1902 Encyclopedia > Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Austrian composer

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791), one of the greatest musicians the world has ever produced, was born at Salzburg, 27th January 1756. (Footnote 8-2)

He was educated by his father, Leopold Mozart, a violinist of high repute, in the service of the archbishop of Salzburg. When only three years old he shared the harpsichord lessons of his sister Maria, five years his senior. A year later he played minuets, and composed little pieces, some of which are still preserved in Maria’s music-book. Not long afterwards he attempted to write a concerto. This, his father said, was so difficult that no one could play it, whereupon Wolfgang replied that no one could be expected to play a great work like a concerto without having first diligently practiced it.

Mozart painting

Wolgang Amadeus Mozart
(painting by Barbara Krafft)

When five years old he performed in public, for the first time, in the hall of the university. In 1762 Leopold Mozart took Wolfgang and Maria on a musical tour, during the course of which they played before most of the sovereigns of Germany.

The little "Wolferl’s" [8-3] charming appearance and disposition endeared him to every one; and so innocent and natural were his manners that at Vienna he sprang upon the empress’s lap and kissed her heartily. The emperor Francis I sat by his side while he played, and called him his "little magician." When he slipped one day on the polished floor the archduchess Marie Antoinette, afterwards queen of France, lifted him up, whereupon he said, "You are very kind; when I grow up I will marry you."

The favour shown to him at court was almost incredible; yet he remained as gentle and docile as ever, and so amenable to parental authority that he used to say, "Next after God comes my father."

In 1763 the whole family started again. Wolferl now sang, composed, and played on the harpsichord, the organ, and the violin, winning golden opinions everywhere. At every court he visited he was loaded with caresses and presents; but the journeys were expensive, and the family terribly poor. In Paris they lodged, at the Bavarian embassy, giving performances on a grand scale both there and at Versailles, where Wolferl’s organ-playing was even more admired than his performance on the harpsichord. Here, also, he published his first compositions – two sets of sonatas for the harpsichord and violin.

On 10th April 1764 Leopold Mozart brought his family to England, engaging a lodging in Cecil Court, St Martin’s Lane, whence he afterwards removed to Frith Street, Soho. On 27th April and 19th May Wolferl played before the royal family with immense success, accompanying the queen in a song and playing at sight anything that the king set before him.

"Our treatment here," says Leopold Mozart in one of his letters, "exceeds all our previous experience. We could not believe ourselves in the presence of the king and queen of England, so friendly were their manners."

Wolferl gave a public concert at the Great Room in Spring Gardens on 5th June, and on the 29th played a concerto at Ranelagh.

He now made his first attempt at the composition of a symphony; published a third set of sonatas, dedicated to the queen; and wrote an anthem for four voices entitled God is our Refuge, for presentation to the British Museum. [9-1]

In July 1764 he played at Tunbridge Wells, and soon afterwards Leopold Mozart caught a severe illness, during the continuance of which he stayed with Dr Randall in Five Fields Row, now Lower Ebury Street, Chelsea. On 12th February 1765 the children gave a concert at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, and another on 13th May at Hickford’s Room. After this they gave private performances at the Swan and Hoop Tavern, Cornhill; and on 17th September the family left England for the Hague, where they remained some time, and where in March 1766 the young composer made his first attempt at an oratorio, commanding in Holland a success as great as that he had already attained in London, and astonishing his hearers at Haarlem by performing on the then largest organ in the world.

It would be impossible within the limits of a sketch like the present to follow the history of this gifted boy through all its extraordinary details. Towards the close of 1766 we find him at home in Salzburg, diligently studying Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. In September 1767 he paid a second visit to Vienna, and at the suggestion of the emperor Joseph II composed an opera buffa, La Finta Semplice, which though acknowledged by the company for which it was written to be "an incomparable work," was suppressed by a miserable cabal. The archbishop of Salzburg hearing of this commanded a representation of the rejected work in his palace, and appointed the young composer his "maestro di capella."

The office, however, was merely an honorary one, and since it did not involve compulsory residence, Leopold Mozart determined to complete his son’s education in Italy, to which country he himself accompanied him in December 1769.

Wolfgang, now nearly fourteen years old, was already an accomplished musician, needing experience rather than instruction, and gaining it every day. His talent was universally acknowledged. At Milan he received a commission to write an opera for the following Christmas. At Bologna he found firm friends in the venerable Padre Martini and the still more famous sopranist Farinelli. At Florence he became so tenderly attached to Thomas Linley, a boy of extraordinary promise and exactly his own age, that he parted from him with tears, which seemed almost prophetic -- for Linley was drowned in England at the early age of twenty-two.

Arriving in Rome on the Wednesday in Holy Week, he went at once to the Sistine Chapel to hear the celebrated Miserere of Gregorio Allegri, which, on returning to his hotel, he wrote down from memory note for note -- a feat which created an immense sensation, for at that time the singers were forbidden to transcribe the music on pain of excommunication.

In May he played at the Conservatorio della Pièta, in Naples, where the audience, attributing his power to the magical effect of a ring, insisted upon its removal from his finger. Returning to Rome towards the end of June, he was invested, by the pope with the order of "The Golden Spur," of which he was made a cavaliere, [9-2] an honour which he prized the more highly because, not many years before, it had been conferred upon Gluck.

In July he paid a second visit to Bologna, when the Accademia Filarmonica, after subjecting him to a severe examination, admitted him to the rank of "compositore," notwithstanding a statute restricting this preferment to candidates of at least twenty years old. The exercise which gained him this distinction is a four-part composition in strict counterpoint on the antiphon Quaerite primum, written in the severe ecclesiastical style of the 16th century and abounding in oints of ingenious imitation and device. [9-3]

In October 1770 Wolfgang and his father returned to Milan for the completion and production of the new opera. The libretto, entitled Mitridate, Re di Ponto, was furnished by an obscure poet from Turin, to the great disappointment of the young maestro, who had hoped to set a drama by Metastasio. The progress of the work was interrupted from time to time by the miserable intrigues which seem inseparable from the lyric stage, exacerbated in this particular case by the jealousy of the resident professors, who refused to believe either that an Italian opera could be written by a native of Germany, or that a boy of fourteen could manage the orchestra of La Scala, at that time the largest in Europe. Fortunately the detractors were effectively silenced at the first full rehearsal; and on the 26th of December Wolfgang took his seat at the harpsichord and directed his work amidst a storm of genuine applause. The success of the piece was unprecedented. It had a continuous run of twenty nights, and delighted even the most captious critics.

Wolfgang’s triumph was now complete. After playing with his usual success in Turin, Verona, Venice, Padua, and other Italian cities, he returned with his father to Salzburg in March 1771, commissioned to compose a grand dramatic serenata for the approaching marriage of the archduke Ferdinand, and an opera for La Scala, to be performed during the season of 1773. The wedding took place at Milan on 21st October; and the serenata, Ascanio in Alba, was produced with an effect which completely eclipsed Hasse’s new opera, Ruggiero, composed for the same festivity. The empress Maria Theresa was so delighted with it that in addition to his fee she presented Wolfgang with a watch set with diamonds and enameled with the portrait; and Hasse, forgetful of his own defeat, generously uttered the often-quoted prophecy, "This boy will cause us all to be forgotten. [9-4]

During the absence of Wolfgang and his father the good archbishop of Salzburg died; and in the spring of the year 1772 Hieronymus, count of Colloredo, was elected in his stead, to the horror of all who were acquainted with his real character. The Mozart family did their best to propitiate their new lord, for whose installation Wolfgang, after his return from Milan, composed an opera, II Sogno di Scipione; but the newly-elected prelate had no taste for art, and was utterly incapable of appreciating the charm of any intellectual pursuit whatever.

For the present, however, things went on smoothly. In October the father and son once more visited Milan for the preparation and production of the opera, Lucio Silla, which was produced at Christmas with a success quite equal to that of Mitridate, and ran between twenty and thirty nights. Unfortunately, however, these artistic triumphs were far from profitable in their pecuniary aspect. The family grew poorer and poorer; and the archbishop Hieronymus was not the man to rescue them from penury.

In the meantime Wolfgang continued to produce new works with incredible rapidity. In 1775 he composed an opera for Munich, La Finta Giardiniera, produced on 13th January. In the following March he set to music Metastasio’s dramatic cantata, Il Re Pastore. Concertos, masses, symphonies, sonatas, and other important works, both vocal and instrumental, followed each other without a pause. And this fertility of invention, instead of exhausting his genius, seemed only to stimulate it to still more indefatigable exertions.

But the pecuniary return was so inconsiderable that in 1777 Leopold asked the archbishop for leave of absence for the purpose of making a professional tour. This was refused on the ground of the prelate’s dislike to "that system of begging." Wolfgang then requested permission to resign his appointment, which was only an honorary one, for the purpose of making the tour with his mother. The archbishop was furious; but the plan was carried out at last, and on the 23rd September the mother and son started for Munich.

The results were not encouraging. Leopold hoped that his son, now twenty-one years old, might obtain some profitable court appointment; but in this he was disappointed. And, worse still, poor Wolfgang fell in love at Mannheim with a promising young vocalist named Aloysia Weber, whose father, the prompter of the theatre, was very nearly penniless.

On hearing of this Leopold ordered his wife and son to start instantly for Paris, where they arrived on 23rd March 1778. Wolfgang’s usual success, however, seemed on this occasion to have deserted him. His reception was a cold one; and, to add to his misery, his mother fell seriously ill. He wrote home in unspeakable distress; but the worst had not yet come.

On 3rd July the parent to whom he was so tenderly attached expired in his arms. Reduced almost to despair by this new trouble, he left Paris in September, rested for a while on his way home in Mannheim and Munich, was received by Aloysia Weber with coldness almost amounting to contempt; and in June 1779 he returned to Salzburg, hoping against hope that he might make some better terms with the archbishop, who relented so far as to attach a salary of 500 florins (about 50 pounds) to his "concertmeister’s" appointment, with leave of absence in case he should be engaged to write an opera elsewhere.

Two years later the desired opportunity presented itself. He was engaged to composed an opera for Munich for the carnival of 1781. The libretto was furnished by the abate Varesco, court chaplain at Salzburg, a truly sympathetic collaborateur. On 29th January 1781 the work was produced under the title of Idomeneo, Re di Creta with triumphant success, and thenceforth Mozart’s position as an artist was assured; for this was not only the finest work he had ever written but incontestably the finest opera that had ever yet been placed upon the stage in any age or country. It marked an era in the history of art, and raised the lyric drama to a level till then unknown.

And now the archbishop’s character exhibited itself in its true colors. Art for its own sake he utterly disdained; but it flattered his vanity to retain a famous artist in his service with the power of insulting him at will. On hearing of the success of Idomeneo he instantly summoned the composer to Vienna, where he was spending the season. Mozart lost not a moment in presenting himself, but he soon found his position intolerable.

That he should be condemned to dine with his patron’s servants was the fault of the age, but the open disrespect with which the lowest menials treated him was due to the archbishop’s example. Though received as an honoured guest in the houses of the haute noblesse of Vienna, he was uniformly addressed by the archbishop in the third person singular, a form used in Germany to express the utmost possible contempt. His salary was reduced from 500 to 400 florins, he was left to pay his own traveling expenses, and he was not permitted to add to his means by giving a concert on his own account or to play anywhere but at the archiepiscopal palace; indeed it was only at the instance of a large number of the nobility that he obtained leave to take part, gratuitously, in a concert given for the poor.

Archbishop Hieronymus was hated at court, and most of all by the emperor Joseph, who, on retiring to Laxenburg for the summer, did not place his name on the list of invited guests. This offended him so deeply that he left Vienna in disgust. The household were sent on to Salzburg, but Mozart was left to find lodgings at his own expense. Thereupon he sent in his resignation; and for this act of contumacy was insulted by the archbishop in terms too vulgar for translation.

He preserved, however, in his resolution, taking lodgings in a house rented by his old friends the Webers, and vainly hoping for pupils, since Vienna at this season was perfectly empty. Happily he had a sincere though not a generous well-wisher in the emperor, and a firm friend in the archduke Maximilian, who, in common with many noblemen of rank, were disgusted with the archbishop’s behavior.

By the emperor’s command he wrote a German opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which on 16th July 1782 was received with acclamation, and not long afterwards was performed with equal success at Prague. This great work raised the national "singspiel" to a level commensurate with that which Idomeneo had already attained for the Italian "opera seria."

Gluck’s great reform of the lyric drama (based, not, as is sometimes erroneously supposed, on new principles invented by himself, but on those enunciated by Peri and his associates as early as the year 1600, when the first Italian opera was produced at Florence) had already attracted immense attention in Paris, and was everywhere producing good fruit. It was impossible, that it should do otherwise, for it was founded on pure dramatic truth.

But what Gluck worked out in obedience to a carefully-elaborated theory Mozart effected by simple force of natural dramatic instinct. Moreover, with all his love for graceful melody, his power of expression, and dramatic force, Gluck was not great as a constructive musician.

On the other hand, the erudition which in 1770 had won Mozart’s diploma from the Accademia at Bolgona was no mere rusty exhibition of scholastic pedantry. It enabled him to cast his music into symmetrical and well considered form, without sacrificing the demands of dramatic consistency; to enchant the unlearned hearer with an endless flow of melody, while satisfying the cultivated musician with the most ingenious part-writing that had ever been imagined in connection with the stage; to construct the grand finales that have made his operas the finest in the world; -- and all this with equal reverence for the claims of legitimate art on the one side and those of passionate expression on the other.

For the finales are no dead forms, but living scenes developing the action of the drama. And the impassioned utterances are no poor passages of "sound and fury, signifying nothing," but well-constructed music, shapely and beautiful, -- music which Gluck himself, with all his genius, could no more hope to rival than Hasse could hope to rival the choruses in Israel in Egypt.

For Gluck, though his taste was as refined and his intellect as highly cultivated as Mozart’s, was, as Handel justly observed, no contrapuntist; and works like Mozart’s needed an intimate acquaintance with the mysteries of counterpoint, no less than purity of taste and intellectual culture. And so it comes to pass that Mozart’s operas still retain a stronger hold upon the affections, both of the general public and the initiated worshipper of art, than any other dramatic music that has ever been written.

The next great event in Mozart’s life was a disastrous one. Though Aloysia Weber had long since rejected him, his renewed intimacy with the family led to a most unfortunate marriage with her younger sister, Constance, a woman who, neither his equal in intellect nor his superior in prudence, added little to the happiness of his life and less than nothing to its prosperity.

The wedding took place at St Stephen’s on 16th August 1782. by the end of the year the thriftless pair were deeply in debt. Mozart composed incessantly, played at numberless concerts, and was in greater favour than ever at court and with the nobility; but to the last day of his life his purse was empty. He had, however, many kind friends, not the least affectionate of whom was the veteran Haydn, who was sincerely attached to him. With Gluck he was on terms of courteous intercourse only. Salieri detested him, and made no secret of his dislike.

Mozart’s next dramatic venture was a German singpiel in one act, Der Schauspieldirektor, produced at Schönbrunn, 7th February 1786. Not quite three months later, on 1st May, he produced his marvellous Le Nozze di Figaro, the libretto for which was adapted from Beaumarchais by the abbé Da Ponte. The reception of this magnificent work was enthusiastic. But Vienna was a hotbed of intrigue. Everything that could be done by jealous plotters to mar the composer’s success was done, and that so effectively that Mozart declared he would never bring out another opera in the city which treated him so meanly.

Fortunately, Figaro, like Die Entführung, was repeated with brilliant success at Prague. Mozart went there to hear it, and received a commission to write an opera for the next season, with a fee of 100 ducats. Da Ponte furnished a libretto, founded on Tirso de Molina’s tale, El Convidado de Piedra, and entitled Il Don Giovanni. By 28th October 1787 the whole was ready with the exception of the overture, not a note of which was written on the evening before the performance. This circumstance has led to the idea that it was composed in haste, but it is certain that Mozart knew it all by heart and transcribed it during the night from memory, while his wife told fairy tales to keep him awake. The opera was produced on 29th October with extraordinary effect, and the overture, though played without rehearsal, was as successful as the rest of the music. [11-1] Yet, when reproduced in Vienna, Don Giovanni pleased less than Salieri’s comparatively worthless Tarare.

On returning to Vienna Mozart was appointed kammer-compositor to the emperor with a salary of 800 gulden (£80). He also conducted Baron van Swieten’s concerts, and composed great quantities both of sacred and secular music, but continued miserably poor, while his wife had become a confirmed invalid.

In April 1789 he accompanied Prince Lichnowski to Berlin, where King Frederick William II offered him the post of "kapellmeister" with a salary of 3000 thalers (£450). Though most unwilling to quit the emperor’s service, he informed him of the offer and requested leave to resign his appointment in Vienna. "Are you going to desert me, than?" asked the emperor; and Mozart, wounded by the reproach, remained to starve.

The emperor now commissioned Mozart to compose another Italian opera, which was produced 26th January 1790 under the title of Così fan tutte. Though the libretto by Da Ponte was too stupid for criticism, the music was delicious, and the opera would probably have had a long run but for the emperor’s death on 7th February. The new emperor, Leopold II, was elected at Frankfort in September, and Mozart went thither in the hope of giving some concerts, but he was obliged to sell his plate to pay the expenses of the journey, and returned in December.

In March 1791 Mozart consented to write a German opera upon an entirely new plan for Schikaneder, the manager of the little theatre in the Wieden suburb. The piece was addressed especially to the Freemasons and contained ceaseless allusions both in the words and music to the secrets of the brotherhood. Deeply interested in the affairs of a body of which he was himself a member, [11-2] Mozart excelled himself in this new work, for the overture of which he invented a new art-form, that of the "symphonic fugue." He was rewarded for his labours by a brilliant artistic success, but Schikaneder alone reaped the financial benefit of the speculation.

Before the completion of Die Zauberflöte a stranger called on Mozart, requesting him to compose a Requiem and offering to pay for it in advance. He began the work under the influence of superstitious fear, believing that the messenger had been sent from the other world to forewarn him of his own approaching death. Meanwhile he received a commission to compose an opera, La Clemenza di Tito, for the coronation of the emperor at Prague. He worked incessantly, and far beyond his strength. The coronation took place on 6th September, and its splendors threw the opera very much into the shade. Die Zauberflöte was produced on 30th September and had a splendid run.

But the Requiem still remained unfinished; the stranger therefore made another appointment, paying a further sum in advance. Mozart worked at it unremittingly, hoping to make it his greatest work. His sacred music, though less florid than Haydn’s, was even more voluptuously beautiful, -- perfect in its kind, though showing no trace of the stern grandeur of Handel, or the devotional purity of Palestrina. In the Requiem he surpassed himself, but he was not permitted to finish it.

When the stranger called the third time the composer was no more. The score of the Requiem was completed by Süssmayer, whose task, simplified by the instructions he had received from Mozart on his death-bed, was a purely mechanical one. It is now known that the work was commissioned by Count Walsegg, who wished to perform it as his own.

Mozart died 5th December 1791, apparently from fever, though he believed himself poisoned. His funeral was a disgrace to the court, the emperor, the public, society itself. On the afternoon of the 6th his body was hurried to a pauper’s grave; and because it rained Van Swieten, Süssmayer, and three other "friends" turned back and left him to be carried to his last long home alone.

Mozart’s compositions, whether for the church, the theatre, or the concert-room, are pervaded by an individuality of style which can never be mistaken. On the truthful expression of his dramatic music we have already spoken. Apart from its innate beauty, its artistic strength consists in its perfect adaptation to the situation for which it is designed.

The same great quality characterizes his symphonies, his concertos, and hi sonatas for the pianoforte and other solo instruments. Each work presents us with the logical and consistent development of a noble idea, of which we never lose sight for a moment. No trace of indecision or inconsequence is discernible in any part of the composition. Every note is fitted into its place with a definite purpose, and takes its share in the arrangement of the design with a certainty which leaves no doubt as to the object for which it was introduced.

The result of this well-considered symmetry is a degree of technical perfection which no composer, ancient or modern, has ever surpassed. But technical perfection does but supply the body into which true genius alone can breathe the living soul. And here it is that we must look for the inexpressible charm which Mozart’s music never fails to exercise upon all who hear it. Its boundless wealth of melody is governed by a refinement of taste which excludes every subject, every phrase, every minute cadence which is not both beautiful in itself and capable of enhancing the beauty of its fellow-phrases.

Mozart himself has left us, in a letter to Baron V ---, a memorable description of the loving care he exercised in the selection of his charming phrases. He tells us that his ideas flowed best when he was alone and feeling cheerful. Having once conceived an idea he subjected it to a process of mental elaboration which continued until the composition was complete. Then, and not till then, he committed it to paper; and hence it was that he was able to write out the overture to Don Giovanni on the day of its first performance.

Von Köchel’s Chronologischthematisches Verzeichniss, 1862, contains a complete list of Mozart’s works. (W.S.R.)

8-2 In the baptismal register his name stands, Joannes Chrysotomus Wolganges Theophilus (Lat. Amadeus; German. Gottlieb).

8-3 The German diminutive of Wolgang.

9-1 The original autograph of this is now numbered "Select case C, 21, d."

9-2 Auratae militiae eques.

9-3 An exact copy of this most interesting production, transcribed from the original autograph still preserved among the archives of the Accademia, will be found in the appendix to Holmes's Life of Mozart (London, 1845).

9-4 "Questo ragazzo ci farà dimenticar tutti."

11-1 Michael Kelly, in his Reminiscences, has left a delightful account of the circumstances.

11-2 Freemasonry did not at that time involve the censure of the Catholic Church, or Mozart certainly would have renounced it.

The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period and other works on the history of music.

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