Composer Profile: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Salzburg, Austria, one winter’s night,
Saw the birth by candlelight,
Of a child whose name would stand,
His music know throughout the land.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Soon the world will hear such joy,
Music of the wonder-boy.

Mozart as a child 1763 possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, 1763

1991 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the great Classical composer’s tragically early death, and in tribute the children at my primary school (or at least, in my class – it’s been a while, so I’m a little hazy on the details) learned a number of songs which told the story of his life. The words above comprise the first verse and chorus of the first song, which is about all I can remember now.

Mozart really was a wonder-boy. The son of a minor composer, teacher, and violinist named Leopold and his wife Anna Maria, he was the youngest of seven children, of whom only one, his sister Maria Anna (known as Nannerl) survived infancy. This may explain why he was baptised only a day after his birth, and also the attention his parents, and especially his father, seem to have lavished on both children.

Leopold began teaching Nannerl to play the clavier when she was seven, and her little brother swiftly began imitating her. Spurred by this early interest, Leopold made a game of teaching his son to play simple tunes, and at the age of five Mozart produced his first compositions.

Unfortunately, this was the gateway into the often-challenging upbringing of the child prodigy, for Leopold promptly took his remarkable family on the road. In 1762 they began a tour which took them as far afield as Munich, Vienna, Prague, Paris, and London: no mean feat in the 18th century, especially with two children in tow. In spite of financial setbacks and illnesses, they were on the road until 1773, when Mozart, now (barely) a young man, landed a steady gig at the Salzburg Court. Over the next four years Mozart composed symphonies, sonatas, masses, quartets, and a few operas. But it seems he longed for more: more money, more freedom, and more opportunities for artistic expression, and in 1777 he departed for Paris.

Travelling via Mannheim, he spent some time in that city and became well acquainted with the musical community there, including the Weber family. He fell in love with one of the Weber daughters, Aloysia, but, unable to gain employment, moved on before anything could come of it. After a few years in Paris he moved to Vienna, where he would spend the rest of his tragically short life. It was here that he encountered Aloysia again, but by this time her feelings towards him had cooled. All was not lost, however – in 1782 he married her younger sister, Constanze, by whom he would father six children, with two surviving infancy.

All this time, Mozart continued to compose. It was what he lived for and, more practically, it was about the only thing he really could do, because by all accounts he was in every other regard an eternal child, constantly taken in by various people, almost always short of money (and lavish in expenditure whenever he did have it), and unable to establish the professional connections which would have resulted in secure employment.

Mozart posthumous painting by Barbara Krafft 1891
Mozart, posthumous painting by Barbara Krafft, 1819

The sheer volume and quality of Mozart’s work makes it almost impossible to list even his most famous pieces. ‘Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik’ (‘A Little Night-Music’), is perhaps his single most-recognised piece, but ‘Turkish Rondo’ would probably come close. The opera ‘The Magic Flute’ is playing in Auckland at the moment, and I really wish I could go. Symphonies 40 and 41 are particularly popular, and Mozart’s love for the piano is evident in his many pieces composed for that instrument.

Mozart fell ill in the autumn of 1791. Aware that he was dying he endeavoured to work on his requiem, ‘Lacrimosa’, although there is significant debate over how much of the final product was his own work and how much was contributed by others after his death. He died on 5th December 1791 and, contrary to popular belief, was buried not in a pauper’s grave but rather in a ‘common’ (i.e. ‘not a member of the aristocracy’) grave, in accordance with Viennese customs at the time. The precise cause of his death has never been determined.

This website has videos of a number of Mozart’s most famous pieces: feel free to leave a comment with your own favourite.

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