with the Pope in Rome and was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur. In Bologna he was admitted to the ranks of compositore by the Accademica Filarmonica – a position normally denied to anyone under 20. At this stage Wolfgang was still very much a child, writing to his sister from Milan:
"Lest you should think I am unwell I am sending you these few lines. I kiss Mamma's hand. My greetings to all our good friends. I have seen four rascals hanged here in the Piazza del Duomo. They hang them just as they do in Lyon. Wolfgang".
Less than a year after their return to Salzburg (where Wolfgang was again seriously ill) the Mozarts were back in Milan where the opera Lucia Silla (K. 135) was completed. Austria beckoned once more, and a Viennese visit in the late spring of 1773 brought Mozart into contact with the work of Franz Joseph Haydn, specifically his String Quartets Op. 20, the so-called "Sun" Quartets, from which Mozart later claimed to have learned vital lessons in form and development.
The Munich Carnival of 1775 prompted a commission for a new opera; the result was La finta giardiniera (K. 196), which made a deep impression on the German composer Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, a wild and dissipated man but a great judge of musical talent, who commented: "Unless Mozart should prove to be a mere overgrown product of the forcing-house, he will be the greatest composer that ever lived".
Now approaching the end of his teenage years, Mozart was committed to composing in the fashionable style of the time, the "gallant" style, which emphasized brilliance and display and which would keep him enthralled for at least the next two years. He was also kicking at the boundaries of life in Salzburg, a city which, for all its pride in its cultural accomplishments, was deeply parochial. For Mozart, who had already seen the most sophisticated cities in Europe, this must have been doubly hard to bear, especially when his father's employer at the Cathedral, Archbishop Colloredo, was utterly out of sympathy with his aims and outlook on life.
In September 1777 Mozart left for Paris with his mother, leaving Leopold and Nannerl in Salzburg: the tour was to be financed solely by fees earned while traveling. The pair had reached Mannheim when an event occurred that decisively shaped his future: Wolfgang fell in love with Aloysia, the second daughter of the impecunious prompter and copyist, Fridolin Weber. As the girl, who was a talented singer, returned his affections, Mozart hatched a hare-brained scheme to take her to Italy and make her a prima donna. He wrote to his father to inform him but Leopold saw only catastrophe ahead; after a series of bullying and wheedling letters, he eventually persuaded Wolfgang out of the idea.
Mozart and his mother finally arrived in Paris in March 1778, but she was ill on arrival; her condition worsened and in early July she died in Mozart's arms. The distraught son remained sensitive to his father's feelings throughout this terrible experience, asking a mutual friend to prepare Leopold for bad news before writing to him himself. In a letter to a friend, Mozart wrote:
"She was constantly delirious, and today at twenty-one minutes past five o'clock the death agony began and she lost all sensation and consciousness. I pressed her hand and spoke to her, but she did not see me, did not hear me and all feeling was gone".
He left Paris soon after, traveling back via Munich, now the home of the Weber family, but Aloysia had married and affected to retain no feelings for him. By January 1779 he was back in Salzburg where he took up the position of Konzertmeister to the Court and Cathedral. His life had irreversibly altered.
A brief and pleasant interlude in Munich, which included the premiere at the 1781 Munich Carnival of Idomeneo, Re di Creta (Idomeneo, King of Crete, K. 367) – one of his greatest opera serias – was brought to a close by an urgent summons from the Salzburg Archibishop for Wolfgang to join his party in Vienna. He was treated by the Archbishop as a possession, shown off to the aristocracy of Vienna but made to eat and live with the domestic servants. Mozart's anger over his employer's arrogant attitude led to a row and subsequently to Mozart being literally kicked out of the Archibishop's residence, pursued by a string of expletives from his secretary, Count Arco. Braving his father's anger, Wolfgang refused to attempt a reconciliation knowing that the time for such things was past. He had high hopes for an independent career in Vienna.
Leopold's anger turned to paroxysm of rage when Wolfgang moved into lodgings in Vienna with the Weber family with whom he had had such curious relations in Mannheim a few years previously. Herr Weber had died, leaving the family relatively poor. Wolfgang now fell for the third sister, Constanze. Young and still gullible, he was put under pressure by Constanze's mother and agreed to sign a marriage contract of intent, nearly driving Leopold to distraction, but by now his son's mind was fixed. Amidst the chaos of his personal life, Mozart enjoyed the successful premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (K. 384), and in all probability met Haydn for the first time in the late autumn of 1781, when the older man was visiting Vienna. From the beginning the admiration between the two composers was mutual. Mozart was only 26 while Haydn was nearly 50, but both learned a good deal from each other, Mozart in the realm of structure and expressive dignity, Haydn in colorization and richer melody.
The year 1782 began with a series of subscription concerts for which Mozart often prepared new piano concertos or symphonies, and which were regularly attended by the Austrian nobility, but the hoped-for Court appointments failed to materialize. When he and Constanze finally married late that summer (against the wishes of his father and sister), the newly-married couple looked forward to a precarious existence, sustained in part by private music lessons, for which Mozart was singularly ill-suited. The first child arrived the following summer, and in 1783 Mozart and his wife visited Leopold in Salzburg. But the relationship between father and son could never be the same, even though Leopold returned the visit in 1785. This was to be their last meeting, and was fortunately a happy one: Leopold met Mozart's friend Haydn and was told by the older composer that Wolfgang had "the most consummate knowledge of the art of composition". The father's return to Salzburg was accompanied by ill-health, and he was dead within two years.
Another major development in Mozart's life began when he joined the Freemasons, a powerful secret society. This was no passing fancy on Mozart's part, as was demonstrated by the constant undertone of Masonic thought which can be traced in so many of the works composed in his remaining years. A more artistically important event occurred in 1785 when Mozart became acquainted with the newly-appointed Imperial Court Poet, the Jewish Italian Lorenzo da Ponte. He invited da Ponte to compose a libretto, and together they created Le nozze di Figaro (K. 492) based on Beaumarchais' anti-establishment satire. Produced in Vienna on the first day of May 1786, after surviving vicious Court intrigues against it, the opera became the hit of the season. A subsequent production in Prague (to which Mozart was invited) was an even greater success, and Mozart wrote to a friend:
"Here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honour for me!"
Before leaving Prague Mozart was commissioned by a local entrepreneur to provide a new opera for the following season: the result was his next collaboration with da Ponte, Don Giovanni (K. 527). This was given its premiere in Prague in October 1787 and was a fantastic success; Mozart was given a trumpet fanfare even as he arrived at the theater. But even with such public acclaim, the composer was by no means financially secure; as copyright did not yet exist in the theater, he had nothing to show for his operatic triumphs but the initial fee paid to him. Compounded by their unworldly approach to domestic economy the Mozarts were constantly on the edge of a financial crisis, alleviated only by the generosity of friends or the occasional windfall of some profitable concert or commission.
The composer Gluck's death in November 1787 cleared the way for a long-overdue appointment to the Emperor's Court, although only as Kammercompositor, which came with a paltry salary; Mozart could hardly conceal his contempt when writing to accept the offer. Around the same time his letters reveal that he was borrowing consistently from a Masonic colleague, the wealthy merchant Michael Puchberg. Despite being in desperate financial need, the quality of Mozart's artistic output is staggeringly consistent – it was at this time that he completed his last three symphonies, including the most famous of all, the Jupiter (K. 551).
With no alleviation of his condition, in 1786 he accepted the invitation of his friend and pupil Prince Karl Lichnowsky to travel with him to Berlin with the object of playing at the Court of Frederick William II. The tour was a considerable success, with Mozart being well-received in towns along the route. He also managed to please the King enough to be commissioned to write a series of quartets. Yet he returned to Vienna in early summer with little money, and was immediately plunged back into the familiar cycle of penury and his wife's constant ill-health (perhaps resulting from her almost perpetual state of pregnancy). The Emperor commissioned a new opera, for which Mozart once again collaborated with da Ponte, the result, Cosí fan tutte (All Woman do so, K. 586), had a short but successful run in 1790 before being suspended due to the death of the Emperor. The bad timing which had dogged Mozart for so much of the 1780s seemed set to continue. The new Emperor; Leopold II, cared little for music or for the advancement of an insignificant commoner like Mozart. Wolfgang's attempts to improve his position at Court only resulted in an agreement that he should become Kapellmeister at St Stephen's Cathedral on the death of the incumbent, Hoffman. Needless to say, Hoffman outlived him.
A tour of parts of Germany in autumn 1790 was Mozart's last (he had consistently turned down offers of tours in England), and he had to pawn the family silver to mount it. In Munich, he appeared at the Elector's Court before the King of Naples, who was a member of the Hapsburg dynasty – a cruel irony for Mozart who had been denied the opportunity of playing to the King in Vienna. As he commented: "It is greatly to the credit of the Viennese Court that the King has to hear me in a foreign country".
By now Mozart was showing signs of fatigue and illness which proved permanent. His phenomenal rate of composition had slowed markedly in 1790, and it was only through a supreme effort of will that he raised his creative tempo again in 1791. A commission from an old friend, Emmanuel Schikaneder, to write music to a libretto of his, gradually evolved into the sublime Die Zauberflöte (K. 620), a work with strong Masonic imagery throughout as well as an unending supply of immortal melodies. It was premiered at a theater in the grounds of Prince Starhemberg's house in the Viennese suburb of Wieden in the same month that his last opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus, K. 621), was given its premiere at the National Theatre in Prague on the eve of the coronation of the new emperor.
Mozart's last months were spent in a spiral of increasing illness, financial worries and a rising fear that he would not complete his final commission – his Requiem (K. 626). This had been requested by a messenger who refused to divulge either his own name or that of the patron who wanted the work. Mozart became convinced that the messenger had been other-worldly, and that he was composing his own requiem. The truth was more prosaic: the Viennese nobleman Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach who commissioned it was in the practice of commissioning works from established composers, recopying them in his own hand, and then passing them off as his own to his friends. This was not to be the case with Mozart, as he left the work uncompleted at his death, his last days largely taken up with detailed instructions to his friend and acolyte Franz Xaver Süssmayr as to how it should be completed after his death.
Mozart died in December 1791, aged just 36, his funeral service held in the open air at St. Stephen's Cathedral. With a violent snowstorm raging, the coffin was taken in the pallbearer's wagon unaccompanied to a common graveyard, where, as was a common practice in the day, Mozart's body was consigned to an unmarked grave: a fitting epitaph to his life in Vienna.
During his short life, Mozart wrote sublimely for every known musical form, creating a vast array of masterpieces both great and small. Of the 23 original piano concertos (the first four are arrangements of works by other composers), the works from the Concerto #11 in F Major (K. 413) of 1782 onwards are generally regarded as completely mature, exhibiting a wholly remarkable balance between melody and harmony, soloist and orchestra. The soloist is a leader amongst equals and the listener can be forgiven for feeling he is in a musical heaven when these works are played by the right musicians.
The flute/oboe concertos (K. 313/314) have been particularly popular in recent years, as has been the Concerto for Flute and Harp (K. 299), and the four bravura horn concertos – written, it would seem, with the intent of testing the soloist – have never ceased to be in demand. But perhaps the most fully-realized of all the wind concertos is the late Concerto for Clarinet in A (K. 622), written in 1791 and exhibiting Mozart's deep love of the instrument. It explores the instrument's range and tonal qualities so successfully as to be a complete exposition of its musical qualities within the Classical style. The five violin concertos come from his Salzburg period and, while offering plenty to enjoy, lack the depth of his later concertos.
As far as the symphony is concerned, there is little reason initially to go beyond the last four (#38-41), all written in 1786, to find the perfect introduction to all the greatest qualities his symphonies can exhibit. Each is written in a contrasting manner and mood to the other, and each in its own way represents a summation of style and content which repays years of study. Of the numerous serenades, nocturnes, dances and marches, the former group represents the most substantial musical contribution, but each grouping brings its own felicities; the dances and marches, for example, have such a degree of élan and skill that they give much pleasure to the listener not looking for the utmost profundity. The two famous serenades, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) and Gran Partita (K. 361) are irresistible.
Mozart's achievement in every area of classical music is staggering; it would be unwise, therefore, to overlook either his chamber music or his keyboard music, although no-one would claim for the keyboard sonatas the pre-eminent place enjoyed by his successor, Beethoven, in this field. Of the chamber music, the two marvelous String Quintets, (K. 515 and 516), are unsurpassable in their own very different ways, while the Clarinet Quintet (K. 581) has the warmth and dexterity of its concerted equivalent plus a special intimacy endemic to the smaller forces. Of the string quartets, those dedicated to Haydn (the six quartets K. 387, 421, 428, 458 "Hunt", 464 & 465 "Dissonance"), written between 1783 and 1785, are the most famous and frequently performed. They show both his great debt to Haydn and his complete ease with the quartet format.
Finally, the vocal works: of a vast quantity written for religious occasions, the unfinished Requiem (K. 626) is by far the most famous, and stands as one of his supreme creations. Also popular are the Coronation Mass (K. 317) and the C minor Mass (Great, K. 427), while the beautiful Exsultate, jubilate (K. 165) and Ave verum corpus (K. 618) are a favorite with singers and represent Mozart at his most affecting. Also not to be overlooked is the aptly named Vesperae solennes de confessare (K. 339). Of the operas, the essential works if a listener is to grasp the range and depth of Mozart's theatrical genius would have to include all three da Ponte operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte), Die Zauberflöte and quite probably the delightful Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Some would also claim a place for Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, but these fine examples of the opera seria form are something of an acquired taste for a modern audience. They are best arrived at after a thorough assimilation of the five works mentioned above.