Who was Mozart?
Mozart was a great composer: one of the very greatest. And, before that, a child prodigy. From the age of seven, Mozart spent much of his childhood on tour, paraded by his father before potential patrons, academics and professional musicians.
When was Mozart born?
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756.
Where did Mozart grow up?
Mozart grew up in the Austrian city of Salzburg, where his father Leopold worked as a composer, violinist and theorist. Between June 1763, five months after his seventh birthday, and November 1766, the Mozart family visited no less than ten German cities, as well as Brussels, Paris (where they dined with Louis XV at Versailles) and London. After a year in England, they returned home via Holland, Paris and Switzerland to Salzburg. But they would not stop for long. After barely a year at home, they returned to the road again, this time journeying to Vienna (where both children caught smallpox), Olmuc and Brno, returning home in January 1769. Mozart was just 13 years old.
Not much of a childhood, really: a non-existent home life; constantly writing or performing in different places; threatened with, and as often as not, succumbing to illness; constantly on display; always in the company of adults. But what did it do for Mozart and his music?
Before setting off on his first tour, Mozart had already laid the firm foundations of his technique, learning from the collections of more than 100 keyboard works, mostly by North German composers such as Telemann and CPE Bach, that his father had gathered for him and his sister, Nannerl, to study.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mozart’s earliest works show their influence and North German seriousness would become an important feature of his mature style, such as in the slow movement of his Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra (1779) – an unquestionable masterpiece of the classical canon.
But it was during his visit to London that the eight-year-old Mozart met Johann Sebastian’s youngest son Johann Christian, with whom he would form a life-long friendship.
JC Bach had spent much of his earlier life in Italy, mastering the Italian style, and had since established himself in London with a successful series of concerts at the fashionable Vauxhall Gardens. His Italianate style made a profound impact on Mozart who modelled his first three symphonies on those of Bach and his business-partner, Carl Friedrich Abel. Mozart also arranged three of Bach’s Op. 5 keyboard sonatas as Piano Concertos (KV107). Indeed, Bach’s ‘singing allegros’ can be heard in many of Mozart’s most characteristic first movements and finales, most triumphantly in the finale of the Jupiter Symphony No. 41 (1788).
Mozart’s travels made him a great mimic of men and music.
By the age of 13, he had already composed a little one-act opera, Bastien and Bastienne, modelled on the sort of French comic operas he had heard in Paris. It was the seed from which Mozart grew his ambition to create German opera, later realised with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791). To hone his operatic skills and establish his reputation, Mozart visited Italy three times between 1769 and 1773, performing in Rovereto, Verona, Mantua and Milan, where he met composer Niccolò Piccinni and was commissioned to write his opera seria, Mitridate.
Few modern-day tourists have seen as much of Italy as the teenage Mozart.
From Milan he journeyed to Lodi where he produced his first string quartet, and then to Parma, Bologna and Florence where he became friendly with just about the only child he ever had dealings with as an equal – the English composer Thomas Linley the younger.
For Easter, Mozart was in Rome, where he famously broke the Papal decree against publishing Allegri’s Miserere by memorising it after hearing it at St Peter’s and later writing it down.
In May, Mozart visited Naples where he met composer Niccolò Jommelli and the English historian, Charles Burney. Returning via Rome, where he was knighted by the Pope, he visited Bologna, taking lessons from the great contrapuntist, Father Martini. The lessons proved beneficial and, after passing a gruelling test in counterpoint, Mozart was elected a member of the prestigious Philharmonic Society. His style would combine contrapuntal rigour with Italian suavity, to be exploited as and when occasion demanded: for church, stage or concert hall.
If Mozart’s first tour of Italy was an outstanding success, France, to which he and his mother journeyed in September 1777, was an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, the summer of ’78 in Paris proved to be one of the saddest in Mozart’s short life: the young composer was forced to fend for himself when his mother died.
Neither a businessman, nor any longer a child prodigy, he struggled to survive.
Of the few commissions that came his way, some were unpaid, others unperformed.
In recompense for non-performance of a Sinfonia Concertante for four wind instruments and orchestra, however, he received a commission for a Symphony (Paris, No. 31) – his one success.
Embittered and frustrated, he wrote to his father: ‘Whether it will please, I do not know, and to tell the truth I care very little. I guarantee that it will please the few intelligent French people present... as for the stupid ones – I see no great misfortune in not pleasing them…’
After returning home, it was not long before Mozart moved to Vienna, married and cut down on his travels. Still, in the last ten years of his life he seemed restless and continued to move from house to house.
Could it be that, raised against a backdrop of ever-changing scenery, Mozart perhaps needed disruption in order to compose? Certainly there is an identifiable sense of restlessness in his music – the modulations in the development of the Jupiter Symphony (No. 41), for example, that give rise to changing moods, shifting like the shadows of clouds across its musical landscape. In this sense, Mozart’s music not only speaks of the joys of existence, but also of the impossibility of peace.
What are Mozart's most famous pieces?
Mozart composed across a relatively large span of musical forms and ensembles. His best known works include the later Piano Concertos - particularly those from 19 to 25 - which are absolute masterpieces of the concerto form. Most of them are largely serene works, complete with moments of almost transcendental beauty - the slow movements of numbers 21 and 23, for example. Two, however - numbers 20 and 24 - are composed in minor keys and have much more of a sense of drama about them. The stormy, passionate Piano Concerto No. 24, in particular, can be seen as an early outlier of the coming Romantic movement.
Staying in the orchestral world, Mozart's later symphonies (roughly from number 35, 'Haffner' onwards) are also masterpieces of their form, combining intense melodic beauty, drama and often a sheer sense of joy in the possibilities opened up by music. Most famous of all are the last two. Number 40 has that taut, dramatic first movement built, like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, upon a single, rhythmical and insistent motif. The final Mozart symphony, Number 41 'Jupiter', has an extraordinary Finale in which no fewer than six different themes are interwoven, producing a sense of astonishing beauty, exuberance and joy.
But we can't stop there. Other justly famous and much-loved Mozart works include his operas Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which features some of the most colourful characters in opera (and that's saying something), including Papageno the biord-catcher and the fantastically evil Queen of the Night.
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Then there is the stirring Requiem, with its contrapuntal elements that hark back to Bach and Handel; the beautiful Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante (for violin and viola), not to mention some wonderful chamber music such as the Clarinet Quintet and 'Hunt' and 'Dissonance' String Quartets. There really is so much wonderful Mozart to discover.
Who did Mozart marry?
In 1782 Mozart married Constanze Weber, the third daughter of the Weber family with whom he had found lodgings in Vienna. The couple had six children, although sadly only two of them lived beyond infancy. After Mozart's death in 1791 Constanze, aged just 29, had to bring up her young family alone.
When did Mozart die?
Mozart died on 5 December 1791, at the age of just 35.
What illness did Mozart die of?
The cause of his death is not known for certain, although it may well have been from a condition known as Schönlein-Henoch purpura.
Did Mozart and Beethoven meet?
The young Ludwig van Beethoven intended to study with Mozart and, in 1787, when Beethoven was 16 and Mozart was 31, the younger c0mposer travelled t0 Vienna to meet his would-be mentor, However, shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven's mother fell ill, meaning that he had to return to his hometown of Bonn in Germany.
Beethoven stayed in Bonn for five years, looking after his younger siblings. When he was finally able to undertake the trip to Vienna the great Mozart was, sadly, dead.
What is the best film about Mozart?
That would be Amadeus, a 1984 biopic adapted by Peter Shaffer from his 1979 stage play of the same name, and directed by Miloš Forman.
Are there any good books about Mozart?
Yes, there are plenty of good books about the composer. See our article on the best books about Mozart for more information.
Chris de Souza and Steve Wright
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.