The 100 most Influential Musicians Of All Time – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(b. Jan. 27, 1756, Salzburg, Archbishopric of Salzburg [Austria]—d.Dec. 5, 1791, Vienna)
Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is 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.
Early Life and Works
Mozart’s father, Leopold , was a composer, a well-known violinist, and the author of a celebrated theoretical treatise. From 1762 Leopold took young Mozart and his sister Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), who also was musically talented, on tours throughout Europe in which they performed as harpsichordists and pianists.
Young Mozart performed as a violinist and organist and received numerous com- missions. In Paris they met several German composers, and Mozart’s ﬁrst music was published (sonatas for key- board and violin); in London they met, among others, Johann Christian Bach, 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).
While the Mozarts were in Vienna in 1767–69 Mozart wrote a one-act German singspiel, Bastien und Bastienne, which was given privately. In 1769 his comic opera La ﬁnta semplice was performed in the archbishop’s palace in Salzburg. Just a few months later, Mozart was appointed an honorary Konzertmeister at the Salzburg court.
The Italian Tours
Mastery of the Italian operatic style was a prerequisite for a successful international composing career, and Mozart accordingly visited Italy with his father. Their ﬁrst tour, begun on Dec. 13, 1769, took them to all the main musical centres. In mid-October 1770 he reached Milan and began work on the new opera, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (“Mithradates, King of Pontus”), the premiere of which, on December 26, was a notable success.
The second Italian visit, between August and December 1771, saw the successful premiere of Mozart’s opera Ascanio in Alba. Back in Salzburg in 1772, Mozart wrote eight sym- phonies, four divertimentos, several substantial sacred works, and an allegorical serenata, Il sogno di Scipione. The third and ﬁnal Italian journey lasted from October 1772 until March 1773. The new opera Lucio Silla (“Lucius Sulla”) was given on Dec. 26, 1772, and after a difﬁcult premiere it proved highly successful.
The instrumental music of the period around the Italian journeys includes several symphonies (a few of them are done in a light, Italianate style), but others tread new ground in form, orchestration, and scale. There are also six string quartets and three divertimentos.
Leopold took Mozart to Vienna in 1773, where the newest Viennese music had a considerable effect on the young composer; he produced a set of six string quartets showing fuller textures and a more intellectual approach to the medium. Soon after his return to Salzburg he wrote a group of symphonies, including, most notably, the “Little” G Minor (K 183) and the A Major (K 201).
The year 1774 saw the composition of more symphonies, concertos for bassoon and for two violins, serenades, and several sacred works. At the end of the year Mozart was commissioned to write an opera buffa, La ﬁnta giardiniera (“The Feigned Gardener Girl”), for the Munich carnival season, where it was duly successful.
A period of two and a half years (from March 1775) began in which Mozart worked steadily in his Salzburg post, now as a salaried Konzertmeister. During this period he wrote only one dramatic work, 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).
Mannheim and Paris
In 1777 he petitioned the archbishop for his release and, with his mother to watch over him, set out to ﬁnd new opportunities. They went ﬁrst to Munich, then to Augsburg.
At the end of October they arrived at Mannheim, where they stayed for more than four months at the musically progressive court of the Elector Palatine. He became friendly with the Mannheim musicians, undertook some teaching and playing, and composed several piano sonatas, some with violin.
Mozart and his mother reached Paris late in March 1778, and Mozart soon found work. His most important achievement there was the symphony (K 297), a brilliant D Major work. By the time of the symphony’s premiere, on June 18, his mother was seriously ill, and on July 3 she died. Soon after, Leopold negotiated a better post for Mozart in Salzburg, where he would be court organist and still nominally Konzertmeister, and Mozart reluctantly returned home in mid-January 1780.
Salzburg and Munich
Much of Mozart’s work after his return displayed his command of international styles, notably the symphonies K 318 in G Major and K 338 in C Major, as well as in the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola K 364. Also during this time, Mozart composed the two-piano concerto, 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, and in 1780 he received 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. In the resulting Idomeneo, rè di Creta Mozart depicted serious, heroic emotion with a richness unparalleled elsewhere in his operas. It includes plain recitative and bravura singing, and, though the texture is more continuous than in Mozart’s earlier operas, its plan is essentially traditional. Given on Jan. 29, 1781, just after Mozart’s 25th birthday, it met with due success.
Vienna: The Early Years
Mozart was still in Munich in March 1781, when he was summoned to Vienna to join the celebration of the installation of the new archbishop, Joseph II. Mozart was treated poorly by the new archbishop, and, after only a few months of service, he requested his discharge and set about earning a living in Vienna. He also embarked on an opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), and in December 1781 he married Constanze Weber, daughter of a music copyist, albeit without his father’s blessing.
Musically, Mozart’s main preoccupation was with Die Entführung in the early part of 1782. The opera reached the Burgtheater stage on July 16. Stylistically, the work has fuller textures, more elaboration, and longer arias than other German repertory. It uses accompanying ﬁg- ures and key relationships to embody meaning.
Other noteworthy features include Turkish colouring, created by “exotic” turns of phrase and chromaticisms as well as janissary instruments; expressive and powerful arias for the heroine; and comic musical passages. The work enjoyed immediate and continuing success.
Later in the year Mozart worked on a set of three piano concertos and began a set of six string quartets. He also started work on a mass setting, in C Minor, of which only the ﬁrst two sections, “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” were completed.
Among the inﬂuences on this music, besides the Austrian ecclesiastical tradition, was the music of the Baroque period, noticeable especially in the spare textures and aus- tere lines of certain of the solo numbers. Mozart and his wife visited Salzburg in the summer and autumn of 1783, when the completed movements of the mass were performed.
The Central Viennese Period
Back in Vienna Mozart entered on what was to be the most fruitful and successful period of his life. In 1782–83 he wrote three piano concertos (K 413–415), which he pub- lished in 1785 with string and optional wind parts. 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 inge- nious, and they also blend the virtuoso element effectively into the musical and formal texture of the work. After the 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 rein- terpretation of the opening theme.
The 1786 group begins with the lyrical K 488, but then follow two concertos with a new level of symphonic unity and grandeur, that in C Minor (K 491), and the concerto in C Major (K 503).
Mozart’s other important contributions of this time come in the ﬁelds of chamber and piano music. The out- pouring of 1784 included the ﬁne piano sonata K 457 and the piano and violin sonata K 454. He also wrote a quintet for piano and wind instruments (K 452), which he consid- ered his ﬁnest work to date. The six string quartets on which he had embarked in 1782 were ﬁnished in the ﬁrst days of 1785 and were published later that year.
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 Viennese found other idols. Success in the court opera house was all-important. At Mozart’s request, Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian of Jewish descent who was a talented poet and librettist of the court theatre, wrote a libretto, Le nozze di Figaro, based on Beaumarchais’s revolutionary comedy, Le Mariage de Figaro. Both Figaro and the later opera Don Giovanni treat the traditional ﬁgure of the licentious nobleman. Perhaps the central achievement of Figaro lies in its ensembles, with their close link between music and dramatic meaning.
Figaro reached the stage on May 1, 1786, and was warmly received. The opera also enjoyed 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). He returned to Vienna in February 1787.
In May 1787 Mozart’s father died. From this time Mozart’s music includes the two string quintets K 515–516, as well as a number of short lieder and three instrumental works of note: the Musikalischer Spass (Musical Joke), a good- humoured parody of bad music; Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the much-loved serenade; and a piano and violin sonata, K 526.
But Mozart’s chief occupation during 1787 was the composition of the comic opera Don Giovanni, commis- sioned for production in Prague; it was given on October 29 and was positively received. Don Giovanni was Mozart’s second opera based on a libretto by Da Ponte.
The Last Travels
On his return from Prague in mid-November 1787, Mozart was at last appointed to a court post, as Kammermusicus. The salary of 800 gulden seems to have done little to relieve the Mozarts’ chronic ﬁnancial troubles. Their debts, however, were never large; their anxieties were more a matter of whether they could live as they wished than whether they would starve. Nevertheless, Mozart was deeply depressed during the summer, writing of “black thoughts.”
During the time of this depression Mozart was working on a series of three symphonies, K 543, K 550, and K 551 (the Jupiter; these, with the work written for Prague (K 504), represent the summa of his orchestral output.
The summer of 1789 saw the composition of the clarinet quintet, and thereafter Mozart concentrated on completing his next opera commission; the third of his Da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte was given on Jan. 26, 1790. This opera, the subtlest, most consistent, and most symmetrical of the three, was long reviled on account of its subject, female ﬁckleness; but a more careful reading of it reveals that it is no frivolous piece but a penetrating essay on human feelings and their mature recognition.
Features of the music of Così fan tutte—serenity, restraint, poise, irony— may be noted as markers of Mozart’s late style. The remainder of the year was difﬁcult and relatively unproductive.
The Last Year
Music was ﬂowing again in 1791: for a concert in March Mozart completed a piano concerto (K 595), reeled off numerous dances, and wrote two new string quintets. He also composed the score to Emanuel Schikaneder’s Die Zauberﬂöte (The Magic Flute), and received another com- mission, for a requiem, to be composed under conditions of secrecy. In July Constanze gave birth to their sixth child, one of the two to survive.
Mozart’s letters to her show that he worked ﬁrst on Die Zauberﬂöte before he left for Prague 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 com- posed the plain recitatives for the new opera.
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. The opera became the most loved of all of Mozart’s works for the stage. Mozart had been ill during the weeks in Prague, but in October he managed to write a Masonic cantata and to work steadily on the commissioned requiem. Later in November he was ill and was conﬁned to bed, and on December 5 he died of a severe fever.
Constanze Mozart was anxious to have the requiem completed, as a fee was due. She handed it ﬁrst to Joseph Eybler, who supplied some orchestration, and then to Süssmayr, who produced a complete version, writing several movements. This has remained the standard version of the work, if only because of its familiarity.