Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756. He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. His elder sister was Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed “Nannerl”.
When Nannerl was 7, she began keyboard lessons with her father, Leopold, who was a composer and musician, while her three-year-old brother looked on. Though she was very talented, it was soon apparent that Wolfgang was even more so. Wolfgang quickly learned how to play and by the age of five was making up his own pieces, which his father wrote down for him. When he was eight years old, Mozart wrote his first symphony, most of which was probably transcribed by his father.
The Mozarts spent several years traveling around Europe. The child prodigies, Wolfgang and Nannerl, performed at multiple royal courts. During this trip, Wolfgang met a number of musicians and acquainted himself with the works of other composers. A particularly important influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom he visited in London in 1764 and 1765.
After returning with his father from Italy in March of 1773, Mozart acquired a position as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. The composer had a great number of friends and admirers in Salzburg, and had opportunities 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).
In August 1777, Mozart resigned his position at Salzburg and in September ventured out once more in search of employment, with visits to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Munich. While Mozart was in Paris, he wrote his A minor piano sonata and the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31). Meanwhile, his father hunted for new opportunities of employment for him in Salzburg. Mozart reluctantly returned to Salzburg in January 1779 and took up his new appointment.
In March, 1781, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his new employer, Archbishop Colloredo, was attending the celebrations for the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. Colloredo simply wanted his musical servant to be at hand; but Mozart had a different agenda. He wanted to audition for the Emperor.
Archbishop Colloredo refused to permit Mozart to take on outside jobs. Mozart attempted to resign as the Archbishop’s musical director 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. Mozart moved to Vienna as a freelance performer and composer.
His new career in Vienna began well. He performed often as a pianist, notably in a competition before the Emperor with Muzio Clementi on December 24, 1781, and he soon established himself as the foremost keyboard player in Vienna. He also prospered as a composer, and in 1782 completed The Abduction from the Seraglio, which was a huge success. Performed throughout German-speaking Europe, the opera established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.
Mozart fell in love with Constanza Weber, and they were married August 4, 1782. The couple had six children, of whom only two survived infancy.
In 1784, Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, and the two composers became friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart dedicated six quartets to Haydn.
From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. The concerts were very popular, and the concertos he premiered at them are still performed regularly.
With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted a rather extravagant lifestyle. They moved to an expensive apartment, and Mozart bought himself a fine fortepiano and a billiard table. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school and kept servants. They saved nothing.
Around the end of 1785, Mozart moved away from keyboard writing and began an operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1786 saw the successful premiere of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. The opera Don Giovanni premiered in October 1787 to acclaim in Prague. The two are among Mozart’s most important works and are mainstays of the operatic repertoire today.
In December 1787, Mozart finally obtained a steady post under aristocratic patronage. Emperor Joseph II appointed him as his “chamber composer.” It was a part-time appointment, and required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls. This modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived.
Toward the end of the decade, the Austro-Turkish War caused the general level of prosperity to decline and the aristocracy could no longer support music. Mozart and the other musicians in Vienna found fewer performance opportunities and commissions. The arts struggled.
Mozart’s last year (until his final illness) was a time of great productivity. He composed a great deal, including some of his most admired works: the opera The Magic Flute; his final piano concerto (K. 595 in B♭); the Clarinet Concerto; the last in his great series of string quintets (K. 614 in E♭); the motet Ave verum corpus; and the unfinished Requiem.
Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the September 6, 1791, premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito, written in that same year on commission for the Emperor’s coronation festivities. He continued his professional functions for some time and conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute on September 30. His health deteriorated in November, at which point he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting.
Mozart was nursed in his final illness by his wife and her youngest sister, and was attended by the family doctor. He was mentally occupied with the task of finishing his Requiem. (Tradition claims it was completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Despite the story suggested in the movie Amadeus, no foul play was suspected, and Mozart did not dictate passages to Antonio Salieri.)
Mozart died in his home on December 5, 1791, at age 35. In his brief lifetime he composed more than 600 works, many of which are acknowledged masterpieces of symphonic, chamber, choral and operatic music.
Just in time for weekend reading:
- Embroidered portraits.
- What can you learn from Mozart?
- An interesting science connection to Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
- Life advice from an old barber.
- I can see me living in this houseboat.
- I thought maybe it was the mushroom, but that’s not what the mantis was high on.
- For anyone who shudders at the thought of public speaking.
- How to get stuff done. I’m fascinated with this guy’s daily schedule.
- Kyoto, Japan, seen through an artist’s eyes.
- Gorgeous tangles.
- Lovely sketchbook.
- Take a bird’s eye tour of Shanghai.
Leopold Mozart, professional musician, teacher, and composer in 18th century Salzburg, Austria, had seven children, only two of whom survived infancy. He began teaching the older, a girl called Nannerl, on clavier when she was seven, with little Wolfgang (January 27, 1756—December 5, 1791), aged three, watching. Soon the little boy was picking out tunes on the keyboard, and his father played little musical games with him, encouraging him to imitate what he played.
By the time he was five, Wolfgang was composing his own pieces, written down by Leopold.
When he was six and Nannerl was ten, the family began touring Europe, with the children playing at royal courts in Munich, Vienna, Prague, Mannheim, Paris, London, and Zurich. The children became well-known throughout Europe.
Mozart’s first major position was as a court musician in Salzburg from 1773-1776. Later, he was court composer for the wealthy Archbishop Colloredo, a job he did not relish and was eventually dismissed from. From then on, he freelanced as a composer and a performer, supporting himself with commissions from patrons.
On August 4, 1782, he married Constanze Weber. They lived an extravagant lifestyle which they could not really afford.
Well versed in the classical style of Josef Haydn, he took it to its zenith with surprising harmonies and cadences. In all, he wrote over 600 compositions, including 41symphonies (the first written when he was eight), 22 operas, 15 Masses, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 17 piano sonatas, and 26 string quartets.
Some of his most beloved works:
Eine kleine Nachtmusik:
Symphony #25 (you may have to manually restart the clip at the beginning; sorry, some of the embed codes are wonky):
Symphony #40 (you may have to manually restart the clip at the beginning):
From The Magic Flute, The Queen of the Night’s aria:
In September of 1791, Mozart fell ill. Sensing his imminent demise, he drove himself to finish some projects in order to provide support for his wife and their two sons. His symptoms of pain, weakness, and vomiting grew worse. His continued his final work, a Requiem paid for by a wealthy patron, on his deathbed, dictating portions to his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who subsequently completed it. Mozart was only thirty-five years old when he died.
Mozart’s life was fictionalized in the 1982 movie of the play Amadeus. It dwelt on a supposed rivalry between Mozart and his popular contemporary, Antonio Salieri. In the movie, Mozart dictated a portion of his Requiem to Salieri:
Let’s celebrate Friday with a bunch of articles to jump-start your creative week-end:
- Reading list for the over-60 crowd.
- Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.
- You can improve your quality of life by doing these eight things during your off-hours.
- Italy—the land of domes.
- Be careful what you wish for—and be willing to edit your goals.
- Have you ever been to Oahu? Here are some things you could do there.
- Buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
- Little quilt masterpieces.
- Remember the movie Amadeus? Here is the truth about Mozart’s Requiem.
- Presidential jokes.
Many of us take reading for granted.
But if you’ve ever watched a child discover the connection between words written on a page and names and stories and ideas, you’ve seen the sparking of magic, the bestowal of power.
I read the story long ago (sorry, I can’t find the source; if you recognize it, please credit it in the comments below) of missionaries in a culture that had no written language. The chief was very unimpressed with the Bible; he had no concept of book.
To illustrate how a book conveys a message, a missionary asked the chief to tell him what was going on in his life. The chief described how his “woman” had recently become ill and died. The missionary wrote down the chief’s words, then took the chief to see his (the missionary’s) partner. The partner read the missionary’s note, and said to the chief, “I’m so sorry your woman died.” The startled chief began to comprehend the power of the written word.
At a pre-concert chat I attended recently at the Phoenix Symphony, pianist Shai Wosner shared how his parents insisted on sending him to piano lessons at age five (Wosner started playing piano on his own when he was three) because they wanted him to learn how to read music notation. He really didn’t appreciate the value of that skill until, a few years later, they gave him the orchestral score of Mozart’s Requiem. There, laid out in front of him, was a visual representation of a complex work of genius. He could see the entrances of the instruments and the voices; the patterns of melody, harmony, rhythms, and dynamics; the techniques the composer utilized to develop his themes. The power of that moment affected him deeply, and I experienced it vicariously through his relating it.
Here is what the music above (an excerpt from a section of the Mozart Requiem) sounds like (up to the 0:49 mark):
Can you follow along? Do you have the power to connect the symbols to the sounds?
Friends, it is of vital importance that our children tap into that power. They partake of it when they learn to read, when they learn another language, when they grasp mathematic principles, when they discover the laws of physics by building a structure, when they create art, when they look through a magnifying glass.
Music literacy is as important as English literacy. Acquiring the skill of reading music notation exercises the brain in a way that makes the decoding of other symbols easier. Music literacy is not a frill; it’s a strategic component of a comprehensive education. Our kids deserve a rich, experiential education. Anything less limits them.
I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Back to beautiful music. Here is an example of the artistry of Shai Wosner:
Can you read music? Can you speak more than one language? Can you write computer code? Do you agree that there are many kinds of literacy? Can you think of any reason that would justify eliminating music literacy instruction from public education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.