Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Biography: A musical child prodigy, skilled at both the piano and violin in 18th century Austria, Mozart and his older sister, also a pianist performed throughout Europe.
Mozart composed over 600 works, including 53 symphonies, dozens of masses and liturgical works, and over 20 operas and lyric theater pieces.
Died: December 5, 1791 (aged 35)
Cause of Death: Officially recorded as hitziges Frieselfieber, or severe miliary fever, which refers to a rash that looks like millet seeds. This is more a description of the symptoms than a diagnosis and researchers have suggested over 100 other possible causes of death.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart[a] (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791), baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart,[b] was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical period. Despite his short life, his rapid pace of composition resulted in more than 800 works of virtually every genre of his time. Many of these compositions are acknowledged as pinnacles of the symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral repertoire. Mozart was among the greatest composers in the history of Western music, and his elder colleague Joseph Haydn wrote: “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years”.
Born in Salzburg, in the Holy Roman Empire, Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty, embarking on a grand tour and then three trips to Italy. At 17, Mozart was engaged as a musician at the Salzburg court but grew restless and travelled in search of a better position.
While visiting Vienna in 1781, he was dismissed from his Salzburg position. He chose to stay in Vienna, where he achieved fame but little financial security. During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known symphonies, concertos, and operas, and portions of the Requiem, which was largely unfinished at the time of his early death at the age of 35. The circumstances of his death are largely uncertain, and have thus been much mythologized.
Mozart’s birthplace at Getreidegasse 9, Salzburg
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 to Leopold Mozart (1719–1787) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720–1778), at Getreidegasse 9 in Salzburg. Salzburg was the capital of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, an ecclesiastic principality in the Holy Roman Empire (today in Austria).[c] He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. His elder sister was Maria Anna Mozart (1751–1829), nicknamed “Nannerl”. Mozart was baptised the day after his birth, at St. Rupert’s Cathedral in Salzburg. The baptismal record gives his name in Latinized form, as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He generally called himself “Wolfgang Amadè Mozart” as an adult, but his name had many variants.
Leopold Mozart, a native of Augsburg, then an Imperial Free City in the Holy Roman Empire, was a minor composer and an experienced teacher. In 1743, he was appointed as fourth violinist in the musical establishment of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Four years later, he married Anna Maria in Salzburg. Leopold became the orchestra’s deputy Kapellmeister in 1763. During the year of his son’s birth, Leopold published a violin textbook, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which achieved success.
When Nannerl was 7, she began keyboard lessons with her father, while her three-year-old brother looked on. Years later, after her brother’s death, she reminisced:
He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good. … In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier. … He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time. … At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.
These early pieces, K. 1–5, were recorded in the Nannerl Notenbuch. There is some scholarly debate about whether Mozart was four or five years old when he created his first musical compositions, though there is little doubt that Mozart composed his first three pieces of music within a few weeks of each other: K. 1a, 1b, and 1c.
In his early years, Wolfgang’s father was his only teacher. Along with music, he taught his children languages and academic subjects. Solomon notes that, while Leopold was a devoted teacher to his children, there is evidence that Mozart was keen to progress beyond what he was taught. His first ink-spattered composition and his precocious efforts with the violin were of his initiative and came as a surprise to Leopold, who eventually gave up composing when his son’s musical talents became evident.
While Wolfgang was young, his family made several European journeys in which he and Nannerl performed as child prodigies. These began with an exhibition in 1762 at the court of Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria in Munich, and at the Imperial Courts in Vienna and Prague. A long concert tour followed, spanning three and a half years, taking the family to the courts of Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, Dover, The Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Mechelen and again to Paris, and back home via Zurich, Donaueschingen, and Munich. During this trip, Wolfgang met many musicians and acquainted himself with the works of other composers. A particularly significant influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom he visited in London in 1764 and 1765. When he was eight years old, Mozart wrote his first symphony, most of which was probably transcribed by his father.
Mozart aged 14 in January 1770 (School of Verona, attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli)
|Antiphon “Quaerite primum regnum Dei”, K. 86/73v (1:02)
Problems playing this file? See media help.
The family trips were often challenging, and travel conditions were primitive. They had to wait for invitations and reimbursement from the nobility, and they endured long, near-fatal illnesses far from home: first Leopold (London, summer 1764), then both children (The Hague, autumn 1765). The family again went to Vienna in late 1767 and remained there until December 1768.
After one year in Salzburg, Leopold and Wolfgang set off for Italy, leaving Anna Maria and Nannerl at home. This tour lasted from December 1769 to March 1771. As with earlier journeys, Leopold wanted to display his son’s abilities as a performer and a rapidly maturing composer. Wolfgang met Josef Mysliveček and Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna and was accepted as a member of the famous Accademia Filarmonica. In Rome, he heard Gregorio Allegri‘s Miserere twice in performance, in the Sistine Chapel, and wrote it out from memory, thus producing the first unauthorized copy of this closely guarded property of the Vatican.
In Milan, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770), which was performed with success. This led to further opera commissions. He returned with his father twice to Milan (August–December 1771; October 1772 – March 1773) for the composition and premieres of Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772). Leopold hoped these visits would result in a professional appointment for his son, and indeed ruling Archduke Ferdinand contemplated hiring Mozart, but owing to his mother Empress Maria Theresa‘s reluctance to employ “useless people”, the matter was dropped[d] and Leopold’s hopes were never realized. Toward the end of the journey, Mozart wrote the solo motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165.
After finally returning with his father from Italy on 13 March 1773, Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. The composer had many friends and admirers in Salzburg and had the opportunity to work in many genres, including symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses, serenades, and a few minor operas. Between April and December 1775, Mozart developed an enthusiasm for violin concertos, producing a series of five (the only ones he ever wrote), which steadily increased in their musical sophistication. The last three—K. 216, K. 218, K. 219—are now staples of the repertoire. In 1776, he turned his efforts to piano concertos, culminating in the E♭ concerto K. 271 of early 1777, considered by critics to be a breakthrough work.
Despite these artistic successes, Mozart grew increasingly discontented with Salzburg and redoubled his efforts to find a position elsewhere. One reason was his low salary, 150 florins a year; Mozart longed to compose operas, and Salzburg provided only rare occasions for these. The situation worsened in 1775 when the court theatre was closed, especially since the other theatre in Salzburg was primarily reserved for visiting troupes.
Two long expeditions in search of work interrupted this long Salzburg stay. Mozart and his father visited Vienna from 14 July to 26 September 1773, and Munich from 6 December 1774 to March 1775. Neither visit was successful, though the Munich journey resulted in a popular success with the premiere of Mozart’s opera La finta giardiniera.
Mozart became acquainted with members of the famous orchestra in Mannheim, the best in Europe at the time. He also fell in love with Aloysia Weber, one of four daughters of a musical family. There were prospects of employment in Mannheim, but they came to nothing, and Mozart left for Paris on 14 March 1778 to continue his search. One of his letters from Paris hints at a possible post as an organist at Versailles, but Mozart was not interested in such an appointment. He fell into debt and took to pawning valuables. The nadir of the visit occurred when Mozart’s mother was taken ill and died on 3 July 1778. There had been delays in calling a doctor—probably, according to Halliwell, because of a lack of funds. Mozart stayed with Melchior Grimm, who, as a personal secretary of the Duke d’Orléans, lived in his mansion.
While Mozart was in Paris, his father was pursuing opportunities of employment for him in Salzburg. With the support of the local nobility, Mozart was offered a post as court organist and concertmaster. The annual salary was 450 florins, but he was reluctant to accept. By that time, relations between Grimm and Mozart had cooled, and Mozart moved out. After leaving Paris in September 1778 for Strasbourg, he lingered in Mannheim and Munich, still hoping to obtain an appointment outside Salzburg. In Munich, he again encountered Aloysia, now a very successful singer, but she was no longer interested in him. Mozart finally returned to Salzburg on 15 January 1779 and took up his new appointment, but his discontent with Salzburg remained undiminished.
Among the better-known works which Mozart wrote on the Paris journey are the A minor piano sonata, K. 310/300d, the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), which were performed in Paris on 12 and 18 June 1778. and the Concerto for Flute and Harp in C major, K. 299/297c.
In January 1781, Mozart’s opera Idomeneo premiered with “considerable success” in Munich. The following March, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his employer, Archbishop Colloredo, was attending the celebrations for the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. For Colloredo, this was simply a matter of wanting his musical servant to be at hand (Mozart indeed was required to dine in Colloredo’s establishment with the valets and cooks).[f] However, Mozart was planning a bigger career even as he continued in the archbishop’s service; for example, he wrote to his father:
My main goal right now is to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that’s what he likes.
Mozart did indeed soon meet the Emperor, who eventually was to support his career substantially with commissions and a part-time position.
In the same letter to his father just quoted, Mozart outlined his plans to participate as a soloist in the concerts of the Tonkünstler-Societät, a prominent benefit concert series; this plan as well came to pass after the local nobility prevailed on Colloredo to drop his opposition.
Colloredo’s wish to prevent Mozart from performing outside his establishment was in other cases, however, carried through, raising the composer’s anger; one example was a chance to perform before the Emperor at Countess Thun‘s for a fee equal to half of his yearly Salzburg salary.
The quarrel with the archbishop came to a head in May: Mozart attempted to resign and was refused. The following month, permission was granted, but in a grossly insulting way: the composer was dismissed literally “with a kick in the arse”, administered by the archbishop’s steward, Count Arco. Mozart decided to settle in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer.
The quarrel with Colloredo was more difficult for Mozart because his father sided against him. Hoping fervently that he would obediently follow Colloredo back to Salzburg, Mozart’s father exchanged intense letters with his son, urging him to be reconciled with their employer. Mozart passionately defended his intention to pursue an independent career in Vienna. The debate ended when Mozart was dismissed by the archbishop, freeing himself both of his employer and of his father’s demands to return. Solomon characterizes Mozart’s resignation as a “revolutionary step” that significantly altered the course of his life.