Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart, c. 1781, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

“Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years,” wrote Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) after the death of the classical composer, Mozart. As a child prodigy, Mozart composed music for the keyboard and the violin from the age of five. Thirty years later, he had completed more than 600 works, and many admired his talents, including royalty. Then he died. Many conspiracy theories suggest jealous contemporaries poisoned the young musician. Although people have tried to prove Mozart died from an illness, there is not enough evidence to eradicate these theories. Yet it is not his death that makes Mozart so famous; it is his music. Two-hundred and thirty years after his death, we are still playing his tunes. Mozart’s music lives on. 

Mozart as a child

Online biographies of Mozart tend to disagree about the birth name of the child prodigy. His baptismal records, written shortly after his birth in Salzburg on 27th January 1756, list his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. As an adult, he styled himself as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, although, at some point, the middle name evolved into “Amadeus”.

Mozart was the youngest son of Leopold Mozart (1719-87) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720-78). Of the seven children, only Mozart and his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), survived infancy. Leopold, a German composer, conductor, and violinist, taught his children to play and write music. Although the young Mozart became the most famous of the two, his sister, nicknamed Nannerl, was also a proficient musician. Leopold also gave his children instruction in academics and language studies.

As child prodigies, Mozart and Nannerl were exhibited across Europe, beginning with a concert for the much-beloved Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria (1727-1777), in 1762. Over the next three and a half years, the siblings toured several European cities, including, Munich, Vienna, Prague, London, Dover, Paris, The Hague, Amsterdam and Zurich. They met with several notable musicians, including J.S. Bach (1735-82), who greatly influenced the young Mozart. During the tour, Mozart composed his first symphony at the tender age of 8.

Mozart, age 14

After the success of this first tour, the Mozart family agreed to more concerts. The journeys were often long and challenging for the young musicians. In 1769, Leopold left his daughter at home while he and Mozart toured Italy until 1771. Leopold aimed to advertise his son’s compositions as much as his performance. During the trip, Mozart became a member of the Bologna Academy of Music and accepted an invitation to attend a concert at the Sistine Chapel. On this famous occasion, Mozart heard Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), a piece of music closely guarded by the Vatican City. The Vatican forbade anyone from sharing the transcript outside the country, but Mozart made an illegal copy of the music from memory.

At the age of 14, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, which told the story of Mithridates, the King of Pontus (135-63 BC). The success of this opera prompted many commissions, resulting in Ascanio in Alba for Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) and Lucio Silla, which critics considered a moderate success. 

In 1773, Mozart gained employment as the court musician of Prince Hieronymus von Colloredo (1732-1812) of Salzburg. Mozart composed several symphonies, sonatas and serenades for the prince, but he also developed a preference for violin concertos. He wrote the majority of the latter between April and December 1775 before changing tune again in favour of piano concertos. Unfortunately, Mozart received very little money for his efforts and longed to find a position elsewhere. He visited Munich and Vienna in search of work but with little success.

Determined to find a better position, Mozart resigned from his job in Salzburg and continued to travel in search of work. He hoped the orchestra in Mannheim would accept him, and he briefly had a romance with the German soprano Aloysia Weber (1760-1839). When both these liaisons came to nothing, Mozart left the country and headed to Paris. Here, Mozart stayed with the French-journalist Melchior Grimm (1723-1807), while he pawned personal items to pay his growing debts. During this time, Mozart learned of his mother’s death, which added to his despair.

The Mozart Family, 1780

Meanwhile, Mozart’s father pursued employment opportunities for his son in Salzburg, eventually regaining him a position as court organist and concertmaster to the newly styled Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart felt reluctant to return home and the job did not excite him, but with no money he had little option. He took up his new appointment in 1779, earning 450 florins a year.

In 1781, the Archbishop and Mozart travelled to Vienna to witness the accession of Joseph II (1741-90) to the Austrian throne. Colloredo wished to show off the talents of his concertmaster, but Mozart aimed “to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that’s what he likes.” Mozart eventually attained the goal, despite Colloredo’s attempts to drag him back to Salzburg. 

Now free of both Colloredo and his father, Mozart pursued a career in the capital and soon established himself as “the finest keyboard player in Vienna”. He performed the piano for the Emperor and composed the successful opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). His reputation as a composer soon spread throughout the German-speaking world.

Constanze Mozart, 1782

Whilst in Vienna, Mozart reunited with the Weber family who had moved to the city from Mannheim. He became their lodger and, although he once had eyes for Aloysia Weber, he turned his attention to her sister, Constanze (1762-1842). Mozart lodged with the Weber family and sought Constanze’s hand in marriage. He finally won her hand, and they married on 4th August 1782 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The couple went on to have six children: Raimund Leopold (1783), Karl Thomas (1784-1858), Johann Thomas Leopold (1786), Theresia Constanzia Adelheid Friedericke Maria Anna (1787-88), Anna Marie (1789), and Franz Xaver Wolfgang (1791-1844). Sadly, only Karl and Franz survived infancy.

After his marriage, Mozart continued to pursue his music career, often studying works by Bach and Handel (1685-1759). The influence of these Baroque composers is evident in several compositions by Mozart. In 1784, he became friends with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to whom he dedicated six string quartets. Haydn allegedly told Mozart’s father: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

To earn money, Mozart performed many of his solo works for the public. Since he could not afford to hire theatres, he played in private apartments and restaurants instead. The concerts proved popular, and he soon had enough money to rent an expensive apartment with his wife and children. He furnished his rooms with items of luxury, including a fortepiano and a billiard table. Rather than saving any of his earnings, Mozart hired servants and sent his eldest surviving son Karl to a prodigious boarding school.

In 1784, Mozart became a Freemason. Typically, Mozart produced four piano concertos a season, but he also composed several pieces of Masonic music, including the Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music). Records state this music featured in memorial services of at least two of Mozart’s fellow Freemasons. 

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Mozart gradually moved away from piano concertos to focus on operas in 1785. Collaborating with the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), Mozart produced the four-act opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The work contained over 900 bars of continuous music, including some of the lengthiest pieces Mozart ever wrote. After its successful premiere in Vienna, the opera moved to Prague, where it received great praise. The Emperor also requested a performance at his theatre in Laxenburg, Austria.

Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni, received as much acclaim, earning him the patronage of Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor also hired him as “chamber composer”, but this success was bittersweet, for Mozart’s father did not live to see it, passing away earlier in the year on 28th May 1787. Mozart’s new role involved composing dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal (the concert hall at the Emperor’s residence). 

Drawing of Mozart, 1789

The Austro-Turkish war between 1788 and 1791 made life difficult for everyone. The aristocracy no longer had the funds to support musicians and theatres were closed. Mozart’s income diminished significantly, forcing him and his family to move to cheaper accommodation in Alsergrund, in the suburbs of Vienna. Unfortunately, this did not decrease Mozart’s spending, only lessening the housing space to store his purchases. Although he still composed symphonies and operas, including Così fan tutte (1790), Mozart frequently borrowed money from his friends to meet his needs.

A burst of activity in 1791 resulted in some of Mozart’s most famous works, including the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The opera has many Masonic elements, evidencing Mozart’s connection to the Freemasons. The librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812), also belonged to the fraternal organisation. Alongside the successful opera, Mozart composed another piano concerto, the motet Ave verum corpus and began working on a requiem. 

Due to the success of these works, Mozart no longer needed to ask for monetary loans from his friends. Wealthy patrons gradually reappeared after the war ended, asking him to write music for dances and suchlike. Sadly, Mozart could not enjoy his regained wealth on account of his poor health. He fell ill in September 1791, although he managed to conduct the premiere of The Magic Flute at the end of the month. Mozart continued to work as much as he could, but by November, he was bedridden with swollen limbs, severe pain and frequent vomiting.

Determined to finish his Requiem, Mozart worked from his bed. As time passed, his condition worsened, making it impossible to complete his final piece of music. His wife, Constanze, acted as his nurse until he passed away in the early hours of 5th December 1791 at the age of 35. The illness that caused his death remains unknown, and researchers still argue over hundreds of diagnoses, including infections, influenza, kidney complaints and poison.

“Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December.” A report of Mozart’s funeral in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians caused many to believe Mozart had a pauper’s burial, but this is not true. The term “common grave” means an individual grave for a common person, i.e. someone who did not hold an aristocratic rank in society. At the time of his death, Mozart’s financial situation was improving, and his family was by no means poor.

“Mozart’s work is beyond all praise. One feels only too keenly, on hearing this or any other of his music, what the Art has lost in him.”

Emanuel Schikaneder
Antonio Salieri

The death of so talented a composer shocked many people in Europe, particularly one so young. Although fatal illnesses were common at the time, many believe Mozart’s death was unnatural. Researchers have generally ruled out murder, but early rumours accused Mozart’s colleague Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) of poisoning him. Despite the 1979 play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (1926-2016), in which Salieri confesses to the murder, Mozart’s symptoms did not correspond with the side effects of poison. Nonetheless, the accusations damaged Salieri’s reputation and triggered a mental breakdown later in life.

Salieri was not the only person rumoured to have poisoned the great composer. Others suspected the involvement of the Masons and some went as far as to blame the Jews. In reality, Mozart suffered many illnesses during his short life, most likely due to a deficiency in vitamin D. Researchers suggest his final illness had a similar cause.

Rumours that Mozart died a poor man stem from the misconception of a “commoners grave”. He indeed left his family with outstanding debts, but his income had significantly risen over the past year. Constanze appealed to the Emperor, who provided her with a widow’s pension, which helped her feed and clothe her two children. She managed to pay off the remaining debts by arranging concerts of her husband’s music and publishing many of Mozart’s works.

As is often the case, Mozart’s popularity increased after his death. According to a biography by Maynard Solomon (1930-2020), Mozart’s compositions received an “unprecedented wave of enthusiasm”, both from musicians and audiences. Mozart’s work changed the style of popular music, which until his birth was typically Baroque. Mozart’s influence is evident in many composer’s works, such as Beethoven (1770-1827), Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), who wrote several variations of his themes. Tchaikovsky (1840-93) composed the orchestra suite Mozartiana as a tribute to the talented musician.

Mozart continued to influence many people throughout the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. His music is widely recognised throughout the world, often topping the Classical Music charts. Mozart not only impacted the lives of musicians but of writers and artists too. Mozart appears as a character in novels by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and plays by Shaffer and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Several films and television programmes have focused on the composer’s life, and The Wombles borrowed Mozart’s 3rd movement of the Jupiter Symphony for their song Minuetto Allegretto

Although the interesting aspects of Mozart’s life, or rather his death, are largely mythologised, Mozart is an intriguing person. Composing from the age of 5, Mozart had an exceptional talent, making him a unique individual. Despite dying at 35, Mozart lived a full life, resulting in over 600 compositions. Not only did he have an impressive output, but he also produced masterpieces that still survive 230 years after his death. Unknowingly, Mozart single-handedly influenced and changed the world.


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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended.