Life and Works
Mozart is the most performed, the most mythologised, the most deconstructed, and the most popular of composers. He excelled in opera and in abstract genres such as the symphony and string quartet. He was an entertainer from his early childhood. His teenage works are playful and untroubled, but even here there are richer, subtler shades. In the Romantic age, his mature music was either patronised for its prettiness or idealised as the emblem of a lost musical Eden. Yet at the same time we have an image of him as a demonically driven, tragic figure.
Mozart grew up in a musical family; his father Leopold was a composer and noted violin teacher, and his older sister Marianne ('Nannerl') a gifted pianist. Leopold was ambitious for his son, but Mozart was a true wunderkind. He composed his first works, for harpsichord, when barely out of his cradle. On an extended European concert tour he was hailed as a child touched with divine powers. He wrote his earliest symphonies before he turned ten, perhaps with a little help from his father.
In 1768 his Missa solemnis K.139 was performed in front of the imperial court in Vienna. Already Mozart had a command of the elevated church style. Two years later, on the first of three Italian journeys, he received a prestigious commission for a serious opera, Mitridate, for the Milan carnival. It was triumphantly received and confirmed the 14-year-old as a master of the operatic style of the day.
Back in Salzburg between 1773 and 1777, Mozart found his duties at the court of the austere and autocratic Prince-Archbishop Colloredo increasingly irksome. He produced symphonies, five delightful violin concertos and a series of short masses in the cheerful, bustling idiom typical of Salzburg church music. In January 1777 he produced a groundbreaking masterpiece: the Piano Concerto No.9 in E Flat Major, K271, composed for the French virtuoso Victoire Jenamy. Here, for the first time, Mozart found the blend of virtuosity, vivid characterisation and elaborate organisation that underlies all his greatest concertos. By now he was desperate to escape Salzburg.
That autumn, with Colloredo's reluctant assent, he undertook a long tour to Mannheim, then famed for its orchestra, and Paris. He met his exuberant 19-year-old cousin, Maria Anna Thekla, en route. She shared his zany sense of humour, and the pair immediately hit it off. Mozart wrote her a series of smutty letters that sometimes hint at deeper feelings. But she was soon replaced in his affections by a 16-year-old soprano, Aloysia Weber, whom he met in Mannheim. Mozart exploited her stratospheric top notes in some spectacular concert arias. Whether or not she shared his feelings, she rebuffed him. Four years later, in Vienna, he would marry her younger sister Constanze.
In Paris, Mozart failed to land a permanent job, much to his father's exasperation. He also experienced personal tragedy when his mother died. Upon returning to Salzburg in 1779 he reluctantly submitted to a life of drudgery as court organist. His travels had made him a more profound musician, however, and he composed some superb music, including the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K.364, which exploits the viola's husky melancholy and the rich orchestral textures Mozart had heard in Mannheim.
Escape came in the form of a commission from Munich for a grand opera. The result, Idomeneo, is Mozart's first real operatic masterpiece. Premiered in early 1781 it is a work of grand, heroic sweep, clearly influenced by the 'reform operas' of Gluck. In May of the same year Mozart departed the service of Archbishop Colloredo. His father was aghast, but for the next few years Mozart succeeded triumphantly in Vienna. He gave keyboard lessons, published his works and promoted himself as a composer-performer in subscription concerts. For these he wrote a glorious series of piano concertos, whose many delights include almost operatic duets between piano and woodwind.
Chamber music and opera were also central to Mozart's Viennese years. The string quartets published in 1785 and dedicated to his friend Joseph Haydn are magnificent. They combine the older composer's thorough technique with Mozart's expressive ambivalence and melodic subtlety.
The Turkish harem opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart's greatest popular success. It was followed by three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. In these, comic opera was raised to a new level. In true Enlightenment spirit, forgiveness and reconciliation lie at their heart, an example being the Countess's pardon of her errant husband in Figaro. This is often expressed in music of transfigured stillness; even in the outwardly cynical Così fan tutte, self-centred and absurd characters are humanised through the beauty of their music.
Don Giovanni was triumphantly premiered in Prague in October 1787, but the years that followed were difficult. Although Mozart never knew real poverty, income from concerts and commissions was spasmodic, and he began to live beyond his means. It was not a simple case of declining popularity: in 1788-89 Viennese concert life was depleted by Austria's costly war with the Ottoman Turks. Mozart's own financial situation was almost certainly exacerbated by an addiction to gambling, shared by many of the Viennese aristocracy.
In the summer of 1788 he wrote his last three symphonies, numbers 39-41. In 1789 and 1790, in poor health, he went on concert tours to Germany. As he told Constanze, these earned him much honour but little profit. These years were relatively fallow, although they did produce Così fan tutte and the Clarinet Quintet, K.581. But 1791, Mozart's final year, was one of the most productive and lucrative of his life. There were major commissions for two operas, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and a Requiem. Future prospects, not least an offer to compose operas for London, looked even better.
Mozart's premature death, probably from rheumatic fever and/or kidney failure, spawned a welter of myths and half-truths. The unfinished Requiem, commissioned by an anonymous Count who wanted to pass it off as his own, excited the febrile Romantic imagination. Then there was the scandal of the pauper's grave - proof, surely, of Viennese neglect. The truth is less sensational. Mozart, in keeping with the custom for economical burials, was buried in a communal grave in St Marx's cemetery.
As far as we can ever know his private character, Mozart was a complex, restless man. His worldliness co-existed with high idealism, irresponsibility with shrewd business acumen, the bawdy and the antic with melancholy introspection. The exquisite surface of his music appeals to the most casual listener. His mercurial, ambivalent, ultimately elusive vision speaks with a unique poignancy and power to modern ears.