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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

30 November, 1999

Christopher Moriarty introduces one of the greatest composers who ever lived, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, examining in particular his fraught relationship with his father.

Two miracles define the life and work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The first is well known: his achievement, at the age of five, of international fame as a performer and composer.

The second is less obvious. His father, Leopold, loved him dearly, but continued to treat him as a child long after Mozart had grown to maturity. This unrelenting need to control the life of the composer led ultimately to a bitter separation, causing deep grief to both father and son. The miracle is that, in spite of this appalling pressure, Mozart continued to write and perform great music to the very end of his short life.

Family background
Leopold Mozart was a distinguished musician, an accomplished writer and a natural rebel. He nearly lost his position as deputy kapellmeister in the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg over a pamphlet which the authorities considered blasphemous. His daughter, Maria Anna, was born in 1751, and his son, Wolfgang, five years later in 1756.

Christened Johannes Chrysostomos Wolfgang Gottlieb, Mozart would later sign himself ‘Wolfgang Amade’. Where did the ‘Amade’ come from? His last name, Gottlieb, which means ‘God’s love’, in Latin contains the words Amo and Deus. After his death, the familiar ‘Wolfgang Amadeus’ became the universal spelling.

Precocious talents
Leopold Mozart was a gifted music teacher, and began giving keyboard lessons to his daughter Maria Anna – Nannerl for short  when she was seven years old. Mozart, five years her junior, was so taken by the instrument that he would spend hours picking out chords, rather than just thumping the keys. By five, he was using the music book which his father had composed for Nannerl, and shortly afterwards, he himself started composing.

Leopold realized from a very early stage that his two children were exceptionally gifted, and applied all his skills to encourage their development. In addition to music, he taught his children the usual school subjects of the time.

The young Mozart applied himself furiously to whatever subject was being taught, but he approached his music with an even greater determination. All of this sounds highly serious, and indeed it was, but there was another side to Mozart which never left him. He was full of fun, enjoyed children’s games and, as an adult, was an enthusiast for billiards and for social life in general.

Concert tours
By the age of six, it was clear to Leopold and all who knew the family that Wolfgang was gifted beyond any known musician of any time. Leopold saw fame and fortune beckoning, and embarked on a concert tour to Munich and Vienna in 1762 with his eleven-year-old daughter and six-year-old son.

In June of the following year, the family took to the road again, and did not return home to Salzburg until November 1766. They travelled in style, having bought a carriage drawn by seven horses and employing two servants. Fifteen months of the tour were spent in London, and they performed in no fewer than eighty-eight cities and towns.

The tour was a total success, making Leopold a wealthy man, and introducing Wolfgang to a world of royal families and nobles. Audiences were entranced by the beauty and virtuosity of his playing; they were also entertained by the musical tricks he could perform, such as playing the clavier faultlessly when the keys were covered by a cloth. While the entire public enjoyed the spectacle of the small child outperforming adults, the best musicians realized that they were witnessing real and lasting accomplishments.

As time went on, more tours followed, and Wolfgang began to establish himself as a musician of genius, immeasurably more significant than in the early years, when there was a touch of the circus about the tiny child performing musical feats.

Strained relationship
Until the day he died, Leopold wanted to control Wolfgang, partly as a valuable asset essential to the well-being of the family, and partly as a dutiful son who, in the father’s eyes, owed everything to him and should therefore remain for ever under his control.

He could not accept the fact that the little boy he had taught had grown up to be far more talented than he himself had ever been, and that he was no longer a child. Separation of a kind came in 1777, when Mozart travelled to Paris with his mother. There, in the second year of the tour, his mother became fatally ill, and Mozart cared for her to the end, in addition to keeping up with his performances.

Returning to Salzburg, Mozart spent two more years living with his father and sister. Eventually, however, at the age of twenty-five, he finally and sadly shook off his father’s domination, moved to Vienna, married and began to raise a family. Mozart loved his family, and led a simple home life. He also loved expensive clothing, and was happy to be accepted amongst the nobility, musicians and people of the theatre, as well as members of the Masonic Order to which he belonged. With Vienna as a base, he continued to travel, enjoying particular successes in Prague.

In his thirties, he endured a period of depression, and at one point suffered from delusions, even believing that an enemy was trying to poison him. Then, perhaps by a third miracle, he embarked, in 1791, on a series of incredible compositions, resulting in what would become both his most popular and deepest works, above all The Magic Flute and the Requiem.

He died in December of that year. The funeral, in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, was attended by family and friends, but his exact burial place is unmarked and unknown. This followed the usual custom at the time in Vienna.

Astonishing achievement
Mozart’s compositions include forty-one symphonies, twenty-seven piano concertos, twenty-three string quartets, five violin concertos, and about sixteen settings of the Mass. He wrote about twenty operas, the greatest of which – for example, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni – have never been surpassed for the beauty of their music and the richness of their characterization. As well as all that, he wrote sonatas, trios, songs and music for special occasions. The total number of his compositions amounts to over 600: an astonishing achievement for someone who died at the age of thirty-five.

Vienna today is still alive with his music, and so is the whole world. Mozart’s father was the first to recognize his genius. Years later, Joseph Haydn would call him ‘the greatest composer of the age’. For many, he is the greatest composer of any age.


This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2005), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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