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Biography by Allen Krantz

W.A.Mozart, as a child

Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
His life in History
See also his Biography and Works from the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music

Click for the Index of Biographies or the Timeline
Click to find the music of Mozart in the Archives!

We might say that the Lieder informs most of Schubert and that every Tchaikovsky symphony is ripe with ballet. With Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, almost all is a sublime opera. The piano of his concertos is the protagonist be it in either an opera buffa or seria, the slow movements of his string quartets are love arias and duets, and the last movements of his piano sonatas are the denouements of high comedies. Drama is the essence of Mozart and his characters express a universality of emotion akin to the gods of classic mythology. His music moves with an unparalleled grace and unveils its truths with a suppleness and subtlety only exceeded by Nature herself. Mozart at age 7 at the keyboard, with his father and sister One of the greatest prodigies in music history, Mozart had the good fortune to be born in 1756 at a time when tonality and harmony in western music had evolved to a level of purity and sophistication that makes the 18th century the envy of more than one great composer born later. No less a figure than Franz Joseph Haydn had paved the way by showing the endless possibilities of the mature classical style. The less fortunate aspect of Mozart's fate was to be born to an overbearing and ambitious father anxious to exploit his son's gifts.

Leopold Mozart, a moderately successful vice-kapellmeister at Salzburg was a good enough musician to know how extraordinary his son was. By three, Wolfgang was picking out tunes by ear at the piano and by six he was composing. And from that age he was almost constantly on the road being exhibited as a piano virtuoso to the courts of Europe and denied any kind of normal childhood. Mozart grew to have a love-hate relationship with his overbearing father and never developed a normal adult balance in conducting the affairs of everyday life. As his first biographer noted in 1793 - "For just as this rare being early became a man so far as his art was concerned, he always remained-as the impartial observer must say of him-in almost all other matters a child."

Throughout his childhood, Wolfgang was always in the news and extravagantly praised. He was well aware of how special he was and was unable to keep his opinions to himself about any mediocrity he encountered. His letters are filled with detailed and humorous critiques of the many court musicians he met in his travels and he developed a lifelong capacity for making enemies of those with less talent, and that meant almost everyone. He spent his life looking for a well paying high court job that was certainly his due, but his naive arrogance and impulsive behavior undid him at every turn. Leopold's letters to Wolfgang are like those of Polonius to Hamlet. They are filled with the righteous and rigid homilies of a conventional mind trying to reason with and control a genius. And they are often about money. Apart from music, Mozart grew up to be undisciplined, unworldly and a soft touch. Money went through his hands like water.

In 1777, Wolfgang went on a long tour for the first time with his mother instead of his father. In Mannheim, he met the Webers, a family with four daughters who lived the Bohemian life of musicians. Mozart fell in love with the eighteen year old Aloysia. Even Mozart's mother, a gentle soul, complained "When Wolfgang makes new acquaintances, he immediately wants to give his life and property to them." Mozart continued to Paris where his mother became ill and died in 1778. On his way back he stopped in Mannheim where Aloysia had now become a prima dona of the opera and had no time for Wolfgang. He returned defeated to Salzburg declaring that "I will no longer be a fiddler. I want to conduct at the clavier and accompany arias." Last page manuscript of the Requiem Instead Mozart became a disgruntled court organist at Salzburg. However, these are also the years of his early maturity as a composer with works including the "Coronation" Mass and the wonderful "Sinfonia Concertante" for violin, viola and orchestra. His first major opera commission "Idomeneo," an opera seria in the Gluck tradition, was premiered in Munich in 1781. Meanwhile Mozart, betrayed by the secretary to the Archbishop, was dismissed from his position. He wrote with a flair worthy of the stage that "he (the secretary) may confidently expect from me a kick on his arse and a few boxes on the ear in addition. For when I am insulted I must have my revenge." This never came to pass of course, and Mozart settled in Vienna where he moved in with the Webers who now resided there.

In December, 1781, Mozart wrote to his father that he was in love with another Weber-the middle daughter, Constanze. His father's worst fears had come to pass-Wolfgang was married in August into a impecunious family of questionable reputation. Constanze was no better than Mozart in the ways of the world, but by all accounts it was a good marriage and the beginning of a distinct chill in Mozart's relations with his outraged father.

This was a fertile period musically with Mozart getting commissions and students and at this point producing masterpieces in every conceivable genre. In 1776 he met Lorenzo da Ponte, a poet who could supply him with worthy librettos and three great operas resulted: "Le Nozze di Figaro" (1786) (Overture), "Don Giovanni" (1787), and "Cosi fan tutte" (1790). Mozart as a successful opera composer and piano virtuoso must have made a good bit of money at this time, yet he and Costanze could hold on to none of it and changed residencies eleven times in nine years. He also became a Mason.

Mozart's favorite piano and clavichord By the end of his life, the Mozart's were desperate for loans and commissions. "The Magic Flute," to a Masonically inspired libretto, is for many the quintessence of Mozart, and was a great hit in the suburbs of Vienna. The money it should have brought in was too late and Mozart died of overwork and kidney failure on the 5th of December, 1791 while still ironically at work on the "Requiem Mass" (Confutatis) for an unknown patron. He received the cheapest funeral possible and was buried in an unmarked grave. The body has never been found.

There is of course not enough room in a short essay to even list most of Mozart's important works. Among the instrumental music, the 27 piano concertos (especially after no.9) which were written as personal vehicles for the composer, consistently contain Mozart's most sublime orchestral writing with particularly beautiful wind music in the mature concertos (No.21: Allegro, Andante; No.23: Allegro con spirito). The symphony at this time was not the highest pursuit that it would become in the 19th century, yet Mozart's last six works in this genre (no.37-41) are supreme personal statements (No.38: Andante; No.39: Finale; No.41: Molto Allegro). The "Six String Quartets" dedicated to Haydn integrate Mozart's discovery of Bach's counterpoint into classical forms and were followed by four more quartets that continue this highest level. Perhaps the greatest single group of chamber works are the Six String Quintets (including the string arrangement of the Cmi Octet for winds). This is not to mention the Clarinet Quintet (Allegro; 3.Menuetto), the Eb String Trio, the Serenade for Thirteen Winds and numerous other works that contain the perfect Mozartian balance of taste, formal clarity and emotional intensity. Mozart wrote with a luxuriant abundance of ideas. Unlike Haydn and Beethoven, who economically develop pithy germ cells into entire movements, a Mozart first theme in a sonata form may really be a profusion of themes. In the opening of the Sonata in F, K.332, we have a song like melody which is followed by a minuet that leads to a "sturm and drang" transitional passage that finally takes us to the dominant where a new minuet and an "empfindsamkeit" passage are just the beginning of the so called second theme. Here we have a panoramic view of eighteenth century characters from high to low consorting on the stage of a sonata form in music that sounds so effortless and natural that our only problem is in taking it for granted like we do the world itself.

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Selected images courtesy of Karadar Classical Music

Allen Krantz

Allen Krantz is a composer and classical guitarist with degrees from the San Francisco Conservatory and Stanford University. He is on the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA where he lectures on music history and heads the guitar program. Krantz's works range from solo piano and chamber music to a number of orchestral pieces. Recordings of his compositions and arrangements are on the DTR label, and his guitar transcriptions are published by International Music.
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