Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Composer of over 600 musical worksby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Virtuoso…composer …prodigy…You’ve probably heard these words floating around when people mention W. A. Mozart. Or perhaps you’ve heard a song or opera on the radio composed by a person whom the DJ called Wolfgang. Maybe you’ve just seen his name on your orchestra or piano sheet music. But who really was W.A. Mozart and why is he still famous today?
Johannes Chysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus (better know as Wolfgang Amadeus) was born on January 27 in the year 1756 to Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart. Wolfgang had only one sibling that lived beyond infancy. She was four when he was born, and her name was Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, though she was usually called by her nickname Nannerl. The family lived in Salzburg, a city located in Austria, for the duration of young Mozart’s childhood. Leopold, an accomplished violinist, pianist, and composer, held the post of court composer, and later the esteemed position of Kapellmeister, in the employ of Salzburg’s archbishops. In addition, he supplemented his income by giving private lessons to several students. Thus, the Mozart family was amply provided for and lived modestly in their Salzburg home.
It soon became obvious that Wolfgang demonstrated extraordinary musical genius. When Nannerl began receiving clavichord lessons from Leopold at age seven, Wolfgang, only three at the time, would listen attentively and soon began picking up on what his father taught his sister. So Leopold began giving Wolfgang lessons, as well. He devoted much time to his son and was the central figure in Mozart’s life. By age four, Mozart was already learning minuets and other short keyboard pieces. At age five he began composing original works. And by age six he had taught himself how to play the violin without ever having received a lesson. Mozart also possessed an extraordinary, innate ability for improvisation, and he could sight-read difficult pieces of music astonishingly well. And so in January of 1762, these two, talented children spent three weeks performing for the elector of Bavaria, Maximillian III Joseph.
The success of the children’s performance in this three week time period prompted Leopold to set his own musical ability aside as secondary and take his family on a tour of Europe in which he exhibited the children’s talent to the world. So from 1762 to 1769, a huge portion of Wolfgang’s life was spent traveling and performing for nobility and other important figures in countries that included Bavaria, Germany, Rhineland, France, England, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. Mozart, the young prodigy, astonished audiences by sight-reading anything given to him, by providing the names of any notes or chords one sang or played, and by performing difficult songs with a piece of cloth hung in front of the keys of the clavichord so he could not see his hands. His inexplicable talent of improvisation also enthralled audiences. Yet, though these trips generally provided funds sufficient enough to ensure comfortable living for the Mozart family, Leopold never seemed to be satisfied. In addition to these tours, Mozart and Leopold took three trips to Italy between December of 1769 and March of 1771. And it was during these journeys that Mozart discovered his love for opera.
Upon finally returning to Salzburg in 1771, Wolfgang was provided a post as court composer, though only fifteen years of age, by the archbishop; and he spent most of his time in this city for the next several years. But Wolfgang became restless. He desperately desired to leave Salzburg. In September of 1777, when he was nearly twenty-two years old, Mozart and his mother traveled to numerous cities, including Munich, Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Strasburg, in search of a more substantial post with higher wages. But tragedy struck on this tour when, in July of 1778, Mozart’s mother passed away. Having arranged a position for Wolfgang as court organist in Salzburg, Leopold called on him to return and declared that it was Mozart’s duty to help provide for the family. He obeyed, but unwillingly. And by 1781, though it did not come as a disappointment to Wolfgang, he was dismissed from his post because of an argument with the archbishop.
So in 1781, against his father’s will, the now twenty-five year old Mozart moved to Vienna to begin his life as a freelance musician and composer. It was here he met his future wife. At St. Steven’s Cathedral on August 4, 1782, Mozart married Constanze Weber. This displeased his father even more, because Leopold believed that Mozart’s income was still due to help support the family, even though he himself earned an adequate sum from his position as Salzburg’s court Kapellmeister. Following his son’s marriage, Leopold virtually disowned him. But Wolfgang earned a comfortable, and sometimes even large, salary during the first five years of his life in Vienna. During that time frame he also composed prolifically and enjoyed the success of two of his operas—La nozze de Figaro and Don Giovani. However, by 1786 or 1787, Mozart’s profits began to dwindle. From 1788 until his death in 1791, Wolfgang was forced to seek loans, borrow money, and pawn valuables. Yet despite all this he continued to live extravagantly and never became the poor pauper some have depicted him as.
Wolfgang also turned a second important page in his life after arriving in Vienna. On December 14, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was initiated into the Zur Wohltatigkeit (Beneficence) Lodge of freemasonry. On January 7, 1785, he was promoted to the status of “Journey Man,” the second level out of three possible ranks. And not long after that he was elevated to the highest possible rank, that of “Master Mason.” Mozart remained a devout freemason until the day of his death nearly seven years later. The freemasons were a secret society and met for the purpose of pursuing truth and “enlightenment” through charity, humanity, tolerance, and brotherly love. Freemasonry was not considered to be in opposition to Catholicism (the religion in which Mozart was raised) or Christianity. Instead it was viewed as a practical way to live out one’s faith. In fact, many Catholic priests became members of the freemason brotherhood. The only “religion” required to enter this society was a belief that some eternal, Supreme Being existed who created and ruled the world. According to an article published in the Journal fur Freymaurer in 1786, freemasons “had in the beginning and still have no other goal than self-perfection and the dissemination of useful knowledge to our fellowmen…” However, this in itself is a contradiction to Biblical Christianity, for the Bible succinctly states that man can never reach perfection on his own. Though at a glance, freemasonry may not appear to conflict with Christianity, several other such subtleties exist that remain inconsistent with Biblical teaching.
By the year of 1787, Mozart had reached the final lap of his life. It was during this year that he experienced the bitter death of two of his closest friends and his dearly-loved father. So Mozart threw himself into his work harder than ever, but he could not endure it forever. He began to slip into depression and was subject to frequent mood swings. Mozart’s last journey took place in 1791 when he and Constanze traveled to Prague for the coronation of Leopold II. But it was on this journey that Wolfgang began a severe downward spiral. Though he reached home in safety, he had grown weak and pale. His fatal illness began on November 20 and persisted for fifteen days. During this time Mozart was bedridden and experienced tremendous pain. Finally, on December 5, 1791, this unequalled composer died of acute rheumatic fever.
Though he only lived to the age of thirty-five, Mozart’s life and compositions have left a permanent mark on this world. In those few years, Wolfgang composed more than 600 works, including forty-one symphonies, twenty-seven piano concertos, nineteen piano sonatas, sixteen operas, and several masses, along with many other chamber music and orchestral pieces. Franz Joseph Haydn, himself an extremely famous composer, once said to Mozart’s father, “Before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name.” Indeed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life impacted music’s history in a way that cannot ever possibly be forgotten.
Braunbehrens, Volkmar. Mozart in Vienna: 1781-1791. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990)
Solomon, Maynard. Mozart: A Life. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995)
Davenport, Marcia. Mozart. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons)