born Jan. 27, 1756, Salzburg, Archbishopric of Salzburg [Austria] died Dec. 5, 1791, Vienna
Son of the violinist and composer Leopold Mozart (1719–87), he was born the year of the publication of Leopold’s best-selling treatise on violin playing. He and his older sister, Maria Anna (1751–1829), were prodigies; at age five he began to compose and gave his first public performance. From 1763 Leopold toured throughout Europe with his children, showing off the “miracle that God allowed to be born in Salzburg.” The first round of touring (1763–69) took them as far as France and England, where Wolfgang met Johann Christian Bach and wrote his first symphonies (1764). Tours of Italy followed (1769–73); there he first saw the string quartets of Joseph Haydn and wrote his own first Italian opera. In 1775–77 he composed his violin concertos and his first piano sonatas. His mother died in 1778. He returned to Salzburg as cathedral organist and in 1781 wrote his opera seria Idomeneo. Chafing under the archbishop’s rule, he was released from his position in 1781; he moved in with his friends the Weber family and began his independent career in Vienna. He married Constanze Weber, gave piano lessons, and wrote The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) and many of his great piano concertos. The later 1780s were the height of his success, with the string quartets dedicated to Haydn (who called Mozart the greatest living composer), the three great operas on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos—The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790)—and his superb late symphonies. In his last year he composed the opera The Magic Flute and his great Requiem (left unfinished). Despite his success, he always lacked money (possibly because of gambling debts and a fondness for fine clothes) and had to borrow heavily from friends. His death at age 35 may have resulted from a number of illnesses; among those that have been suggested are miliary fever, rheumatic fever, and Schönlein-Henoch syndrome. No other composer left such an extraordinary legacy in so short a lifetime.
He widely recognized as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music. With Haydn and Beethoven he brought to its height the achievement of the Viennese Classical school. Unlike any other composer in musical history, he wrote in all the musical genres of his day and excelled in every one. His taste, his command of form, and his range of expression have made him seem the most universal of all composers; yet, it may also be said that his music was written to accommodate the specific tastes of particular audiences.
Mozart most commonly called himself Wolfgang Amadé or Wolfgang Gottlieb. His father, Leopold, came from a family of good standing (from which he was estranged), which included architects and bookbinders. Leopold was the author of a famous violin-playing manual, which was published in the very year of Mozart’s birth. His mother, Anna Maria Pertl, was born of a middle-class family active in local administration. Mozart and his sister Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) were the only two of their seven children to survive.
The boy’s early talent for music was remarkable. At three he was picking out chords on the harpsichord, at four playing short pieces, at five composing. There are anecdotes about his precise memory of pitch, about his scribbling a concerto at the age of five, and about his gentleness and sensitivity (he was afraid of the trumpet). Just before he was six, his father took him and Nannerl, also highly talented, to Munich to play at the Bavarian court, and a few months later they went to Vienna and were heard at the imperial court and in noble houses.
“The miracle which God let be born in Salzburg” was Leopold’s description of his son, and he was keenly conscious of his duty to God, as he saw it, to draw the miracle to the notice of the world (and incidentally to profit from doing so). In mid-1763 he obtained a leave of absence from his position as deputy Kapellmeister at the prince-archbishop’s court at Salzburg, and the family set out on a prolonged tour. They went to what were all the main musical centres of western Europe—Munich, Augsburg, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Mainz, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris (where they remained for the winter), then London (where they spent 15 months), returning through The Hague, Amsterdam, Paris, Lyon, and Switzerland, and arriving back in Salzburg in November 1766. In most of these cities Mozart, and often his sister, played and improvised, sometimes at court, sometimes in public or in a church. Leopold’s surviving letters to friends in Salzburg tell of the universal admiration that his son’s achievements aroused. In Paris they met several German composers, and Mozart’s first music was published (sonatas for keyboard and violin, dedicated to a royal princess); in London they met, among others, Johann Christian Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son and a leading figure in the city’s musical life, and under his influence Mozart composed his first symphonies—three survive (K 16, K 19, and K 19a—K signifying the work’s place in the catalog of Ludwig von Köchel). Two more followed during a stay in The Hague on the return journey (K 22 and K 45a).
After little more than nine months in Salzburg the Mozarts set out for Vienna in September 1767, where (apart from a 10-week break during a smallpox epidemic) they spent 15 months. Mozart wrote a one-act German singspiel, Bastien und Bastienne, which was given privately. Greater hopes were attached to his prospect of having an Italian opera buffa, La finta semplice (“The Feigned Simpleton”), done at the court theatre—hopes that were, however, frustrated, much to Leopold’s indignation. But a substantial, festal mass setting (probably K 139/47a) was successfully given before the court at the dedication of the Orphanage Church. La finta semplice was given the following year, 1769, in the archbishop’s palace in Salzburg. In October Mozart was appointed an honorary Konzertmeister at the Salzburg court.
Still only 13, Mozart had by now acquired considerable fluency in the musical language of his time, and he was especially adept at imitating the musical equivalent of local dialects. The early Paris and London sonatas, the autographs of which include Leopold’s helping hand, show a childlike pleasure in patterns of notes and textures. But the London and The Hague symphonies attest to his quick and inventive response to the music he had encountered, as, with their enrichment of texture and fuller development, do those he produced in Vienna (such as K 43 and, especially, K 48). And his first Italian opera shows a ready grasp of the buffo style.
The Italian tours
Mastery of the Italian operatic style was a prerequisite for a successful international composing career, and the Austrian political dominion over northern Italy ensured that doors would be open there to Mozart. This time Mozart’s mother and sister remained at home, and the family correspondence provides a full account of events. The first tour, begun on Dec. 13, 1769, and lasting 15 months, took them to all the main musical centres, but as usual they paused at any town where a concert could be given or a nobleman might want to hear Mozart play. In Verona Mozart was put through stringent tests at the Accademia Filarmonica, and in Milan, after tests of his capacities in dramatic music, he was commissioned to write the first opera for the carnival season. After a stop in Bologna, where they met the esteemed theorist Giovanni Battista Martini, they proceeded to Florence and on to Rome for Holy Week. There Mozart heard the Sistine Choir in the famous Miserere of Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652), which was considered the choir’s exclusive preserve but which Mozart copied out from memory. They spent six weeks in Naples; returning through Rome, Mozart had a papal audience and was made a knight of the order of the Golden Spur. The summer was passed near Bologna, where Mozart passed the tests for admission to the Accademia Filarmonica. In mid-October he reached Milan and began work on the new opera, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (“Mithradates, King of Pontus”). He had to rewrite several numbers to satisfy the singers, but, after a series of rehearsals (Leopold’s letters provide fascinating insights as to theatre procedures), the premiere at the Regio Ducal Teatro on December 26 was a notable success. Mozart, in the traditional way, directed the first three of the 22 performances. After a brief excursion to Venice he and his father returned to Salzburg.
Plans had already been laid for further journeys to Italy: for a theatrical serenata commissioned for a royal wedding in Milan in October 1771 and for a further opera, again for Milan, at carnival time in 1772–73. Mozart was also commissioned to write an oratorio for Padua; he composed La Betulia liberata during 1771, but there is no record of a performance. The second Italian visit, between August and December 1771, saw the premiere of his Ascanio in Alba, which, Leopold gleefully reported, “completely overshadowed” the other new work for the occasion, an opera (Ruggiero) by Johann Adolph Hasse, the most respected opera seria composer of the time. But hopes that Leopold had entertained of his son’s securing an appointment in Milan were disappointed. Back in Salzburg, Mozart had a prolific spell: he wrote eight symphonies, four divertimentos, several substantial sacred works, and an allegorical serenata, Il sogno di Scipione. Probably intended as a tribute to the Salzburg prince-archbishop, Count Schrattenbach, this work may not have been given until the spring of 1772, and then for his successor Hieronymus, Count Colloredo; Schrattenbach, a tolerant employer generous in allowing leave, died at the end of 1771.
The third and last Italian journey lasted from October 1772 until March 1773. Lucio Silla (“Lucius Sulla”), the new opera, was given on Dec. 26, 1772, and after a difficult premiere (it began three hours late and lasted six) it proved even more successful than Mitridate, with 26 performances. This is the earliest indication of the dramatic composer Mozart was to become. He followed Lucio Silla with a solo motet written for its leading singer, the castrato and composer Venanzio Rauzzini, Exsultate, jubilate (K 165), an appealing three-movement piece culminating in a brilliant “Alleluia.” The instrumental music of the period around the Italian journeys includes several symphonies; a few of them are done in a light, Italianate style (e.g., K 95 and K 97), but others, notably the seven from 1772, tread new ground in form, orchestration, and scale (such as K 130, K 132, and the chamber musical K 134). There are also six string quartets (K 155–160) and three divertimentos (K 136–138), in a lively, extroverted vein.
More symphonies and divertimentos, as well as a mass, followed during the summer of 1773. Then Leopold, doubtless seeking again a better situation for his son than the Salzburg court (now under a much less sympathetic archbishop) was likely to offer, took him to Vienna. No position materialized, but Mozart’s contact with the newest Viennese music seems to have had a considerable effect on him. He produced a set of six string quartets in the capital, showing in them his knowledge of Haydn’s recent Opus 20 in his fuller textures and more intellectual approach to the medium. Soon after his return he wrote a group of symphonies, including two that represent a new level of achievement, the “Little” G Minor (K 183) and the A Major (K 201). Also dating from this time was Mozart’s first true piano concerto (in D, K 175; earlier keyboard concertos were arrangements of movements by other composers).
The year 1774 saw the composition of more symphonies, concertos for bassoon and for two violins (in a style recalling J.C. Bach), serenades, and several sacred works. Mozart was now a salaried court Konzertmeister, and the sacred music in particular was intended for local use. Archbishop Colloredo, a progressive churchman, discouraged lavish music and set a severe time limit on mass settings, which Mozart objected to but was obliged to observe. At the end of the year he was commissioned to write an opera buffa, La finta giardiniera (“The Feigned Gardener Girl”), for the Munich carnival season, where it was duly successful. It shows Mozart, in his first comic opera since his childhood, finding ways of using the orchestra more expressively and of giving real personality to the pasteboard figures of Italian opera buffa.
Third movement, “Presto,” of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Third movement, “Rondeau: Allegro,” of Mozart’s Violin Concerto … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]A period of two and a half years (from March 1775) began in which Mozart worked steadily in his Salzburg post. The work was for him undemanding and by no means compatible with his abilities. During this period he wrote only one dramatic work (the serenata-like Il rè pastore, “The Shepherd King,” for an archducal visit), but he was productive in sacred and lighter instrumental music. His most impressive piece for the church was the Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento (K 243), which embraces a wide range of styles (fugues, choruses of considerable dramatic force, florid arias, and a plainchant setting). The instrumental works included divertimentos, concertos, and serenades, notably the Haffner (K 250), which in its use of instruments and its richness of working carried the serenade style into the symphonic without prejudicing its traditional warmth and high spirits. The five concertos for violin, all from this period (No. 1 may be slightly earlier), show a remarkable growth over a few months in confidence in handling the medium, with increasingly fanciful ideas and attractive and natural contexts for virtuoso display. The use of popular themes in the finales is typically south German. He also wrote a concerto for three pianos and three piano concertos, the last of them, K 271, showing a new level of maturity in technique and expressive range.
Mannheim and Paris
It must have been abundantly clear by this time to Mozart as well as his father that a small, provincial court like that at Salzburg was no place for a genius of his order. In 1777 he petitioned the archbishop for his release and, with his mother to watch over him, set out to find new opportunities. The correspondence with his father over the 16 months he was away not only gives information as to what he was doing but also casts a sharp light on their changing relationship; Mozart, now 21, increasingly felt the need to free himself from paternal domination, while Leopold’s anxieties about their future assumed almost pathological dimensions.
They went first to Munich, where the elector politely declined to offer Mozart a post. Next they visited Augsburg, staying with relatives; there Mozart struck up a lively friendship with his cousin Maria Anna Thekla (they later had a correspondence involving much playful, obscene humour). At the end of October they arrived at Mannheim, where the court of the Elector Palatine was musically one of the most famous and progressive in Europe. Mozart stayed there for more than four months, although he soon learned that again no position was to be had. He became friendly with the Mannheim musicians, undertook some teaching and playing, accepted and partly fulfilled a commission for flute music from a German surgeon, and fell in love with Aloysia Weber, a soprano, the second of four daughters of a music copyist. He also composed several piano sonatas, some with violin. He put to his father a scheme for traveling to Italy with the Webers, which, naive and irresponsible, met with an angry response: “Off with you to Paris! and that soon, find your place among great people—aut Caesar aut nihil.” The plan had been that he would go on alone, but now Leopold felt that he was not to be trusted and made the ill-fated decision that his mother should go too. They reached Paris late in March 1778, and Mozart soon found work. His most important achievement was the symphony (K 297) composed for the Concert Spirituel, a brilliant D Major work in which he met the taste of the Parisian public (and musicians) for orchestral display without sacrifice of integrity; indeed he exploited the devices they admired (such as the opening coup d’archet—a forceful, unanimous musical gesture) to new formal ends.
By the time of its premiere, on June 18, his mother was seriously ill, and on July 3 she died. Mozart handled the situation with consideration, first writing to his father of her grave illness, then asking an abbé friend in Salzburg to break the news. He went to stay with Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, a German friend. Soon after, Grimm wrote pessimistically to Leopold about his son’s prospects in Paris, and Leopold negotiated a better post for him in Salzburg, where he would be court organist rather than violinist as before, though still nominally Konzertmeister. Mozart had in fact secured a position in Paris that might well have satisfied his father but which clearly did not satisfy Mozart himself; there is no evidence, in any case, that he informed his father of either the offer or his decision to refuse it. Summoned home, Mozart reluctantly obeyed, tarrying en route in Mannheim and in Munich—where the Mannheim musicians had now mostly moved and where he was coolly received by Aloysia Weber. He reached Salzburg in mid-January 1780.
Salzburg and Munich
Gloria: Et resurrexit from Mozart’s Mass in C … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K 525. [Credits : Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]Back in Salzburg, Mozart seems to have been eager to display his command of international styles: of the three symphonies he wrote in 1779–80, K 318 in G Major has a Parisian premier coup d’archet and crescendos of the type favoured in Mannheim, and K 338 in C Major shows many features of the brilliant Parisian manner. His outstanding orchestral work of this period was, however, the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola K 364; the genre was popular in both cities, and there are many features of the Mannheim style in the orchestral writing, but the character of the work, its ingenious instrumental interplay, and its depth of feeling are unmistakably Mozartian. Also from this time came the cheerful two-piano concerto and the two-piano sonata, as well as a number of sacred works, including the best-known of his complete masses, the Coronation Mass.
But it was dramatic music that attracted Mozart above all. He had lately written incidental music to a play by Tobias Philipp von Gebler, and during 1779–80 he composed much of a singspiel, known as Zaide, although with no sure prospects of performance. So Mozart must have been delighted, in the summer of 1780, to receive a commission to compose a serious Italian opera for Munich. The subject was to be Idomeneus, king of Crete, and the librettist the local cleric Giambattista Varesco, who was to follow a French text of 1712. Mozart could start work in Salzburg as he already knew the capacities of several of the singers, but he went to Munich some 10 weeks before the date set for the premiere. Leopold remained at home until close to the time of the premiere and acted as a link between Mozart and Varesco; their correspondence is accordingly richly informative about the process of composition. Four matters dominate Mozart’s letters home. First, he was anxious, as always, to assure his father of the enthusiasm with which the singers received his music. Second, he was concerned about cuts: the libretto was far too long, and Mozart had set it spaciously, so that much trimming—of the recitative, of the choral scenes, and even of two arias in the final acts—was needed. Third, he was always eager to make modifications that rendered the action more natural and plausible. And fourth, he was much occupied with accommodating the music and the action to the needs and the limitations of the singers.
Ilia’s aria Zeffiretti lusinghieri in Act III of Mozart’s … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]In Idomeneo, rè di Creta Mozart depicted serious, heroic emotion with a richness unparalleled elsewhere in his operas. Though influenced by Christoph Gluck and by Niccolò Piccinni and others, it is not a “reform opera”: it includes plain recitative and bravura singing, but always to a dramatic purpose, and, though the texture is more continuous than in Mozart’s earlier operas, its plan, because of its French source, is essentially traditional. Given on Jan. 29, 1781, just after Mozart’s 25th birthday, it met with due success. Mozart and his father were still in Munich when, on March 12, he was summoned to join the archbishop’s retinue in Vienna, where the accession of Joseph II was being celebrated.
Vienna: the early years
Fresh from his triumphs in Munich, where he had mixed freely with noblemen, Mozart now found himself placed, at table in the lodgings for the archbishop’s entourage, below the valets if above the cooks. Furthermore, the archbishop refused him permission to play at concerts (including one attended by the emperor at which Mozart could have earned half a year’s salary in an evening). He was resentful and insulted. Matters came to a head at an interview with Archbishop Colloredo, who, according to Mozart, used unecclesiastical language; Mozart requested his discharge, which was eventually granted at a stormy meeting with the court steward on June 9, 1781.
Konstanze’s aria Martern aller Arten in Act II of Mozart’s … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Mozart, who now went to live with his old friends the Webers (Aloysia was married to a court actor and painter), set about earning a living in Vienna. Although eager for a court appointment, he for the moment was concerned to take on some pupils, to write music for publication, and to play in concerts (which in Vienna were more often in noblemen’s houses than in public). He also embarked on an opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). (Joseph II currently required that German opera, rather than the traditional Italian, be given at the court theatre.) In the summer of 1781, rumours began to circulate, as far as Salzburg, that Mozart was contemplating marriage with the third of the Weber daughters, Constanze; but he hotly denied them in a letter to his father: “I have never thought less of getting married…besides, I am not in love with her.” He moved lodgings to scotch the gossip. But by December he was asking for his father’s blessing on a marriage with Constanze, with whom he was now in love and to whom, probably through the machinations of her mother and her guardian, he was in some degree committed. Because Constanze later destroyed Leopold’s letters, for reasons that are easy to imagine, only one side of the correspondence exists; Leopold’s reactions can, however, be readily inferred, and it would seem that this period marked a low point in the relationship between father and son.
Musically, Mozart’s main preoccupation was with Die Entführung in the early part of 1782. The opera, after various delays, reached the Burgtheater stage on July 16. The story of the emperor’s saying “very many notes, my dear Mozart” may not be literally true, but the tale is symptomatic: the work does have far more notes than any other then in the German repertory, with fuller textures, more elaboration, and longer arias. Mozart’s letters to his father give insight into his approach to dramatic composition, explaining, for example, his use of accompanying figures and key relationships to embody meaning. He also had the original text substantially modified to strengthen its drama and allow better opportunities for music. Noteworthy features are the Turkish colouring, created by “exotic” turns of phrase and chromaticisms as well as janissary instruments; the extended Act 2 finale, along the lines of those in opera buffa but lacking the dramatic propulsion of the Italian type; the expressive and powerful arias for the heroine (coincidentally called Constanze); and what Mozart called concessions to Viennese taste in the comic music, such as the duet “Vivat Bacchus.”
Die Entführung enjoyed immediate and continuing success; it was quickly taken up by traveling and provincial companies—as La finta giardiniera had been, to a lesser degree—and carried Mozart’s reputation widely around the German-speaking countries. He complained, however, that he had not made enough money from the opera, and he began to devote more time and energy in other directions. Later in the year he worked on a set of three piano concertos and began a set of six string quartets, the latter inspired by Haydn’s revolutionary Opus 33. He also started work on a mass setting, in C Minor, which he had vowed to write on his marriage (a vow he renewed when his wife survived a difficult childbirth) but of which only the first two sections, “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” were completed. Among the influences on this music, besides the Austrian ecclesiastical tradition, was that of the Baroque music (Bach, Handel, and others) that Mozart had become acquainted with, probably for the first time, at the house of his patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a music collector and antiquarian. The Baroque influence is noticeable especially in the spare textures and austere lines of certain of the solo numbers, though others are squarely in the decorative, south German late Rococo manner (this interest in “old-fashioned” counterpoint can also be seen in some of Mozart’s piano music of the time and in his string arrangements of music from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier). Mozart and his wife visited Salzburg in the summer and autumn of 1783, when the completed movements were performed, with (as always intended) Constanze singing the solo soprano parts, at St. Peter’s Abbey. On the way back to Vienna Mozart paused at Linz, where he hastily wrote the symphony known by that city’s name for a concert he gave there.
The central Viennese period
Back in Vienna Mozart entered on what was to be the most fruitful and successful period of his life. He had once written to his father that Vienna was “the land of the piano,” and his greatest triumphs there were as a pianist-composer. During one spell of little more than five weeks he appeared at 22 concerts, mainly at the Esterházy and Galitzin houses but including five concerts of his own. In February 1784 he began to keep a catalog of his own music, which suggests a new awareness of posterity and his place in it (in fact his entries are sometimes misdated). At concerts he would normally play the piano, both existing pieces and improvisations; his fantasias—such as the fine C Minor one (K 475) of 1785—and his numerous sets of variations probably give some indication of the kind of music his audiences heard. He would also conduct performances of his symphonies (using earlier Salzburg works as well as the two written since he had settled in Vienna, the Haffner of 1782, composed for the Salzburg family, and the Linz [Symphony No. 36 in C Major]); but above all the piano concertos were the central products of his concert activity.
Third movement, “Rondo,” of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Third movement, “Allegro assai,” of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]In 1782–83 Mozart wrote three piano concertos (K 413–415), which he published in 1785 with string and optional wind parts (so that they were suitable for domestic use) and described as “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult.” Six more followed in 1784, three each in 1785 and 1786 and one each in 1788 and 1791. With the 1784 group he established a new level of piano concerto writing; these concertos are at once symphonic, melodically rich, and orchestrally ingenious, and they also blend the virtuoso element effectively into the musical and formal texture of the work. Much melodic material is assigned to the wind instruments, and a unique melodic style is developed that lends itself to patterns of dialogue and instrumental interplay. After the relatively homogeneous 1784 group (K 449, 450, 451, 453, 456, and 459), all of which begin with themes stated first by the orchestra and later taken up by the piano, Mozart moved on in the concertos of 1785 (K 466, 467, and 482) to make the piano solo a reinterpretation of the opening theme. These concertos are increasingly individual in character—one a stormy and romantic D Minor work, the next a closely argued concerto in C Major with a slow movement remarkable for its troubled beauty, and the third, in E-flat Major, notable for its military rhythms and wind colouring. The 1786 group begins with the refined but conservatively lyrical K 488, but then follow two concertos with a new level of symphonic unity and grandeur, that in C Minor (K 491), using the largest orchestra Mozart had yet called for in the concert hall, and the imperious concerto in C Major (K 503). The two final concertos (K 537 and 595) represent no new departures.
Mozart’s other important contributions of this time come in the fields of chamber and piano music. The outpouring of 1784 included the fine piano sonata K 457 and the piano and violin sonata K 454 (written for a visiting violin virtuoso, it was produced in such haste that Mozart could not write out the piano part and played from blank paper at the premiere). He also wrote, in a style close to that of the concertos, a quintet for piano and wind instruments (K 452), which he considered his finest work to date; it was first heard at a concert in the house of his pupil Barbara Ployer, for whom two of the 1784 concertos had been written (K 449 and 453). The six string quartets on which he had embarked in 1782 were finished in the first days of 1785 and published later that year, dedicated to Haydn, now a friend of Mozart’s. In 1785 Haydn said to Leopold Mozart, on a visit to his son in Vienna, “Your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name; he has taste, and what is more the greatest knowledge of composition.” It was during Leopold’s visit that Mozart performed his D Minor concerto (K 466), which is marked by a particularly willful piano part that resists conformity more insistently than in any other Mozart concerto; small wonder that Mozart would return to D Minor to set his most intransigent operatic hero—Don Giovanni—and that this would be Beethoven’s favourite among Mozart’s concertos.
From Figaro to Don Giovanni
In spite of his success as a pianist and composer, Mozart had serious financial worries, and they worsened as the famously fickle Viennese found other idols. One may calculate his likely income during his last five years, 1786–91, as being far larger than that of most musicians though much below that of the section of society with which he wanted to be associated; Leopold’s early advice to be aloof (“like an Englishman”) with his fellow musicians but friendly with the aristocracy had its price. His sense of being as good a man as any privileged nobleman led him and his wife into tastes that for his actual station in life, and his income, were extravagant. He saw a court appointment as a possible source of salvation but knew that the Italian musical influence at court, under the Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, was powerful and exclusive—even if he and Salieri were never on less than friendly terms personally.
Teresa Berganza as Cherubino (right) and Tito Gobbi as Count Almaviva in Mozart’s … [Credits : Erich Auerbach—Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete in Act II of Mozart’s … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Success in the court opera house was all-important. Joseph II had now reverted to Italian opera, and since 1783 Mozart had been seeking suitable librettos (he had even started work on two but broke off when he came to realize their feebleness for his purpose). He had become acquainted with Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian abbé-adventurer of Jewish descent who was a talented poet and librettist to the court theatre. At Mozart’s suggestion he wrote a libretto, Le nozze di Figaro, based on Beaumarchais’s revolutionary comedy, Le Mariage de Figaro, but with most of the political sting removed. Nonetheless, the music of Figaro makes the social distinctions clear. Figaro, as well as the later opera Don Giovanni, treats the traditional figure of the licentious nobleman, but the earlier work does so on a more directly comic plane even though the undercurrents of social tension run stronger. Perhaps the central achievement of Figaro lies in its ensembles with their close link between music and dramatic meaning. The Act 3 Letter Duet, for instance, has a realistic representation of dictation with the reading back as a condensed recapitulation. The act finales, above all, show a broad, symphonic organization with each section worked out as a unit; for example, in the B-flat section of the Act 2 finale the tension of the count’s examination of Figaro is paralleled in the tonal scheme, with its return to the tonic only when the final question is resolved: a telling conjunction of music and drama. These features, coupled with the elaborate commentary on character and action that is embodied in the orchestral writing, add depth to the situations and seriousness to their resolution and set the work apart from the generality of Italian opere buffe.
Figaro reached the stage on May 1, 1786, and was warmly received. There were nine performances in 1786 and a further 26 when it was revived in 1789–90—a success, but a modest one compared with certain operas of Martín y Soler and Giovanni Paisiello (to whose Il barbiere di Siviglia it was a sequel, and planned in direct competition). The opera did, however, enjoy outstanding popularity in Prague, and at the end of the year Mozart was invited to go to the Bohemian capital; he went in January 1787 and gave a new symphony there, the Prague (K 504), a demanding work that reflects his admiration for the capabilities of that city’s musicians. After accepting a further operatic commission for Prague, he returned to Vienna in February 1787.
Mozart’s concert activities in Vienna were now on a modest scale. No Viennese appearances at all are recorded for 1787. In April he heard that his father was gravely ill. Mozart wrote him a letter of consolation putting forward a view of death (“this best and truest friend of mankind”) based on the teachings of Freemasonry, which he had embraced at the end of 1784. Leopold died in May 1787.
Mozart’s music from this time includes the two string quintets K 515–516, arguably his supreme chamber works. Clearly this genre, with the opportunities it offered for richness of sonority and patterns of symmetry, had a particular appeal for him. The quintet in C Major (K 515) is the most expansive and most richly developed of all his chamber works, while the G Minor (K 516) has always been recognized for its depth of feeling, which in the circumstances it is tempting to regard as elegiac. From this period come a number of short but appealing lieder and three instrumental works of note: the Musikalischer Spass (Musical Joke), a good-humoured parody of bad music, in a vein Leopold would have liked (it was thought to have been provoked by his death until it was found that it was begun much earlier); Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the exquisite and much-loved serenade, probably intended for solo strings and written for a purpose that remains unknown (though it has been speculated that it was performed during the musical gatherings hosted by Gottfried von Jacquin); and a fine piano and violin sonata, K 526.
Don Giovanni’s aria Là ci darem la mano in Act I of Mozart’s … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]But Mozart’s chief occupation during 1787 was the composition of Don Giovanni, commissioned for production in Prague; it was given on October 29 and warmly received. Don Giovanni was Mozart’s second opera based on a libretto by Da Ponte, who used as his model a libretto by Giovanni Bertati, set by Giuseppe Gazzaniga for Venice earlier in 1787. Da Ponte rewrote the libretto, inserting new episodes into the one-act original, which explains certain structural features. A difference in Mozart’s approach to the work—a dramma giocoso in the tradition of Carlo Goldoni that, because of its more serious treatment of character, had a greater expressive potential than an opera buffa—is seen in the extended spans of the score, with set-piece numbers often running into one another. As in Figaro, the two act finales are again remarkable: the first for the three stage bands that play dances for different social segments—a suggested social compatability that is shattered by the Don’s attempted rape of the peasant Zerlina—the second for the supper scene in which the commendatore’s statue consigns Giovanni to damnation, with trombones to suggest the supernatural and with hieratic dotted rhythms, extreme chromaticism, and wildly lurching harmony as Giovanni is overcome. But it remains a comic opera, as is made clear through the figure of Leporello, who from under a table offers the common man’s wry or facetious observations; and at the end the surviving characters draw the moral in a cheerful sextet that has seemed jarring to later sensibilities more ready to identify with the rebellious Giovanni than with the restoration of social order that the sextet celebrates. The “demonic” character of the opera has caused it to exercise a special fascination for audiences, and it has given rise to a large critical, interpretative, and sometimes purely fanciful literature.
The last travels
On his return from Prague in mid-November 1787, Mozart was at last appointed to a court post, as Kammermusicus, in place of Gluck, who had died. It was largely a sinecure, the only requirement being that he should supply dance music for court balls, which he did, in abundance and with some distinction, over his remaining years. The salary of 800 gulden seems to have done little to relieve the Mozarts’ chronic financial troubles. Their debts, however, were never large, and they were always able to continue employing servants and owning a carriage; their anxieties were more a matter of whether they could live as they wished than whether they would starve. In 1788 a series of letters begging loans from a fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg, began; Puchberg usually obliged, and Mozart seems generally to have repaid him promptly. He was deeply depressed during the summer, writing of “black thoughts”; it has been suggested that he may have had a cyclothymic personality, linked with manic-depressive tendencies, which could explain not only his depression but also other aspects of his behaviour, including his spells of hectic creativity.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K 543; from a 1936 … [Credits : Courtesy of Shirley, Lady Beecham]First movement, “Allegro vivace,” of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]During the time of this depression Mozart was working on a series of three symphonies, in E-flat Major (K 543), G Minor (K 550), and C Major (the Jupiter, K 551), usually numbered 39, 40, and 41; these, with the work written for Prague (K 504), represent the summa of his orchestral output. It is not known why they were composed; possibly Mozart had a summer concert season in mind. The Prague work was a climax to his long series of brilliant D Major orchestral pieces, but the closely worked, even motivic form gives it a new power and unity, adding particular force to its frequently dark tone. The E-flat Major work, scored with clarinets and more lyrical in temper, makes fewer departures, except in the intensity of its slow movement, where Mozart used a new palette of darker orchestral colours, and the epigrammatic wit of its finale. In the G Minor work the tone of passion and perhaps of pathos, in its constant falling figures, is still more pronounced. The Jupiter (the name dates from the early 19th century) summarized the series of C Major symphonies, with their atmosphere of military pomp and ceremony, but it went far beyond them in its assimilation of opera buffa style, profundity of expression (in its andante), and richness of working—especially in the finale, which incorporates fugal procedures and ends with a grand apotheosis in five-voice fugal counterpoint.
Early in 1789 Mozart accepted an invitation to travel to Berlin with Prince Karl Lichnowsky; they paused in Prague, Dresden (where he played at court), and Leipzig (where he improvised on the Thomaskirche organ). He appeared at the Prussian court and probably was invited to compose piano sonatas for the princess and string quartets with a prominent cello part for King Friedrich Wilhelm II. He did in fact write three quartets, in parts of which he allowed the individual instruments (including the royal cello) special prominence, and there is one sonata (his last, K 576) that may have been intended for the Prussian princess. But it is unlikely that Mozart ever sent this music or was paid for it.
Second movement, “Adagio,” of Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet in … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]The trio, Soave sia il vento, in Act I of Mozart’s … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]The summer saw the composition of the clarinet quintet, in which a true chamber style is warmly and gracefully reconciled with the solo writing. Thereafter Mozart concentrated on completing his next opera commission, the third of his Da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte, which was given on Jan. 26, 1790; its run was interrupted after five performances when theatres closed because of the death of Joseph II, but a further five were given in the summer. This opera, the subtlest, most consistent, and most symmetrical of the three, was long reviled (from Beethoven onward) on account of its subject, female fickleness; but a more careful reading of it, especially in light of the emotional texture of the music, which gains complexity as the plot progresses, makes it clear that it is no frivolous piece but a penetrating essay on human feelings and their mature recognition. The music of Act 1 is essentially conventional in expression, and conventional feeling is tellingly parodied in certain of the arias; but the arias of Act 2 are on a deeper and more personal level. Features of the music of Così fan tutte—serenity, restraint, poise, irony—may be noted as markers of Mozart’s late style, which had developed since 1787 and may be linked with his personal development and the circumstances of his life, including his Masonic associations, his professional and financial situation, and his marriage.
The year 1790 was difficult and unproductive: besides Così fan tutte, Mozart completed two of the “Prussian” quartets, arranged works by Handel for performance at van Swieten’s house (he had similarly arranged Messiah in 1789), and wrote the first of his two fantasy-like pieces, in a variety of prelude-and-fugue form, for a mechanical organ (this imposing work, in F Minor [K 594], is now generally played on a normal organ). In the autumn, anxious to be noticed in court circles, he went to Frankfurt for the imperial coronation of Leopold II, but as an individual rather than a court musician. His concert, which included two piano concertos and possibly one of the new symphonies, was ill timed, poorly attended, and a financial failure. Anxieties about money were a recurrent theme in his letters home.
The last year
But 1791 promised to be a better year. Music was flowing again: for a concert in March Mozart completed a piano concerto (K 595) begun some years before, reeled off numerous dances for the Redoutensaal, and wrote two new string quintets, the one in D (K 593) being a work of particular refinement and subtlety. In April he applied successfully for the role of unpaid assistant to the elderly Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Leopold Hofmann (with the expectation of being duly appointed his successor, but Hofmann was to live until 1793).
Although he was quite ill during the last few years of his life, Mozart was able to compose several … [Credits : Acquired from Vast Video]Queen of the Night’s aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen in … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]An old friend of Mozart’s, Emanuel Schikaneder, had in 1789 set up a company to perform singspiels in a suburban theatre, and in 1791 he engaged Mozart to compose a score to his Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute); Mozart worked on it during the spring and early summer. Then he received another commission, anonymously delivered, for a requiem, to be composed under conditions of secrecy. In addition he was invited, probably in July, to write the opera to be given during Leopold II’s coronation festivities in September. Constanze was away taking a cure at Baden during much of the summer and autumn; in July she gave birth to their sixth child, one of the two to survive (Carl Thomas, 1784–1858, and Franz Xaver Wolfgang, 1791–1844, a composer and pianist). Mozart’s letters to her show that he worked first on Die Zauberflöte, although he must have written some of the Prague opera, La clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”), before he left for the Bohemian capital near the end of August. Pressure of work, however, was such that he took with him to Prague, along with Constanze, his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who almost certainly composed the plain recitatives for the new opera. The work itself, to an old libretto by Pietro Metastasio, condensed and supplemented by the Dresden court poet Caterino Mazzolà, was long dismissed as a product of haste and a commission unwillingly undertaken; but in fact the spare scoring, the short arias, and the generally restrained style are better understood in terms of Mozart’s reaction to the neoclassical thinking of the time and the known preferences of Leopold II. The opera was indifferently received by the court but quickly won over the Prague audiences and went on to become one of Mozart’s most admired works over the ensuing decades.
Mozart was back in Vienna by the middle of September; his clarinet concerto was finished by September 29, and the next day Die Zauberflöte had its premiere. Again, early reactions were cautious, but soon the opera became the most loved of all of Mozart’s works for the stage. Schikaneder took its plot from a collection of fairy tales by Christoph Martin Wieland but drew too on other literary sources and on current thinking about Freemasonry—all viewed in the context of Viennese popular theatre. Musically it is distinguished from contemporary singspiels not merely by the quality of its music but also by the serious ideas that lie below what may seem to be merely childish pantomime or low comedy, welding together the stylistically diverse elements.
Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, … [Credits : © Cefidom/Encyclopædia Universalis]Mozart had been ill during the weeks in Prague, but to judge by his letters to Constanze in October he was in good spirits and, with some cause, more optimistic about the future. He wrote a Masonic cantata for his lodge and directed a performance of it on November 18. He was also working steadily on the commissioned requiem. Later in November he was ill and confined to bed; some apparent improvement on December 3 was not sustained, and on December 5 he died. “Severe miliary fever” was the certified cause; later, “rheumatic inflammatory fever” was named. Other diagnoses, taking account of Mozart’s medical history, have been put forward, including Schönlein–Henoch syndrome. There is no evidence to support the tale that he was poisoned by Salieri (a colleague and friend, hardly a real rival) or anyone else. He was buried in a multiple grave, standard at the time in Vienna for a person of his social and financial situation; a small group of friends attended the funeral.
Constanze Mozart was anxious to have the requiem completed, as a fee was due; it had been commissioned, in memory of his wife, by Count von Walsegg-Stuppach to pass off as his own. She handed it first to Joseph Eybler, who supplied some orchestration but was reluctant to do more, and then to Süssmayr, who produced a complete version, writing several movements himself though possibly basing them on Mozart’s sketches or instructions. Subject to criticism for its egregious technical and expressive weaknesses (particularly glaring in the "Sanctus/Benedictus"), this has nevertheless remained the standard version of the work, if only because of its familiarity. The sombre grandeur of the work, with its restrained instrumental colouring and its noble choral writing, hints at what might have been had Mozart lived to take on the Kapellmeistership of St. Stephen’s.
At the time of his death Mozart was widely regarded not only as the greatest composer of the time but also as a bold and “difficult” one; Don Giovanni especially was seen as complex and dissonant, and his chamber music as calling for outstanding skill in its interpreters. His surviving manuscripts, which included many unpublished works, were mostly sold by Constanze to the firm of André in Offenbach, which issued editions during the 19th century. But Mozart’s reputation was such that even before the end of the 18th century two firms had embarked on substantial collected editions of his music. Important biographies appeared in 1798 and 1828, the latter by Constanze’s second husband; the first scholarly biography, by Otto Jahn, was issued on Mozart’s centenary in 1856. The first edition of the Köchel catalog followed six years later, and the first complete edition of his music began in 1877.
The works most secure in the repertory during the 19th century were the three operas least susceptible to changes in public taste—Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte—and the orchestral works closest in spirit to the Romantic era—the minor-key piano concertos (Beethoven wrote a set of cadenzas for the one in D Minor) and the last three symphonies. It was only in the 20th century that Mozart’s music began to be reexamined more broadly. Although up to the middle of the century Mozart was still widely regarded as having been surpassed in most respects by Beethoven, with the increased historical perspective of the later 20th century he came to be seen as an artist of a formidable, indeed perhaps unequaled, expressive range. The traditional image of the child prodigy turned refined drawing-room composer, who could miraculously conceive an entire work in his head before setting pen to paper (always a distortion of the truth), gave way to the image of the serious and painstaking creative artist with acute human insight, whose complex psychology demanded exploration by writers, historians, and scholars. The 1980 play Amadeus (written by Peter Shaffer) and especially its film version of 1984 (directed by Miloš Forman), although they did much to promote interest in Mozart, reinforced certain myths—i.e., that even as an adult Mozart remained an inappropriately childish vessel for divinely inspired music and that his premature death was brought about by Salieri. Yet even in this indulgent appropriation of Mozart’s legacy, his full-blooded humanity at times emerges with haunting vividness.