The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

W. A. Mozart

Of all the great composers, perhaps none has been the subject of more romantic speculation than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Several years ago, in the film Amadeus, Hollywood presented us with a Mozart for our own age – an irreverent, uncouth young man with an innate and inexplicable gift for composing immortal music. In the Peter Schafer play upon which the film was based, it was clear that what we were seeing was a caricature of the composer as filtered through the deranged mind of his rival, Antonio Salieri (also a caricature). But film audiences, accustomed to television biopics, often have missed that distinction.

When we look at the historical record, much of which can be derived from the large amount of Mozart’s correspondence which has been preserved, we find a quite different picture. For one thing, he was a keen student of music theory, aware of the effects of various harmonies and key changes. He also was a devout Catholic who drew inspiration from the rituals of the church. As for the vulgarity, much of which can be confirmed from the letters, we need to remember that in the 18th century scatological humor and sexual frankness were much more acceptable than they were to become later. Rumors of Mozart’s sexual affairs are unsubstantiated, and the erotic letters we do have are addressed to his wife.

But even if we strip away the myths, one indisputable fact remains: Mozart was clearly one of the greatest creative geniuses (if not the greatest) the world has ever known. In a lifetime just short of thirty-six years he revolutionized Western music. Whereas most other great opera composers, with the exception of Richard Strauss, were known almost exclusively for their operatic compositions, opera was just one area in which Mozart excelled. His symphonies clearly surpassed those of his predecessors and contemporaries, and the last four are still considered among the greatest of all time. Many of his concertos are still part of the standard orchestral repertoire, and those for oboe and clarinet are probably the most popular for those instruments. His Requiem is the most frequently performed version of that text, and his Exsultate, jubilate motet for solo singer and orchestra may also be the most popular such work. In the world of opera – his first love – he demonstrated his versatility as well, creating the finest examples of operas in three distinct formats: opera seria, opera buffa, and the German singspiel.

Mozart was born in Salzburg (which was not yet part of Austria) on January 27, 1756, the son of a professional musician, Leopold Mozart. After wasting a few years in childhood pursuits, the three-year-old Wolfgang began to demonstrate such a musical talent that his father immediately recognized that he had been blessed with a remarkable gift. By the time he was six, he had already composed a keyboard piece and been taken on tour, along with his one sibling who did not die in infancy, his sister Nannerl, herself a gifted musician. (Might she, in another time, have rivaled her brother’s creative genius?) By age 14 he had composed his first opera, Mitridate, a rather conventional work which is rarely performed today.

For the next several years Mozart traveled throughout Europe, barely managing to make a living through performing and composing. In 1781, he made the most important decision of his life, relocating to Vienna, which at that time was the cultural capital of the German-speaking world. Here he was able to find a wider audience for his works, eventually landing a post in the court of Emperor Joseph II.

It was during his travels that he came in contact with a music copyist named Fridolin Weber, a friendship which led to a brief romance with the latter’s sixteen-year-old daughter, a talented singer named Aloisia. Though she soon broke off the relationship, Mozart remained in touch with the family and eventually turned his attention to her sister Constanze, the woman who was to become his wife. Leopold was furious about the match, having hoped that Wolfgang, like his sister, would find someone who could provide him with some financial stability. But the young Mozart knew best, and by all accounts it was an excellent marriage, despite the couple’s financial difficulties.

Though he had written a number of operas in his teen years, it was in 1781 that the young composer first began to write the works which would bring him immortality in the annals of opera. First came Idomeneo (1781), based on classical mythology, which is occasionally performed today. The following year Mozart turned his attention from Italian to the creation of an indigenous German-language opera, collaborating with Gottlieb Stephanie on The Abduction from the Seraglio. It was this opera that led to a legendary exchange between composer and emperor: “Too monstrous for our ears, and monstrous many notes, my dear Mozart.” “Exactly as many as necessary, your Majesty.” Whether or not this dialogue actually took place, it illustrates the fact that the young Mozart was writing with a complexity new to the Viennese audiences.

Shortly afterward, he became aware of a new poet in the Viennese court, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and hoped that he could lure him away from Salieri long enough to work with him on an opera. Fortunately for both men this wish was fulfilled, and The Marriage of Figaro (1786) was born. The following year the two men took advantage of Mozart’s popularity in Prague to compose a new work to be premiered in that city, the result being Don Giovanni. Following the third of their collaborations, Così fan tutte, Mozart surprisingly turned briefly to opera seria to write La Clamenza di Tito (1791), considered by some to be the greatest example of that form of opera. Despite some gorgeous music, it is rarely performed today. Later that year, however, Mozart again found his comic touch, collaborating with his good friend Emanual Schickaneder on The Magic Flute, possibly intended as a tribute to the Freemason movement, of which Mozart was an active member. (Much has been made of the supposed subversive nature of this organization; however, few Viennese had trouble reconciling the Masons’ humanism with their Catholic faith.)

At the height of his creative powers, however, the young composer was struck by a disease which his biographers have been unable to identify, though few take seriously the rumor that he was poisoned. He died December 5, 1791, just weeks short of what would have been his thirty-sixth birthday, leaving his Requiem unfinished. It was completed by a colleague named Franz Sussmeyer, and that is the version we are familiar with today. (Peter Schafer showed Salieri completing it.) In accord with funeral practices of the time (part of Joseph II’s reforms), he was buried in an unmarked grave. Mozart does not need a stone monument, however. His works are certainly enough of a monument for any man.

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