Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

An SPCO Composer Guide

This is the second in a series of occasional essays on composers whose music is essential to The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s repertoire. Learn more about the legendary composer’s life and career, as illustrated by selections from our Listening Library.

By Patrick Castillo

As seventeenth-century social and cultural traditions gave way to modern Enlightenment values, so too in music did new principles take hold. Following the music of the Baroque period—characterized by an ornate melodic sensibility, intricate counterpoint, and pyrotechnic virtuosity—a new musical aesthetic emerged in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In the Age of Reason, symmetrical, four-bar phrases replaced the biblical polyphony of Bach’s fugal writing; in the part-writing and melodic clarity in Haydn’s chamber music, one could hear the rights of the individual asserted as clearly as in the writings of John Locke.

What has since become known as the Classical style had its patriarch in the aptly nicknamed “Papa” Haydn, but was fully crystallized by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The startling melodic beauty, harmonic and textural clarity, and perfect synthesis of form and expression to be found in Mozart’s music render it the apotheosis of Viennese Classicism.

“A miracle, which God allowed to be born in Salzburg”

The Mozart narrative has, thanks in large part to the Peter Shaffer play-cum-Miloš Forman film,become Western cultural lore: Amadeus, God’s beloved, whose perfect compositional technique seemingly involved little more than taking divine dictation. The Salzburg-born wunderkind was proficient at the keyboard and violin by age 3, began composing at 5, and completed his first opera at 11 (and some half dozen more by 16). With his proud taskmaster father, the composer and violinist Leopold Mozart, and elder sister, the gifted keyboardist Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), Mozart spend the better part of the years 1762 to 1773 on a grueling ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, playing for the aristocracy and royalty across the continent—this for Leopold to fulfill, as he saw it, a sacred obligation to “proclaim to the world a miracle, which God allowed to be born in Salzburg.” (Financial gain was an equal, if unspoken, motivating factor.)

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Salzburg

Returning to Salzburg after a third journey to Italy in 1773, the seventeen-year-old Mozart—no longer a child prodigy, but a young professional with professional expectations—quickly grew restless. The years 1773 to 1780 marked the longest consecutive period of time Mozart would spend in his provincial hometown since his infancy. And despite his international profile, Mozart—who by this time had performed for Louis XV at Versailles and premiered operas in Vienna, Munich, and Milan—held only a modest court position with a meager salary of 150 gulden per year. Making matters worse, the Mozarts’ supportive patron and employer, Archbishop Schrattenbach, had recently died and been succeeded by the unsavory Hieronymus von Colloredo. Colloredo instituted reforms that ultimately diminished Salzburg’s artistic environment, such as eliminating instrumental music from church services and otherwise curtailing public concerts. His relationship with the Mozarts was particularly contentious; failing to appreciate (or acknowledge) the quality of music being produced by his Konzertmeister, Colloredo dismissively suggested that Wolfgang “ought to go to a conservatory in Naples in order to learn music.” While fulfilling his obligations to provide church music (with little effort and even less enthusiasm), Mozart, naturally, became steadily withdrawn from musical life in Salzburg. With an eye towards securing a post in Vienna, Munich, or Paris, he instead focused greater energy on instrumental and secular vocal composition, producing an excellent catalogue of symphonies, violin concerti, piano concerti, arias, serenades, and other works. Such compositions as the Sinfonia concertante had little chance of being heard in Salzburg. Nor was the imbalance of Mozart’s artistic energies lost on the Archbishop.

In January 1781, Mozart led the premiere of Idomeneo, his first mature opera, in Munich, which met with great success. Two months later, Mozart was called to Vienna to join Colloredo’s retinue at the celebration of Emperor Joseph II’s accession. Mozart’s offense at being treated again as a common servant, following the great success he had just enjoyed, precipitated his final break with the Archbishop. He remained in Vienna, the musical capital of the Western world, without a court position, in essence becoming history’s first major freelance composer.

Vienna

Mozart quickly established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna, and likewise steadily built his reputation as a composer. But his early years in the city were not free of difficulty. His marriage to Constanze Weber, whom he wedded in 1782, was a happy one, but plagued by constant financial difficulty, owing to Mozart’s expensive taste and apparent inability to manage the couple’s finances. Meanwhile, surviving letters reveal a simmering tension between Wolfgang and Leopold as the younger Mozart struggled to establish his independence, both professionally and psychologically.

By 1784, Mozart, two years shy of his thirtieth birthday, was the toast of Vienna. The following four years would represent the most successful period of his career, marked by frequent concertizing and publication. No less an authority than Joseph Haydn proclaimed to Leopold Mozart in 1785: “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Between 1784 and 1786, Mozart played the dual roles of artist and impresario to great success, composing with astonishing prolificacy and independently presenting concerts to unveil his latest creations: typically a symphony, a chamber work, perhaps a keyboard improvisation, and a piano concerto.

Meanwhile, Mozart yearned to continue composing opera, having tasted success in that realm with Idomeneo. After encountering various obstacles to finding another operatic opportunity—not least of which was his long futile search for an appealing libretto—he teamed for the first time in 1785–86 with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a happy collaboration that resulted in Le nozze di Figaro. This partnership, which subsequently produced Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutti, stands as one of the most celebrated in operatic history.

Towards the end of the 1780s, Mozart’s star began to fade among the notoriously fickle Viennese public. His decline in popularity only exacerbated the Mozart family’s continuing financial hardship. Wolfgang and Constanze’s misfortune is our gain, as their financial woes encouraged the creative fecundity of Mozart’s last years. His final opera, Die Zauberflöte, remains one of the most beloved staples of the canon. The mellifluous tone of the clarinetist Anton Stadler inspired the Clarinet Quintet and, within two months of the composer’s death, the glorious Clarinet Concerto. Left unfinished (and heard today in various scholarly completions) was the powerful Requiem, commissioned in July 1791 by the recent widower Count Walsegg-Stuppach (and not, as Hollywood would prefer, the treacherous Salieri). Mozart took suddenly ill in November and died on December 5 from rheumatic fever (again foiling Hollywood) at the age of 35. He was buried two days later in a mass grave outside the city—an indication simply of Viennese public health protocol, not of Mozart’s standing with the public. On the contrary, despite increasing criticism that his music had become too learned and complex, Mozart was nevertheless regarded highly at the time of his death. Vienna mourned the great artist they knew they had lost.

Chamber Music

In addition to the staggering genius evident in each measure of his work—that is, Mozart’s taste and, what is more, his most profound knowledge of composition—Mozart’s supremacy in every prevalent genre of his time is remarkable. In the intimate realm of solo and chamber music, he is graceful, eloquent, and piercingly expressive.

Symphonies

In the larger arena of symphonic music, Mozart fully integrates the models of his forebears—Joseph and Michael Haydn, Bach’s sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christoph, et al.—and makes the medium his own. The “late” symphonies—the Prague, composed in 1786, and the hallowed final triptych (K. 543, 550, and 551), completed within nine weeks of each other during the summer of 1788—are inspired in their colorful orchestration, variety of character and texture, harmonic inventiveness, and wealth of thematic ideas.

Concerti

Mozart left five violin concerti, four horn concerti, and one each for clarinet and bassoon, aside from others for flute, oboe, et al., of uncertain authenticity—but his twenty-seven piano concerti are an especial triumph. The piano concerto arguably represents Mozart’s signature medium. From his childhood, he revered the form, as captured in an anecdote later shared by one Johann Andreas Schachtner with Nannerl Mozart:

I once went back to the house with your honoured father, after Thursday service, when we came upon the four-year-old Wolfgang busy with his pen.

Papa: What are you writing?

Wolfgang: A clavier concerto, the first movement is nearly finished.

Papa: Let me see.

Wolfgang: It’s not ready yet.

Papa: Let me see: it must be quite something.

His father took it away and showed me a smear of notes, most of them written over rubbed-out inkblots. (NB: not knowing any better, little Wolfgangerl had dipped the pen to the bottom of the inkwell each time, so when he put it to the paper a drop of ink was bound to fall off, but he could deal with this by drawing the palm of his hand across it, wiping it away, and then writing straight on.) We began to laugh at this obvious gallimaufry, but then your father began to give attention to the chief question, the notes and their composition and, after looking at the sheet for some time, he began to shed tears, tears of wonderment and joy. Have a look, Herr Schachtner, he said, see how correctly and properly it is written, but it is really no use as it is so extraordinarily difficult that no-one could play it. Then Wolfgangerl said: That’s why it’s a concerto, you must practice for a long time to get it right, you see, that’s how it goes. He played, and managed to get just enough out of it for us to know what he wanted. He had the idea at that time that to play a concerto and work a miracle were one and the same thing.

The piano concerto would serve as Mozart’s calling card at the height of his fame in Vienna. Mozart composed twelve of the twenty-seven (from K. 449 to K. 503) for his self-presented concerts between 1784 and 1786. Expressly designed to showcase himself as both composer and virtuoso, these works crystallized the piano concerto medium: the piano writing is in equal measures logically expressive and brilliantly virtuosic; the dynamic between soloist and orchestra is pitch-perfect. Writing for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Cliff Eisen and Stanley Sadie identify the concerti written in these three years as “unquestionably the most important works of their kind.”

Mozart’s contributions to opera have been touched on; his masses and other sacred music save the Requiem have not, though these too are great achievements. Even in the scores of seeming ephemera, functional works for which Mozart doubtless aspired neither to posterity nor profundity—church sonatas, short ballet pieces, songs, and the like (one cannot imagine that Mozart had lofty hopes for his six-voice canon “Leck mich im Arsch”)—the characteristic expressive beauty and formal expression of his musical language are in full evidence. All told, Mozart’s oeuvre must be placed alongside such triumphs as the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare as one of the greatest accomplishments of Western civilization.

Legacy

“Mozart is the greatest composer of all,” writes Albert Einstein. “Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.” Aside from obliquely supporting the myth of Mozart as idiot savant (one of too many Mozart myths), Einstein’s comment indeed captures the quintessence of Mozart’s art. The transcendent quality of Mozart’s music is surely at the heart of its timeless and universal appeal. It gives voice to something at once viscerally human and unattainably sublime. Mozart’s legacy among subsequent generations of composers has not been one defined by artistic crisis (as with Beethoven, whose imposing symphonies left a century of composers with a debilitating complex) but by pure inspiration. Interpreters of his music face a trickier proposition: Arthur Schnabel’s famous remark that “Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for adults” speaks astutely to a rarefied dimension of Mozart’s music. Its purity, sophistication, humor, pathos, and, ultimately, beauty have rendered Mozart’s body of work an enduring and essential treasure for listeners for the more than two centuries since his death.

Brooklyn-based composer and writer Patrick Castillo is the SPCO’s former Senior Director of Artistic Planning.