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W.A. Mozart

Mozart painted by Joseph Lange

Music 101 - Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-1791)

Contents of this page:

  • A short biography
  • What are those K numbers?
  • Mozart's music: How to get started
  • Bibliography
  • Web sites with more information
  • Mozart's music:

  • K.417a: Mass in c
  • K.618: Motet, Ave Verum Corpus
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    A short biography

    Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, at that time an autonomous city-state with a Prince-Archbishop who provided both temporal and spiritual leadership. Mozart's father, Leopold, was a musician and composer in the Prince-Archbishop's court. Leopold provided Mozart's only formal teaching in music, and quickly recognized his son's prodigious gifts for learning and for music when the boy taught himself how to play the violin before turning seven years old.

    Leopold seized upon the remarkable musical abilities of the boy and his elder sister, Maria Anna, and supplemented his meager courtly income by touring with his children and displaying their talents before the nobility of Europe. In all, Mozart, spent about a quarter of all his days on the road, traveling throughout Europe, from London and Paris to Germany, Austria, and Italy. His ability to play complex compositions from memory, to play blindfolded, and ultimately to compose made him the stuff of legend, the archetypal child prodigy. In his travels, Mozart also encountered a wide variety of composers and compositional styles. The compositional output of his youth and adolescence reflects this dizzying array of influences, with locally popular compositional styles mimicked, then incorporated into his own evolving style.

    Leopold insisted that his son make a living in a stable, corporate-like position in a nobleman's court; the unstable life of the freelance musician was much less solidly established at this time. However, no noblemen were willing to engage a teenage boy as a court musician, prodigy or no prodigy. As a result, Mozart spent his late adolescence and early twenties in the employ of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Throughout this period he sought posts elsewhere, and the world traveler chafed at the musical limitations of provincial Salzburg. He also resented his father's attempts to thwart any romantic relationships and keep him earning money to support the entire family.

    Things came to a head in 1781, when the 25-year-old Mozart had a public clash with the Prince-Archbishop, and resigned his post against his father's wishes. Mozart broke with the Archbishop and moved to Vienna, the imperial capital and a major cultural center, working as a freelance composer and musician, though continually seeking a formal appointment at an aristocratic court. Mozart broke with his father the next year when he married Constanze Weber, a singer from a family of impoverished musicians, against Leopold's wishes.

    Mozart quickly ingratiated himself with the music connosieurs among the nobility. He spent the next nine years of his life working as a teacher, pianist, concert promoter, and composer of some of the most sublime music in the history of Western art music. He was beginning to establish himself with the aristocracy and public alike when he suddenly died, on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35, from an unknown febrile illness.

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    What are those K numbers?

    In 1784, Mozart began compiling a list of all of the music that he was composing, in chronological order. He continued adding to this list until his death in 1791. Some fifty years later, a Viennese botanist and amateur musicologist named Ludwig Ritter von Köchel used Mozart's catalog as a starting point and compiled a catalog of all of Mozart's known works, beginning with entry number 1, a five-year-old's composition for keyboard, and proceeding in chronological order to number 626, the unfinished Requiem. Köchel's monumental effort, the first scholarly catalog of a composer's output, was published in 1862, and has gone through five revisions since then. Köchel is remembered every time a Mozart work is identified by a number from his chronological catalog.

    Mozart's music: How to get started

    My essentials:

    • Operas
      • The Marriage of Figaro, K.492
      • Don Giovanni, K.527
      • Così fan tutte, K.588
      • The Magic Flute, K.620
    • Orchestral Music
      • Serenades: K.525, for strings in G, Eine kleine nachtmusik
      • Symphonies 35-41
      • Piano Concertos 20-27
      • Clarinet Concerto
    • Chamber Music
      • String Quartets K.387-590
      • String Quintets K.515-614
      • Clarinet Quintet, K.581
    • Sacred Music
      • Mass in c, K.427
      • Requiem in d, K.626
    The great pianist Artur Schnabel summed up the great paradox of Mozart's art when he said, "Children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes; grown-ups avoid Mozart because of the great quality of the notes." Mozart's music often has a child-like simplicity and innocence. That very simplicity makes performing his music a great challenge, as it exposes every lapse in rhythm, synchronization, and tuning.

    In addition, Mozart tended to enliven even the drollest of hack compositions with small telling details. An instrument will stick out of the texture, or an unusual combination of instruments will provide an unexpected sound, and suddenly a pedestrian work of aristocratic entertainment becomes the work of a master. (For a wonderful example, try Salieri's first encounter with Mozart's music, as he studies the score to the Adagio of the Serenade K.361 in the movie Amadeus.)

    Mozart turned out masterpieces in just about every classical form that he tried. Of all the forms, though, Mozart esteemed opera above all others. The combination of voices and instruments and the drama and pageantry of the theater appealed to him from his earliest years, and there are those who argue that even his instrumental music is informed by an operatic flair, with themes manipulated with consummate stagecraft.

    The operas may not be the best introduction to Mozart's music, but they are essential to any deeper understanding of his art. Among them, pride of place must go to the three operas that Mozart created with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. da Ponte's librettos overflow with a Shakespearean mix of mistaken identities, love triangles and quadrangles and octagons, and deadly seriousness in the midst of screwball comedy, and it inspired Mozart to create some of his greatest music.

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    Recommended Reading

    Interpretations of Mozart's life begin with the biographies by Schlichtegroll (1793) and Niemetschek (1798), supplemented with recollections and the political agenda of Mozart's sister and widow, respectively. Later scholarship culminates with the biographies of Otto Jahn (1856), Otto Erich Deutsch, and Alfred Einstein. The books listed below are some of the better recent biographies, which reflect the state of the art in Mozart scholarship:
  • Eisen, Cliff, and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Mozart. New York: GroveMusic, 2000.

  • Gay, Peter. Mozart (Penguin Lives). New York: Viking Press, 1999.
    There are many biographies of Mozart available, but Gay's book provides a wonderful, bare-bones introduction. It's short, eminently readable, and perhaps a bit musically suspect -- some of his analysis is a little old-school and some of his favorites a bit predictable, but it provides a surprisingly complete picture of Mozart as man and as artist.

  • Gutman, Robert W. Mozart: a cultural biography. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999.
    My favorite among the modern Mozart biographies. The book is a breathtakingly comprehensive survey of Mozart's life and work, with extended asides to set the cultural, historical, musical, and even political context of Mozart's life. Gutman rightly centers around Mozart's operas as the core of his output. Not recommended as a first biography, but a fascinating read as an extended riff on Mozart's life.

  • Solomon, Maynard. Mozart: a life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
    A thoroughly researched account of Mozart's life. Good for details on Mozart's life, though a bit heavy on the psychoanalysis for my taste.

  • Zaslaw, Neil, and William Cowdery, eds. The Compleat Mozart: a guide to the musical works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.
    A comprehensive compendium of what are essentially liner notes for everything in the Mozart oeuvre, assembled for the Mozart bicentennial. The writing is a little uneven, but the coverage is impressively comprehensive. WW Norton does not have a page dedicated to this book, but the ISBN number is on the page referenced above.
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    For more information:

    There are a number of nifty web sites with information about Mozart:
  • Neue Mozart Ausgabe
    The official web site of the institution that is publishing modern critical editions of all of Mozart's music. Contains a searchable database and index of links to complete opera librettos.

  • The Mozart Project
    An impressive work in progress with a nicely designed (albeit incomplete) biography, Neal Zaslaw's essay on the problems of the Köchel catalog, and a discussion of his music. There is also an annotated bibliography which covers recommended reading.

  • Austrian Mozart site
    Another ambitious, comprehensive Mozart site, alas, in German only.

  • BBC Biography
    Contains the biography from the Grove Concise Dictionary along with a link to a nifty profile page.

  • Internet Public Library biography
    A very fine short biography, rom the IPL's Music 102 series cataloging the history of Western art music.

  • Mozart biography
    A home page hosted by the Austrian Tourism Board (!) about Mozart. Click on the "Link Tips" for a multi-part biography and a link to what appears to be a German-language-only site.

  • Amadeus
    Another comprehensive Mozart site (though not quite as scrupulously correct with the details) with a biography and a copy of the Köchel catalog, among other things.

  • Studio Mozart
    An ambitious multimedia survey of Mozart's life and work, apparently a work in progress.
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    Last updated: January 1, 2004 by James C.S. Liu

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