A most astonishing and invaluable document exists in Mozart’s own hand describing his method of composition:
When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory, and am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account, so as to make a good dish of it, that is to say, agreeably to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of the various instruments, etc.
All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once (gleich alles zusammen). What a delight this is I cannot tell! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream. Still the actual hearing of the tout ensemble is after all the best. What has been thus produced I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for.
When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has been previously collected into it in the way I have mentioned. For this reason the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination. At this occupation I can therefore suffer myself to be disturbed; for whatever may be going on around me, I write, and even talk, but only of fowls and geese, or of Gretel or Brbel, or some such matters. But why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or, in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.
From this letter we learn a great deal about Mozart’s method and abilities. First, the processes that most people work out with paper and pencil or with an instrument, Mozart completes entirely in his head. Second, this process involves several steps: having solitude and a comfortable frame of mind to allow ideas to flow, committing interesting ideas to memory (humming), clothing the ideas into musical textures, developing and linking the ideas to form a complete piece, and committing the entire piece to memory.
Particularly revealing is Mozart’s observation that he doesn’t hear the sections of a piece successively, but rather imagines the work as a whole, more like a painting, not constrained by time. It is on this level that he apparently takes the greatest delight in his work. And once this “picture” is complete, he describes an ability for perfect recall not unlike our modern-day descriptions of computer memory.
So for Mozart, writing music down on paper was more an afterthought, a necessary mechanical process more akin to copying than to composing. In conclusion, he points out that his personal style and original invention is not subject to conscious control, but rather results unintentionally from the “fingerprint” of his mind applied to this process.
To consider Mozart’s life outside the context of these unique gifts might be to mistake confidence for arrogance, innocence with simplicity or stupidity. As colorful as Mozart’s carousing, bawdy letters, and merry lifestyle sounds, we should keep in mind that by far, most of his 36 years was spent composing music or seriously pursuing connections that might lead to a formal appointment.
In 1782 on the wings of the success of his opera Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart married Aloysia’s sister Costanze very much against Leopold’s wishes. Mozart long delayed a trip to Salzburg to have Costanze meet his father and sister. When the finally went, they left behind their newly born child who died just a month later. When he returned to Vienna, he entered a time of successful concert engagements and teaching. He had concerts at Count Hohann Esterhazy’s house and that of the Russian ambassador, Prince Golitsin. He gave his own concerts. He composed his great quintet for piano and winds, the great serenade for 13 instruments, and the six Haydn quartets, which he described as “the fruits of long and laborious endeavor.” But even beyond all of these are the piano concerti that he composed for his private subscription concerts. This was the genre where Mozart reigned supreme in his time. During these years, he began a catalogue of his music. He lived lavishly in an opulent apartment. He had a second child and he became a freemason. However, Mozart’s fortunes rose and fell as he dealt with expenses from “high living” and Kostanze’s medical bills (she was frequently ill).
His Singspiel Abduction of the Seraglio was being performed all over Europe and giving him considerable fame in Vienna. In 1786 he completed The Marriage of Figaro and it was a sensation. The emperor had to restrict encores to only the arias. Despite its success, Mozart was in financial stress. He traveled to Prague by invitation and conducted Figaro and began to plan work for Don Giovanni. In 1787 Leopold died and Mozart gave his share of the estate to his sister. He moved to a more modest apartment in Vienna and continued teaching, including the young Hummel who was to become such a prominent pianist in Beethoven’s time. He composed for publication to get income. Works included the string quintets and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Haydn helped secure for him the commission for Don Giovanni and in 1787 it was premiered with cheers from the Prague public. Back in Vienna he received his first decent job offer: a court Kammermusicus post with a small but decent salary and the only requirement that he compose dance music for court balls. Nevertheless, financial problems continued He moved to another smaller apartment and began begging for loans. In summer 1788 he composed the great last three symphonies, 39, 40, 41,in the amazing span of three months total. Scholars are still puzzled as to the motivation of these works because there is no mention of a commission or possible performance. He never heard them in his lifetime.
In his last two years, financial problems continued. He was unable to get subscribers for his private concerts. Constanze continued to bear children that quickly died. Mozart composed his third opera on a Da Ponte libretto, Cosi fan tutte (“So do they all”) and it was premiered in 1790. Despite its success, Mozart sank deeper in debt, requesting ever-larger loans from his friend Puchberg. His dear friend Haydn left for his first London tour and Mozart was never to see him again. He was frequently away from Constanze, both because of his travels and because of her illnesses that sent her to cures at Baden. He began his collaboration with Schikenader onThe Magic Flute. which he composed in 1791, the last year of his life.
In July, a mysterious messenger appeared requesting a Requiem mass for an unnamed patron. Mozart was worn out and in poor health, and imagined this messenger to be from God, directing him to compose his own Requiem. The commission was actually from a count wanting to present the composition as his own in honor of his departed wife. Meanwhile, Leopold II made a last-minute request in August for a new opera in honor of his coronation. Mozart, with his pupil Süssmayr, composed La Clemenza di Tito in only 18 days. This effort may have seriously impacted Mozart’s health. The Magic Flute was premiered in Vienna and became very successful after initial cautious reaction. But Mozart become more seriously ill that fall and died from rheumatoid fever while still composing the Requiem. He was buried in a mass grave, which was a Viennese custom, and with few people present. Mozart’s estate was considerable but valued very little, especially after the repayment of debts. Costanze received a court pension that was one third of Mozart’s salary and sold his manuscripts to a publishing firm. Obituaries all praised Mozart as a great musician and after his death, his reputation quickly soared as one of the greatest composers.