Mozart – A Life of Music

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Ahead of the MSO’s Mozart Festival (14–23 July), dive deep into the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. These notes have been curated from the special edition Mozart Festival concert program, available at MSO Plays Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (14 July), MSO Plays Mozart 40 (15 July) and Mozart’s Requiem (21 July).

Discover all the events happening as part of MSO’s Mozart Festival.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the child prodigy who grew up; the most famous prodigy in the history of music. That’s the legend, and it’s true. Child prodigies in Mozart’s day, though fascinating, were mostly flashing meteors. They faded, whether by dying early or by growing up to be ordinary. They are forgotten. Mozart is remembered for the works he created, and some he composed as a virtual child are remarkable. But what keeps us interested in Mozart’s prodigious beginnings is his achievement over the whole of his composing life – short, but not unusually so for his time.

Mozart’s father, Leopold, was a highly respected musician: violinist, composer and, above all, teacher. He could spot talent, and recognised it straight away in his daughter, then – truly amazing– in her younger brother. Wolfgang at the age of three started to imitate his sister’s playing, so his father began teaching him as well.

Playing and composing were two sides of the same coin, and as a four-year-old Wolfgang produced a minuet for keyboard. A century or so later, a botanist whose hobby was music, Ludwig von Köchel, gave this piece the number K1 in his complete catalogue of Mozart’s works. But at least three other pieces may have been written during the previous year…

Young Wolfgang started to play his father’s instrument. By the time he was seven, he announced that he wanted to sit in as second violin in a string quartet. When his father said he didn’t know enough, little Wolfgang replied, ‘You don’t have to study to play second violin.’

From provincial Salzburg, father Leopold cast his entrepreneurial gaze all over Europe. There was money to be made by exhibiting such extraordinary musical children, and at age six Wolfgang began touring with his whole family.

The opening concert of the Mozart Festival is given by an orchestra, so naturally there’s interest in the first orchestral music the boy composed.

Symphony No.1 in E flat

From London in 1764 a proud father reported, ‘Oh what a lot of things I have to do! The symphonies at the concert will all be by Wolfgang Mozart. I must copy them myself, unless I want to pay one shilling for each sheet.’

The Symphony in E flat, K16 has survived in the eight-year-old’s own handwriting, though with signs of his father’s corrections. Leopold Mozart encouraged his son to study the style of Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, noted in London as composers of symphonies. The result was a very good imitation. In Mozart’s first movement we find, as in J.C. Bach (youngest son of Sebastian), scale passages, alternations of ‘full’ and ‘solo’ textures, and a modulating middle section. There are the attention-getting shifts between loud and soft, busy string figures, and repeated notes for excitement. In the slow movement, Mozart writes seriously in the relative minor key, exploring a different ‘affect’, or emotion. The finale, jig-like, keeps Mozart’s most striking effects for last, and shortest.

Not surprisingly at his age, imitation was Mozart’s forte, rather than originality. Testing the prodigy’s abilities, the magistrate and scholar Daines Barrington was impressed by the boy’s improvising of ‘vocal works in various affects, such as Song of Love, Song of Anger, Song of Rage’, and the music historian Charles Burney reported Mozart imitating ‘an overture of 2 Movements…all full of Taste [and] imagination, with Good Harmony, Melody & Modulation, after which he played at Marbles, in the true Childish Way of one who knows nothing.’

Mozart spent much of his time between the ages of six and ten as a travelling prodigy. He never went to school, but his father supervised all aspects of his education. To perfect a musician’s craft, Italy was the place to go. Wolfgang first went there, with his father, for a whole year in 1770. The 14-year-old’s opera Mitridate received 21 performances in Milan. As well as studying, Mozart was composing for professionals and making music with them. The superstars of Italian opera then were men with unnaturally high voices, the castrati whose brilliant career was chosen for them by an operation at puberty. The male soprano Venanzio Rauzzini sang a principal role in Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla. In 1773 Mozart composed a display piece for him to sing in church.

Exsultate, jubilate

This motet, on a sacred text in Latin, is in effect a kind of concerto for voice, in three movements. Only the brief recitative linking the first and second movements breaks the concerto pattern. Mozart’s fresh tunefulness has made the work very popular, not least because of the runs in the last movement, where the single word ‘Alleluia’ provides the opportunity for a flexible soprano to show off!

About 1780, Mozart revised Exsultate, jubilate for performance in Salzburg, adding a flute to the strings, horns and oboes of the original version. The singer was again a male soprano castrato, Francesco Ceccarelli.

Adagio in E

Salzburg imported many musicians from Italy. In 1776 Antonio Brunetti was appointed Salzburg court music director, concert violinist, and concertmaster – leader and director of the orchestra in which the Mozarts, father and son, played. By this time Wolfgang Mozart had composed all five of his violin concertos (between 1773 and late 1775). Brunetti began to play some of them, including the fifth concerto in A major, K219. On 9 October 1777 Leopold Mozart wrote to his son, who was then in Augsburg, promising to send him ‘the score of the Adagio you wrote specially for Brunetti, because he found the other one too artificial [or, in another translation, “too studied”]’. An Adagio dated 1776 in the same key as the concerto movement, E major, has come down to us as a separate movement, K261. It may well be the substitute movement composed for Brunetti and for this concerto. As beautiful in its own way as the original slow movement, it puts the soloist in higher relief and is more obviously tuneful.

Wolfgang Mozart was an accomplished violinist (Leopold often urged his son not to neglect his practice). He may have wanted to play the Adagio in Augsburg. On 6 October 1777, Mozart wrote to his father from Munich: ‘To finish off, I played my last cassation… Everyone was amazed! I played as if I were the greatest violinist in all Europe!’

The ‘cassation’ to which Mozart refers was a kind of entertainment music, of the type classifiers of music (like Köchel) gave the generic title ‘Serenade’. Most of Mozart’s pieces of this kind were composed before he left Salzburg, but a standout is one of his best-loved pieces: Eine kleine Nachtmusik was composed in Vienna in 1787, although for what occasion we do not know.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik

The German title means ‘a little (or small) night music’, but ‘night music’ is the same thing as the Italians called ‘notturno’, a serenade. By the 18th century in Austria a serenade meant not a love song under the window of a lady, but music for social occasions, often played outdoors. Eine kleine Nachtmusik can be played by string orchestra or by a string quintet including a double bass. Unlike some of the serenades and notturni of Mozart’s youth in Salzburg, this late piece is not to be treated as background music. The apparent simplicity and memorable tunefulness which have made Eine kleine Nachtmusik so popular are the result of high art, and deserve the highest artistry. Buskers beware!

Mozart, before and after he escaped the city where he was born, referred to his employment there as ‘Salzburg slavery’. Escape had long been on his mind during his adolescence, and it was on his father’s, too, eager for a professional engagement worthy of his son’s gifts. On his way to Paris in 1777 without Leopold, Wolfgang fell in love with Aloysia Weber during an extended stopover in Mannheim – a disappointed love, though he was to marry her sister on the rebound, by which time the Webers had ended up, like Mozart, in Vienna.

Mozart’s return to Paris in 1778, years after his first visit as a child prodigy, was not a happy one. His mother died in Paris, and he had to tell his father. Hopes for a brilliant salaried position were not fulfilled, and his music was not much appreciated by the Parisian public. Mozart, in his letters to his father, disparaged French taste and judgment:

I can answer for [my symphony] pleasing the few intelligent French people who may be there – and as for the stupid ones, I shall not consider it a great misfortune if they are not pleased. I still hope, however, that even asses will find something in it to admire…I have been careful not to neglect le premier coup d’archet [the first stroke of the bow] and that is quite sufficient. What a fuss the oxen here make of this trick! The devil take me if I can see any difference! They all begin together, just as they do in other places.

Symphony No. 31 in D, K297 ‘Paris’

The ‘first stroke of the bow’ is fully exploited by Mozart in the first movement. He was obviously excited at writing for the large and efficient orchestra of the Concert Spirituel, the organisation which had commissioned the symphony. Clarinets make their first appearance in a Mozart symphony. The Parisian public expected strong contrasts of loud and soft, and Mozart provides plenty, as well as orchestral build-ups (crescendi) like those of the famous symphony composers based in Mannheim. The French taste for elegance is catered for in dialogues between string and wind instruments, much enjoyed in Paris, as the craze there for concertante symphonies with wind instruments shows.

The concert promoter thought the slow movement was too long and contained too many modulations. Mozart composed a replacement, but the original song-like, tender Andante is always preferred.

Mozart was delighted with the stunning effect of the last movement: ‘The quiet opening made the audience stop talking to each other and listen, shushing their neighbours – when the first loud outburst was heard, one and all stood up and cheered.’

MSO PLAYS MOZART 40
Saturday 15 July 8pm

The greatest number of Mozart’s masterpieces – supreme even by his astonishing standard – comes after his break with Salzburg. He stayed in Vienna, refusing the demands of his employer, Salzburg’s Prince Archbishop, that he return. He was dismissed. In the years leading up to 1781, when the break became definite, there were signs of a new maturity in Mozart, as in the music opening this concert.

Idomeneo, Ballet Music: Chaconne

Shortly after Mozart met and worked with the musicians of the splendid orchestra in Mannheim, their ruler moved to Munich, taking them. From Munich came a very important commission to Mozart in Salzburg: to compose and direct the music of an opera on a large scale, Idomeneo. This occupied Mozart for much of 1780, and early in the next year he was in Munich for the rehearsals and performances. Here was another taste of the wider world of top-level artistic endeavour. Idomeneo has been described as the masterpiece of Mozart’s early manhood. The opera was successful up to a point, but no appointment followed, and, his leave over, Mozart had to return to work under the Archbishop’s orders.

Few think of Mozart as a composer of dance music, even though he composed at least eight hours of it, mostly for balls in Vienna. Mozart loved to dance, had lessons as a child, and was friends with the ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre, for whom he wrote a ballet, Les petits riens, during his stay in Paris in 1778.

Idomeneo, re di Creta (Idomeneus, King of Crete) required music for the large amount of dance spectacle favoured by the French in their operas, and to the taste of the Munich court. The ballet, as Mozart explained in a letter to his father, was not an added-on spectacle (often with music by a different composer), but an ‘appropriate divertissement’ in the opera itself. He was ‘up to the eyes in work’, but glad of it ‘for now all the music will be by the same composer’. Mozart was excited, too, to be writing for the splendid orchestra, his mates from Mannheim.

The score gives the names of the dancers (several of them French, including the Ballet master, M. Le Grand), but not the action of the dances. The Chaconne is joined with the Pas seul de M. Le Grand to form a single mighty movement, perhaps the longest in all Mozart’s instrumental music. The chaconne of French Baroque opera is a dance for the full company, with elaborate orchestral music in triple metre. It is a rondeau, with a refrain, several episodes, and a magnificent conclusion.

The extraordinary scale of this main movement allows the composer not only rich scoring, but also contrasts of tempo and texture. Trademarks of the Mannheim orchestra are heard, notably in the crescendos built up with repeated figures.

Piano Concerto No.23 in A

Once established in Vienna, Mozart was busy. Encouraged by the Emperor Joseph II, he was composing an opera in German: The Abduction from the Seraglio. He married Constanze Weber, wearing down his father’s opposition. They had their first children. Mozart was teaching piano pupils, writing arias for singers, and organising and performing his own concerts. These featured him as soloist and composer, above all – as the Viennese public most wanted to hear him – as a piano virtuoso. ‘Vienna,’ said Mozart, ‘is the land of the piano.’ In December 1781 the Emperor set up a contest between Mozart and the visiting Italian pianist Muzio Clementi. Mozart reckoned he wiped the floor with him.

In 1783, performances of piano concertos began to feature in Mozart concerts. The string of piano concerto masterpieces begins, arguably Mozart’s greatest contribution to instrumental music. In Concerto No.23, it is as though Mozart had retreated some way from the minor-key intensity and daring of the Concerto No.20 in D minor (K466). Writing the concerto to play it in his 1786 subscription concerts, he seems mindful of the need to entertain. This concerto is one of Mozart’s simplest and clearest, and its solo part is among the least virtuosic. Meeting his public halfway, Mozart sacrifices none of his individuality. Each of Mozart’s great piano concertos is complete in itself, yet different from its fellows.

The individuality of the K488 concerto results partly from Mozart’s choice of key. His works in A major, apart from this concerto, include such jewels as the Clarinet Quintet K581, the Clarinet Concerto K622, and the String Quartet K464. They have in common varied colours, transparency, and also darker shadings and concealed intensities, sometimes hovering between smiles and tears. The instrumentation of this concerto is delicate – there are no trumpets or drums, and the woodwind, without oboes, is coloured by the mellow sound of the clarinets.

In the first movement the piano enters with almost studied simplicity, restating the orchestra’s first ideas. The limpid surface is only occasionally ruffled by touches of minor keys. At the conclusion of the exposition, a new idea is given out softly by the strings, sounding as though it is continuing a discourse rather than beginning a new one. Mozart instructed players who improvised their own cadenzas in this work to be brief. His own cadenza is unique in his piano concertos for being fully written out in the score, rather than on a separate sheet.

The slow movement is in F sharp minor, the only time Mozart ever used this key. The music is both slow and sad – a sombre melancholy reigns. The rhythm is that of the siciliano dance. Wide intervals in the solo part imitate the contrasts of register of a singer. A passage in the recapitulation rises to an almost painful pitch of sorrow, then comes a coda of resignation, where the rather sketchy piano part, over serenade-like pizzicati, seems to call for some decorative filling-out by the soloist, though few dare to tamper with Mozart’s telling outline.

The last movement comes as a bracing, invigorating relief. The rondo theme – simple, verging on the trivial – contrasts with the richness of all the other material. Melodies and rhythms race on uninterrupted, except for a pause before the flute and bassoons set off the second subject. A carefree and sauntering theme suddenly comes in like a new character in the comic opera finales of which Mozart was the supreme master.

Symphony No.40 in G minor

This is the only minor-key symphony in Mozart’s late music, and one of only two in his symphonic output (the other, also in G minor, composed in Salzburg when Mozart was 18, has become almost equally famous since it was used under the titles in the film Amadeus). It may come as a surprise to realise that symphonies, in Mozart’s concerts, were not necessarily the main pieces. They were expected to make a cheerful noise, and frame the arias and concertos. No wonder posterity has seized on this Symphony No.40, in which Mozart seems to use the minor mode to ‘say’ something intense and passionate. Yet we know little about the circumstances of this symphony’s composition.

Mozart’s last three symphonies, Nos 39, 40 and 41, were written in the short space of three months in the summer of 1788. They may have been intended for the subscription concerts Mozart scheduled for June and July 1788, of which only the first took place, owing to insufficient subscribers. Symphony No.40 may possibly have been played in Vienna on 16 and 17 April 1791, when a large orchestra under Salieri performed a ‘grand symphony’ by Mozart. Mozart’s friends the clarinetists Johann and Anton Stadler were in the orchestra, and it could have been for this concert that Mozart added clarinet parts to the G minor symphony and modified the oboe parts accordingly. This is the most agitated and melancholy of the three symphonies. In the 18th century it was almost obligatory to end a minor-key symphony by turning cheerfully to the major at the end, but here the finale remains fixed in the original minor mood.

The first movement opens with an accompaniment for divided violas, throbbing and passionate, and then the first subject is played, softly. Mozart changed his original marking ‘Allegro assai’ (rather fast) to ‘Molto allegro’ (very fast); presumably to make sure he got the driving effect he wanted. The second subject speaks of melancholy, in a more serene way, and in the major key. The development seems to pass through every key, and this chromatic boldness runs through the symphony, as though to communicate inner emotion. In the slow movement cross-rhythms deepen the mood, and the ‘sighs’ become a dominant expressive feature. Mozart’s little pairs of demisemiquavers are like the flutter of supernatural wings.

The mood is only suspended, temporarily, in the G major pastoral trio of a Menuetto (minuet) whose powerful rhythms go way beyond dancing elegance. The finale opens with the upward sweeping figure known as a ‘Mannheim rocket’, after the famous orchestra of that city. The development begins with an extraordinary extension of the main theme, played in unison, where Mozart touches each of the 12 notes of the scale. Where the second subject might have been expected to turn to the major, Mozart follows the logic of the whole symphony to an unrelievedly dark conclusion.

Mozart’s Requiem

The Mozart Festival began with Mozart the legendary child prodigy. It concludes in legends, too, surrounding the Requiem Mass that Mozart left unfinished at his death. Querying some of the legend may make us less sentimental, but feeling better about Mozart. Yes, Mozart’s life was cut off at his prime, but he had prospects, and whatever difficulties he faced towards the end did not hinder his creativity. At his most productive in 1788, when he wrote his last three symphonies, Mozart was chronically in debt, and wrote begging letters to a fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg. Income from concert-giving had declined, but the opera Don Giovanni was followed by Così fan tutte, with fees for both, and the Emperor had put Mozart on salary. Mozart spent money rather than save, but not only on himself – he and Constanze both had periods of ill health, and there were doctors’ fees on top of unavoidable living costs. Professionally, the outlook was good. English musicologist Julian Rushton compares Mozart to a modern family man, who, not expecting to die yet, owes money for goods bought with credit cards. As for those other myths: Mozart died of natural causes (not of poisoning), and was decently if inexpensively buried (not in a ‘pauper’s grave’).

The music heard in this concert all comes from the productive last year of Mozart’s life. He was working simultaneously on two operas of very different types. The Magic Flute, an entertainment rather like a modern musical, mixing low comedy with high-minded Masonic symbolism, was still delighting audiences at a suburban Vienna theatre, in their own language, as Mozart lay dying. The other opera was for Prague, where a few years earlier The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni had been such hits.

La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus): Overture

Mozart’s last opera was composed hurriedly for an Imperial ceremonial occasion in Prague (where it was performed in September 1791). The libretto puts the Roman Emperor Titus (and by extension all emperors) in the best possible light – Titus’ clemency extends to everyone, including the conspirators against him. The Emperor is even shown as a generous contributor to the Mount Vesuvius Eruption Relief Fund. Although the opera was a throwback to old-fashioned serious opera in Italian, the Empress called it ‘German rubbish’.

The grand ceremony of the overture has affinities with the Jupiter Symphony (No.41) and the overture to The Magic Flute. It begins with a sustained exploration of the key of C major. In the development this flourish swings adventurously through a variety of harmonies, leading to the return, not of the first, but of the second subject. Departing thus from the usual order enables Mozart to end with the same sequences that made the opening so effective.

Mozart travelled to Prague for the opera’s premiere (which was quite successful, despite the Empress’ comments), taking with him his colleague and friend Anton Stadler, for whom he had written brilliant obbligato parts in two of the opera’s arias, one for clarinet and one for basset horn, a Stadler speciality.

Clarinet Concerto in A

Three works Mozart wrote for Stadler have ever since, more than any others, defined the expressive character and range of the clarinet: a trio with viola and piano (K498, 1786), a Quintet with strings (K581, 1789), and this concerto. The completion of the concerto may be connected with the visit of Stadler and Mozart to Prague. In a letter to his wife after their return, Mozart mentions orchestrating the rondo. That was on 7 October 1791, less than two months before Mozart died.

An admirer of Anton Stadler wrote to him in 1785:

I have never heard the like of what you can contrive with your instrument. Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating a human voice so deceptively as it was imitated by you. Indeed, your instrument has so soft and so lovely a tone that nobody can resist it who has a heart.

The concerto very closely integrates soloist and orchestra. The sound is mellow: there are no oboes; flutes, bassoons and horns surround rather than compete with the solo clarinet. For much of the time the soloist doubles some other instrument’s line; all the more telling are the moments where the clarinet appears alone, often plunging into the lowest register, only to soar back to the heights.

Gravity and serenity are the keynotes of the hymn-like Adagio, which recalls passages in Mozart’s late church music, the clarinet singing celestially. The last movement, superficially more exuberant, has the simplicity, in its main themes, of folk or dance inspiration. Like the final movement of Mozart’s last piano concerto, this finale breathes a new atmosphere, described with hindsight as wistful, or giving the feeling of a farewell.

In the summer of 1791 Mozart received a commission from Count Walsegg zu Stuppach, an aristocratic amateur who, rather than (as is claimed) passing off music by professional composers as his own, liked to make his audience guess who was the composer. The commission was for a Requiem in memory of his wife. After Mozart’s death it was put about he had become convinced that he was writing his own Requiem; that the messenger in grey who had delivered the commission (the Count’s livery-clad servant) had become in Mozart’s mind an emissary of death. There is no evidence to support this in Mozart’s letters of the time, and the writing in his manuscript is strong and fluent.

Fulfilment of the commission was interrupted by work on the operas The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito, as well as the Clarinet Concerto. On 20 November 1791 Mozart’s final illness began, and he died on 5 December, leaving the Requiem incomplete.

Requiem Mass, completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr

The manuscript shows that Mozart had completed the Introitus and Kyrie in full score. Some other sections are in a half-finished state, the vocal parts written in full, the instrumental parts sometimes complete, sometimes only sketched. These are: the Dies irae as far as the Lacrimosa, which breaks off in the eighth bar; the Offertorium (beginning ‘Domine Jesu Christe’) and Hostias. Nothing survives in Mozart’s writing of the ending of the Lacrimosa, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

Mozart’s widow was naturally anxious to collect the composition fee, and after other musicians had declined the task of completion she gave it to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil of Mozart’s who had assisted him with the Requiem and other late works. We do not know what sketches of Mozart’s he may have had to work from, partly because Constanze Mozart was keen to conceal the role of other hands in the finished Requiem. It seems unlikely, on the basis of Süssmayr’s original compositions, that he could have composed such a movement as the Benedictus unaided by any sketches by Mozart. It is not known whether the repetition of the Kyrie fugue for the ‘Cum sanctis tuis’ was his idea or Mozart’s. The extent of Süssmayr’s contribution has always been a matter of controversy, and scholars consider it was less than used to be thought.

There have been revisions of the instrumentation, and alternative completions. For better or for worse, however, Mozart’s Requiem is with us in a form partly determined by Süssmayr, and in that form it has remained, ever since the early 19th century, among his most admired and loved works.

Mozart chose the key of D minor – one associated with tragic drama in some of his greatest works, as in Don Giovanni, and with tenderness and pathos as well. The terrifying drive of the Dies irae of this Requiem; the powerful rhythmic bite of the Rex tremendae, with its contrasting tender interjection ‘Salva me’; the furious Confutatis – all these are painted with dramatic intensity. Much of the music is of great tenderness, and consoling pity, seeming to express Mozart’s acceptance of the transcendent, the world beyond life and death. Mozart’s instrumentation reflects the two facets of the music: fierce, with trumpets and drums in the sterner sections, but coloured elsewhere by the mild and liquid tones of basset horns. Flutes, oboes and horns are banished (though whether this was Mozart’s intention for the whole work is uncertain). The choral and solo passages are brought into balance with each other, and the writing for solo singers has lost all traces of virtuosity for its own sake.

The Requiem reveals Mozart’s deep knowledge of church music, acquired in his youth, as well as his recent study of the music of Bach and Handel. The musical experience of youth and maturity fused into a composition, writes Karl Geiringer, ‘as transcendental as it is human, as out of terror and guilt it leads us gently towards peace and salvation’.

© David Garrett, Symphony Services International