Mozart—The Child, the Myth, and the Man

“Listening to Mozart, we cannot think of any possible improvement…21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets, piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece.”
George Szell, Hungarian conductor

Chapter Playlist 3: Mozart and Great Music (16 videos, 6 hrs. 20 min)

How do we account for Mozart’s amazing skills as a composer and performer?

Perhaps if Johann Sebastian Bach were reborn as Mozart, we would have an explanation for Mozart’s amazing skills at such an early age.

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born January 27, 1756. (He signed some letters in Latin as “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus,” but as a playful joke.)

What happened next is stunning:

  • At age 3, he is drawn to his sister’s clavier (an early piano) and starts spending endless hours playing. His father, Leopold, a professional court composer, musician, and music teacher, begins giving him instruction.
  • At 4, he demonstrates his ability to learn a minuet and trio in thirty minutes. His father realizes he has a son unlike other children. Mozart writes his first composition (calling it a “concerto”), and invents his own system of musical notation.
  • At 5, he writes his first compositions that survive (K. 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, 1e, and 1f). He begins learning Latin. His father takes him to Munich, Germany, for three weeks to play for music lovers, including the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III Joseph.His very first surviving composition, nineteen seconds short and not fully formed, is remarkable in how it changes meter in the middle of the piece:

Video 1: K. 1a: Andante in C

This one, however, is perfectly formed:

Video 2: K. 1e: Minuet in G (scrolling score)

  • At 6, he teaches himself to play the violin, and performs second violin in a trio rehearsal in his home. He displays speed and accuracy, and an uncanny sense of time. People give him a musical idea for a fugue and he improvises variations on it for hours.To get a quick understanding of theme and variations, listen to this well-known Mozart tune that we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”:

Video 3: K. 265: 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” in C

His father takes him to Vienna, Austria, for three months, amazing the court of Archduke Joseph, later Emperor Joseph II. Mozart calls for the court composer Wegenseil and plays one of Wegenseil’s concertos while having the composer turn the pages.

The following keyboard piece reflects Mozart’s delight and playful approach to composition:

Video 4: K. 5: Minuet in F

  • At 7, he begins a three-year performance tour of Europe. His family is the guest of royal families, high nobility, and the cream of society.He demonstrates his ability to sight-read at the keyboard or violin anything composed by others up to that time.

    He begins learning French and Italian, in which he eventually becomes fluent.

    Here is a typical announcement, for a London performance:

“Miss Mozart of eleven and Master Mozart
of seven Years of Age, Prodigies of Nature;
taking the opportunity of representing to
the Public the greatest Prodigy that Europe
or that Human Nature has to boast of.
Every Body will be astonished to hear a Child
of such tender Age playing the Harpsichord
in such a Perfection—it surmounts all
Fantastic and Imagination [sic], and it is
hard to express which is more astonishing,
his Execution upon the Harpsichord playing
at Sight, or his own Composition.”

Mozart writes his first violin sonata (for violin and keyboard). His compositional complexity is developing rapidly:

Video 5: K. 6: Violin Sonata in C

  • At 8, he dedicates six Sonatas he composes for Harpsichord, Violin, and Cello to England’s Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III (K. 10-15).He sits on the lap of Johann Christian Bach (one of the famous composer’s many sons), and they improvise alternately on the same keyboard before the King and Queen for two hours.

    He writes his first symphony in three movements (K. 16):

Video 6: K. 16: Symphony No. 1 in E-flat

  • At 9, he becomes the family’s main source of income. He composes more symphonies, arias, and a keyboard sonata for four hands (K. 19d):

Video 7: K. 19: Symphony No. 4 in D

  • At 10, he plays violin up to concert standard, knows all the orchestral instruments, and is able to talk to performers in their specialized language. He also composes in Paris his first religious work, the 4-minute Kyrie in F:

Video 8: K. 33: Kyrie in F

  • At 11, he writes his first piano concerto (K. 37) and his first cantata Grabmusik (K. 42):

Video 9: K. 37: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F

Video 10: K. 42: Grabmusik

He also composes his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus (K. 38), a Latin musical comedy:

Video 11: K. 38: Apollo et Hyacinthus

He’s able to collaborate with other professionals, like Michael Haydn, the brother of the famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn.

  • At 12, he contracts smallpox, limiting his musical output to eleven pieces that still is enough music to fill several CDs, including another opera, three symphonies, and three religious masses:

Video 12: K. 49: Missa brevis in G

  • At 13, he writes another opera while in Vienna, several symphonies, two religious masses, and three cassations designed as light outdoor chamber performances.This simple and beautiful 27-minute Cassation for small chamber orchestra is in eight movements:

Video 13: K. 62a/100: Cassation in D

  • At 14, he has his first operatic hit, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (Mitridate, King of Pontus), written for the city of Milan, Italy (this work is three hours long):

Video 14: K. 87: Mitridate, rè di Ponto

In his excellent course for The Teaching Company, “Great Masters: Mozart—His Life and Music,” Professor Robert Greenberg outlines more of Mozart’s incredible skills:

“His ability to remember the most complex music after only a single hearing and to later write it down note perfect. His ability to improvise better than others could compose. His ability to compose entire symphonies and concerti in his head, and then write out the individual instrumental parts without having to first write out the score.”

So in the face of all of these incredible skills, exhibited at such an early age, the question arises:

How do people,
especially “experts” of past and present times,
explain Mozart?

  1. Satanic witchcraft: At a performance in Naples, one observer claimed Mozart wore a magic ring to aid his impossibly dexterous left hand. He sold his soul, trading a long life for great music.
  2. A creature of God: Divine music could not be created by a man, but someone all or partially divine.
  3. A musical monster: Created by his father, Leopold.
  4. A transmigrated soul: He reincarnated into this life already skilled.
  5. A genetic freak of nature: The man-child who cannot help what he is, and never became a real adult, as seen in the film

Whatever the case, Mozart was not the man-child depicted in Amadeus.

His later actions reveal an accomplished adult
in social, financial, and political life.

That’s not to say he didn’t gamble or face debts, or act politically incorrect to preserve the integrity of his music. Mozart’s temperament was that of a genius and artist, but not at the expense of being an adult.

Then why has the man-child myth endured?

When looking at a Mozart (or a Shakespeare or a Van Gogh), we may find it difficult to believe they are human like the rest of us. So we look for excuses to dehumanize them, making them either less than or more than human. Automatons or demigods.

Mozart had amazing talent, but he worked
extraordinarily hard to manifest that talent.

As a child he was known to compose every morning from 6:00 to 9:00 A.M. and play the clavier and compose music from 8:00 P.M. to midnight. In the middle of the day he would compose if he had to write something quickly.

He was curious to learn about everything: drawing, reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and foreign languages (picking up English in his later years due to his popularity in England).

But his bias was music. And his father took advantage of that interest, supposedly for the good of the family, but more for the good of himself. Although Mozart’s mother and sister played a peripheral role in Mozart’s life, Mozart’s father served as a key character in Mozart’s development and early experience.

Mozart’s Family

Mozart’s mother, Anna Maria Mozart, died while she and Mozart were traveling. Mozart was 22. She seemed to prefer being in the background, so little is known about her. She married Leopold Mozart in 1747 in Salzburg. Although they had seven children, only two survived.

Mozart’s sister, Anna Maria Walburga Ignatia, was born 1751 and nicknamed “Nannerl” as a child. She died seventy-eight years later.

Mozart’s father was a composer and violinist, but did not have the musical success he wanted. So he lived it through his son. Leopold did not have his son’s skill, but he did have musical taste.

Here is Leopold’s Trumpet Concerto in D. Listen to it for a minute or two to get a sense of Mozart’s father’s rather mediocre but pleasant style. Mozart’s youthful compositions tower over his father’s compositions:

Video 15: Leopold Mozart: Trumpet Concerto in D

Leopold held authority in contempt, and therefore was a difficult man leading a difficult life. But he was driven. And seeing his son’s talent, he did all he could to help his son blossom, perform, and make money.

And perhaps just as importantly, he used his son for revenge—revenge against his own mother, who gave all of her children a dowry, except Leopold.

When Mozart was nearly two years old, Leopold was appointed court composer by the Salzburg prince-archbishop. Over the next few years, he had plenty of opportunity to show off his son. But Salzburg at that time had only limited public exposure. By the time Mozart was five, Leopold set his sights elsewhere.

He first arranged a three-week concert tour in Munich in 1761. In 1762, he arranged a three-month tour in Vienna, performances that started the child Mozart’s rise to fame and fortune. Apparently, Leopold did not do any more composition after this year.

In 1763, as if everything comes in threes, Leopold initiated the famous three-year concert tour of Europe. Mozart performed in eighty-eight cities across Europe. They spent fifteen of those months in London due to the incredibly positive reception given to the young 7-year-old Mozart.

This tour would have been dismissed as myth had not so many people in so many cities documented what they heard and saw.

The famous writer of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), saw the 7-year-old Mozart perform in Frankfurt in 1763. Goethe was 14 years old. He vividly recalled the “little man with his wig and his sword.”

Goethe lamented that Mozart never set his Faust to music. However, in 1775 Goethe did write a singspiel text, Erwin und Elmire, containing a German song that Mozart set to music ten years later.

Video 16: K. 476: Das Veilchen

Leopold appears to have been Mozart’s only formal teacher. However, while touring and performing, Mozart received the direct and indirect tutelage of Europe’s foremost musical composers. The foremost was Johann Christian Bach, whom he met in London.

The Mozart children (Marianne, nicknamed Nannerl, performed with him, but young Mozart stole all the press) received gifts and money wherever they performed.

And Leopold was right there
accepting the expensive gifts
and counting the gold and silver coins.

By the end of that tour, young Mozart became the primary financial foundation for his family. But Mozart never received the royal appointment that he richly deserved.

And Leopold, basing his dependence on his son, did all he could to keep Mozart with the family. Leopold later objected to Mozart marrying at a time when Mozart stood ready to leave the nest completely.

But Mozart left both his Salzburg home and his father. They wrote little to each other.

His father, a man of dearly held resentments, never recovered from Mozart making his claim of adulthood. He died an unhappy man, about four years prior to his son’s death.

Mozart, meanwhile, had his best years before him.

Next, we once again listen closely to a single work, in this case the overture to the opera The Magic Flute. Our focus this time is on musical architecture. The more you understand some musical architecture, the more jewels you will hear in Mozart’s music.


From the book, Mozart and Great Music:

4. Mozart and Great Music thumb

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