Prodigies are today’s news. I mean that figuratively and literally. Every year people send me links about the latest wunderkinds. They are truly amazing: a seven year old who plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a ten year old who composes complex orchestral works he hears fully formed in his head, or a nine year-old pianist who can perform any piece perfectly he hears a single time. You hear about these kids, and then it’s pretty much on to the next sensation. Transcending “prodigy-dom” seems as dicey as winning the lottery. The gap between technical wonder and highly regarded artist is not a matter of degree, but of a different order entirely.
It’s sobering to realize that Mozart did not have an easy time of it either. His trips before age 10 were about amazing the royalty of Europe with his abilities, but already by age 11 and 12, he was already trying to impress in people’s minds that he was a serious composer. This was a tough hurdle. People loved to see a cute wunderkind. They were less interested in regarding a youngster as an up and coming opera composer. Also, that placed him in professional competition with other composers for commissions and career advancement.
When Leopold tried to secure him a position in the Archduke’s court, the Archduke’s mother, the very same Empress Marie Theresa who was so enamored of Wolfgang as a child, now advised her son the Archduke against it. She saw the 16 year-old Wolfgang as merely another itinerant musician, traveling like a gypsy across Europe begging for work. Imagine how that perception must have affected Leopold and Wolfgang!
After the Archduke’s rejection, the Mozarts left Italy and returned to Salzburg where Leopold was able to secure his son a salary as Konzertmeister, a position he had already held without pay for three years. The following year they went to Milan to compose a third opera, Lucio Silla. This too was a success and Leopold tried again for an appointment for his son, this time to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Again he had no luck. That was the end of their Italian visits.
In 1773, the two returned to Vienna to seek an appointment. No one recognized Wolfgang, as he was hardly a wunderkind, but an 18 year-old musician seeking a job. This trip too was unsuccessful for employment, but it had rich artistic ramifications. For it was on this trip that Mozart absorbed Haydn’s music and began to write his first mature instrumental works—a concerto and symphonies. This was also when he was exposed to the emerging “angry young men” movement of the 18th century known as sturm und drang (storm and stress), embodied in Goethe’s moody cult novel Sorrows of Young Werther. Sturm und Drang was obsessed with exaggerated passions, ill-fated love, and the emphasis of the lone individual. Its manifestation in music was a new intensity with dramatic movements in minor keys, large dynamic ranges, diminished chords, sudden pauses, and agitated accompaniments. For Mozart,Sturm und Drang became an integral part of his arsenal starting with his Symphony #25 and continuing to the end of his life (Symphony #40 and the Requiem). It became a strain of melancholy and intensity that enriched his style with a chromatic language that many contemporaries began to find odd and disquieting.
But always it was back to Salzburg where Mozart apparently had no future. He felt lost and unappreciated, and at age 21, Mozart aggressively asked the archbishop to let him quit his position. He was rather insolent and the archbishop responded by firing both him and his father. Leopold was later reinstated, probably after apologizing profusely for his son, but he was not allowed to travel.
That meant that Mozart traveled next with his mother and with far greater independence, something that worried his father to distraction as he had great suspicions about his son the musical genius being able to sensibly handle worldly affairs. This trip was to last a year and a half. Leopold’s frustration is well-documented in his letters, continually urging Wolfgang to be practical and seek only paying gigs. He was also full of advice about where they should visit and whom to contact for engagements. Mozart went to Munich and then Mannheim. In Mannheim he taught students and concertized. He fell in love with 16 year-old Aloysia Weber and delayed a trip to Paris, which infuriated Leopold. Eventually Mozart accepted his father’s admonition and went to Paris with his mother. He had meetings with people his father suggested and received minor commissions. He developed a dislike for French music and adopted an arrogant attitude coupled with suspicion about conspiracies to prevent his success. His mother became ill and died there in Paris. Wolfgang went into debt and Leopold urged him home. But Wolfgang delayed, spending time in Munich where Aloysia spurned him and married someone else. He eventually returned to Salzburg completely broke but with a new position as court organist.
In Münich he received an important commission to compose an opera, Idomeneo, and it was a success. At this time he also composed some of his most popular piano sonatas. In 1781 the Archbishop of Salzburg went to Vienna for the coronation of Emperor Joseph II and Mozart was summoned to be part of his entourage. Here Mozart came from his operatic triumph to find he was placed beneath the valets. Further, the Archbishop forbid him to charge money for his concerts. He eventually confronted the Archbishop and asked to be released from his position. This was the famous moment when the Archbishop angrily released him with “a kick on the arse.” Mozart, now a free agent in Vienna, did what musicians today do when out of work: he taught piano. He also had some music published and received occasional minor commissions. He played in a house ‘competition’ with Muzio Clemente, which upset him greatly because, perhaps for the first time, he encountered a pianist as skilled as himself. He composed his Singspiel opera The Abduction of the Seraglio. The esteemed composer Gluck much admired the piece and requested an extra performance. This was the piece the Emperor remarked had “too many notes” to which Mozart famously replied, “Exactly the number necessary, your Majesty.” This was a brilliant retort to be sure, but not exactly diplomatic. And perhaps this was symptomatic of a familiar refrain in Mozart’s life: patrons with great respect for his musical ability tempered with little desire to employ him.