A Little More Mozart: Mozart Bio Part 1

Mozart's Life Part 1 (from my La Jolla SummerFest talk 8-8-11)

His long name: Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.

          Joannes Chrysostomus refers to the feast of St. John Chrysostom on January 27, the day Wolfgang was born. Theophilus was the name of his godfather, Joannes Theophilus Pergmayr. The latin form of Theophilus is Amadeus, sometimes varied as Amade, Amadeo, or the German Gottlieb.

          The year that Wolfgang was born—1756—was the year Leopold published his book on violin studies that brought him fame throughout Europe.  Remarkably, after 1760, Leopold essentially gave up teaching violin and composing in order to focus on his children, specifically the son that he referred to as “the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” He didn’t just see his task as a father, but as that of a religious prophet. He wrote: “And if it is ever to be my duty to convince the world of this miracle, it is so now, when people are ridiculing whatever is called miracle and denying all miracles. Therefore they must be convinced.”

          He took the children on a great number of trips at great expense to increase their education and exposure.  He was Wolfgang’s teacher, collaborator, editor, and critic. He was also his son’s business manager, marketer, and propagandist. Until 1770, all of Wolfgang’s manuscripts contain edits from Leopold. In 1768, Leopold drew up a catalogue of Wolfgang’s works.

          So Mozart practically from birth became a citizen of the world. The tours his father arranged from age 6 through his early teens brought him to all the major courts of Western Europe and imparted an intimate knowledge of every important musical idiom of the 18thcentury. Those tours undoubtedly played a critical role in Mozart’s development and are probably the reason that he excelled in every musical genre, whether it be instrumental or vocal. No other composer in history mastered so many musical genres, or was equally comfortable writing chamber music, operas, masses, concerti, and symphonies.

           We think of Mozart as the ultimate child prodigy. He began playing piano at four and Leopold reports his first compositions at age 5. At age 7 he was also performing on the violin. People reported on his adult style of improvisation, sight-reading, and circus tricks such as playing blindfolded. He also had a faculty for remembering music that was uncanny. He could notate practically any piece he heard once—the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. But we hear today of few outstanding prodigies not too dissimilar. What I think puts Mozart in a different class was his depth of musical grasp at such an early age. Those first pieces are not the work of a child. There is debate how much of his father contributed to them, but even from the beginning they show a complexity all their own much different from Leopold’s music. Nevertheless, he did not mature as fast as Mendelssohn who composed his first masterpieces at age 16. But then again, Mozart with his extensive touring was exposed to such a wide variety of styles and genres that he steadily absorbed, so that took some time.

          It started for him at age 6 when Leopold took him and his older sister Nannerl to Vienna and gradually gained entrance to the court of Empress Marie Theresa and her consort Francis Stephen at the Schönbrunn Palace. The Mozart children caused a sensation. Their appearance became in demand in all the noble houses of Vienna. Wolfgang was almost like a circus performer, astonishing all who heard him and meeting every challenge given him, no matter how difficult or outrageous. Emperor Francis had the keys of the piano covered; Mozart played just as well as before. Then the Emperor suggested just playing with a single finger—and Mozart played several pieces in this way. When playing tricks for the nobility, Mozart placed little stock in their praise, but he perked up when playing for those who understood music.

           The two children were outfitted with royal costumes. Carriages appeared to whisk them off to all their appointments where they were paid handsomely for their performances. Everything went splendid until Wolfgang came down with, perhaps, scarlet fever and they lost income. They returned to Salzburg in a new private carriage ending a four month tour. Despite the extension of the trip, Leopold was promoted to Vice-Kapellmeister of Salzburg.

           The next year, at age 7, his father took him and his sister on a three year tour of Europe. They tried for performances at courts where they might receive gifts. When that wasn’t possible, they presented public concerts. In 1764 at age 8 Mozart’s first keyboard and violin sonatas were published! Soon afterward he composed his first symphonies. Wolfgang never had a formal education, but his natural intelligence and encounters with the great minds of Europe had tremendous effect. Also in travels, Mozart met other great musicians such as J.C. Bach in London and Padre Martini in Italy who became friends and mentors. 

          After age 10, he began composing his first vocal works and concerti. The Archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold’s employer, locked Mozart in a room to compose because he wasn’t convinced Mozart’s compositions were really his own! At age 11 they were off again to Vienna where he and his sister contracted non-fatal cases of small pox. After they recovered, the Emperor casually suggested Wolfgang compose an opera. Leopold took this as a real commission and thus was created La finta semplice (The pretended simpleton)—Wolfgang’s first opera completed at age 12. Leopold wrote home about all the intrigues and stress trying to secure and finance production. But despite a year of effort on Leopold’s part, the opera was not staged in Vienna. It finally premiered in Salzburg a year later, and Wolfgang was given the honorary title of Konzertmeister to the Salbzburg court.

          Leopold’s next idea was to take his son to Italy, the birthplace of opera! At Mantua, Wolfgang was put through very rigorous composition tests and amazed everyone with his incredibly rapid contrapuntal composition. He met famous composers like Sammartini and, especially, Padre Martini, who also probably gave him some lessons. Mozart corresponded with Martini for some time later, even sending him music for evaluation. Martini’s music has a tessitura and light texture that we instantly identify today as ‘Mozartean,’ so he may have influenced Wolfgang considerably. Wolfgang also met the famous castrato Farinelli. He had an audience with the Pope in Rome and received a highly regarded Order of the Golden Spur. All through these travels, Mozart was consistently composing—quartets, symphonies, vocal pieces, etc. This is important to remember when people speak in marvel of his output with such a short life. Basically, he was working as a full time composer from age 10! And what a tremendous amount of music music he composed before writing the pieces that we hear regularly now in the repertoire!

          But the real goal for this trip in Leopold’s mind was probably the commission for a second opera, this one in Milan. It was calledMitradate, re di Ponto (Mithridates, King of Pontus). This time, despite various intrigues, it was produced and went for a successful 22 performances. Leopold negotiated for another opera and an oratorio in Padua. What materialized was a commission a year later for a vocal serenade celebrating the marriage of the Archduke Ferdinand. It was a huge success and Leopold tried to secure a position for Wolfgang in the Archduke’s service. The Archduke’s mother, Empress Maria Theresia specifically advised against this, pointing out that the Mozarts were people who traveled around the world like beggars and would degrade the service of the court. This points out the fine line Leopold was treading as a self-determined impresario for his son.