Carolyn and I have long enjoyed the music of Mozart, who is regarded as one of the greatest classical composers in the history of Western music.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756. At the time, Salzburg was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and is in Austria today. Mozart was the youngest of seven children, and five of his siblings died in infancy. Mozart’s father was a teacher, a minor composer, and a violinist, who was the author of a successful violin textbook.
Mozart was a child prodigy, and he began composing music around the age of four or five, although there is some scholarly debate about how old Mozart was when he composed his first musical compositions.
In 1762 Mozart began traveling around Europe with his family, and he and his sister performed at exhibitions for the royal courts in Munich, Vienna, Prague, Paris, London, and Amsterdam. During this time, Mozart met many other musicians, and he became acquainted with the works of other composers.
In 1794 Mozart met the German composer Johann Christian Bach in London, who had a significant influence on him. When Mozart was eight years old he wrote his first symphony. The journeys around Europe were challenging for Mozart and his family, as conditions were primitive, and they had to wait for invitations and reimbursements from the nobility. The family also endured near-fatal illnesses while traveling far from home.
In 1770, while visiting Milan, Mozart wrote an opera which was performed with success, and this led to further opera commissions. Mozart’s father had hoped that their visits to Milan for the opera performances would result in professional employment for his son, and the ruling archduke considered employing him, but the empress was reluctant to hire “useless people” and so this didn’t happen.
In 1773 Mozart was employed as a court musician by the prince of Salzburg, in his hometown. Mozart had a lot of friends in Salzburg, and he had the opportunity to work in many different musical genres, including symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, and operas. In 1775 Mozart became particularly enthusiastic about developing violin concertos and he produced a series of five of them with increasing musical sophistication.
Despite Mozart’s artistic successes at this time, he grew depressed in Salzburg, partially due to a low salary, and he continued to look for a position elsewhere. Mozart longed to compose more operas, and he only had rare opportunities in Salzburg to do so. Then, in 1775, the court theatre in Salzburg was closed, and Mozart’s situation worsened. He travelled with his father to Vienna and Munich, and although there was popular success of his opera at the time, neither visit brought Mozart stable employment.
In 1777 Mozart resigned from his position in Salzburg, and he ventured out once again in search of better employment, visiting Paris, Munich, Mannheim, and elsewhere. In Mannheim he became acquainted with members of the “famous orchestra,” and although there were prospects of employment, no employment was found. Mozart fell into debt around this time and began pawning his valuables. In 1778 Mozart’s mother became ill and died. There were delays in calling a doctor for his mother due to a lack of money, which may have contributed to her death.
In 1779 Mozart returned to Salzburg, and he took up a new appointment but remained depressed about being there. In 1781 Mozart’s Italian language opera “Idomeneo” premiered with considerable success and Mozart was summoned to Vienna by his employer, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, who viewed Mozart as simply his “musical servant” that he wanted to have on hand.
Colloredo tried to prevent Mozart from performing outside his establishment in Salzburg, and this caused Mozart to become angry about losing money. This disagreement with Colloredo became increasingly difficult for Mozart, partially because his father sided with Colloredo. Mozart attempted to resign from this position in Salzburg and was refused at first— but then finally granted. Mozart was dismissed in a “grossly insulting way,” with a literal “kick in the arse,” which was administered by the archbishop’s steward.
Mozart decided to move to Vienna, where he worked as a freelance performer, as pianist, and composer, and this new career began well. Mozart established himself as “the finest keyboard player in Vienna,” and here he prospered as a composer.
From 1782 to 1785 Mozart performed popular concerts with himself as a soloist, performing three or four new piano concertos each season, and he became more prosperous. In 1784, Mozart joined a secret fraternal organization with moral and metaphysical ideals called the Freemasons, which dates back to the 13th century and exists to this day. Some of Mozart’s most popular works, such as The Magic Flute and Dir Seele des Weltalls, were inspired by Masonic values.
In 1787, Mozart obtained steady employment under the aristocratic patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, who appointed him as his “chamber composer.” This was just a part-time appointment, requiring Mozart to compose dances for the annual balls, and the income was modest, but it helped Mozart when more difficult times arrived in the following years.
Between 1788 to 1790, Mozart began to appear less frequently in public concerts, his income shrunk by more than half, and he had to borrow money. Mozart had to write “pleading” letters to a friend for loans to get by. Mozart suffered from depression and his musical output slowed down.
In 1791 Mozart fell ill while in Prague for a premiere of an opera that he had composed. He continued his professional functions for a time, but his health deteriorated until he became bedridden. Mozart died that year, at the age of 35, and was buried in a “common grave,” which was subject to excavation after ten years, and the location of his burial is unknown to this day. The cause of Mozart’s death is also a mystery, and there has been much speculation as to the illness, with more than a hundred different suggestions by scholars.
Mozart was extremely prolific during his lifetime, composing more than 600 works, in a multitude of different genres — symphonic, chamber, operatic, and choral music— and today he is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential composers that ever lived.
In 1979 a partially fictional stage play by Peter Shaffer about the life of Mozart called Amadeus was performed on Broadway. The play was made into a popular Hollywood film in 1984, and Mozart’s music is heard extensively in the soundtrack. The film received widespread acclaim and was a box office hit, grossing over $90 million. It is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, receiving eight Academy Awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Some of the quotes that Mozart is known for include:
Silence is very important. The silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. … The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.
I choose such notes that love one another.
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but that an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop.
Love guards the heart from the abyss.
Patience and tranquility of mind contribute more to cure our distempers as the whole art of medicine.
I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician.