Three pictures of Mozart

1 Mozart (unfinished portrait by Lange 1782)

You would think that after all this time Mozart’s status would be secure. But I’ve found that most people put him into one of two categories, and a few into a third. He is really a composite of all three views.

The prodigy

In June 1763 Leopold Mozart, assistant orchestra conductor at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg,  took his prodigies, his seven year old son Wolfgang and 12 year old daughter Maria Anna, on a performance tour of Europe, before its royal houses and ruling monarchs, as well as giving many public concerts. As they rolled out of the gates of Salzburg in a heavily laden coach at dawn on the morning of June 09  they had no idea of the long lasting effects on the entire family the trip was to have. The tour lasted three years, made a lot of money, gained the Mozarts no advantages whatsoever, not even financial ones, and affected the whole family till the day of each member’s death.

In Munich, the children performed for the court of Bavarian Elector Maximilian III Joseph, in September at Aix-la-Chapelle for Princess Amalia of Prussia, the sister of Frederick the Great. At Brussels, a grand concert given by Mozart and his sister was attended by the Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands, Prince Charles of Lorraine, brother of Emperor Francis I. In January 1764 the Mozarts met King Louis XV and Queen Maria Leszczynska and performed in Paris. In April Mozart and his sister performed for King George III and Queen Sophia Charlotte in London. In August 1765 the Mozarts arrived at The Hague and performed for the Prince of Orange, William V, and his sister, Princess Caroline. In November 1766 the Mozarts again performed for Elector Maximilian III Joseph. Later that month they returned to Salzburg, after an absence of three and a half years. On the journey Mozart contacted scarlet fever, typhoid and rheumatic fever. These diseases weakened him, and returned to cause his death in 1791 at the age of 35.

On his return from the tour Mozart found himself saddled with a reputation he never shook off, that of a child prodigy, and that reputation still affects some who listen to his music today who think at all about the man. Whatever muddled ambitions Leopold Mozart entertained for the trip, in fact the child Mozart was only a freak, an oddity, for his audience, one of several competing child prodigies as musical performers. He amused the aristocratic audience who otherwise might have toured the madhouse to look on the mad people, or watched a tame bear be torn apart by mastiffs. They were impressed by his small size, his tricks such as playing the pianoforte blindfolded, or with his hands and the keyboard covered with a cloth. Had he played with his toes while lying on the floor, as a friend of mine was capable of, he would have been even more successful.

2 Mozart family

This was the Mozart whose music was trite, clever no doubt, but with no real depth to it. I hear comments like this today from people who won’t listen to Mozart’s compositions with any patience.

Along with his skill as a performer, prodigious for a seven year old (what would the noble audience have thought about the four year old Mozart teaching himself to play the violin?), and the naturally shallow content of his music, expected of a child, other characterisations of Mozart were spread about, many by his own family. Improvidence, inability to deal with practical matters such as budgeting, travel arrangements etc, (these were jobs Leopold gave himself), and waywardness and lack of application (lack of application!).

Unfortunately these were charges father and sister levelled at Mozart all the rest of his life, and he had to assert himself against this emotional blackmail, which amounted to a charge of not being a good son, not doing what he was told to do, all his life. Mozart was devoted to his parents and sister, and these charges hurt and weakened him during the arduous attempt to earn a living as a musical composer. But he needed to live his own life, have his own family, make his own career.

Leopold was always conscious of his superiority to his station in life, and bitterly resented any sign of condescension in his associates. Yet he gave up his career as composer and musical theorist, in which he had obtained some eminence, in favour of exploiting his son. It was a quicker way of obtaining distinction he thought. It was he who had formed such a genius. Emotional blackmail I think may have been Leopold’s secret method of training the infant Mozart, and probably his daughter Maria Anna. Leopold withheld parental approval and love until both children ‘got it right’ when it came to mastering compositions and instrument. That love and approval was the reward the child Mozart craved for his performances, and expected, is shown by his frequent demands for kisses, and requests to “love me!” at the end of a court performance. This was Leopold’s method, a particularly cruel one, of whose cruelty Leopold would not have been aware. Take an affectionate child and frighten it with unexpected coldness until it performed the wanted task, then reward it with love and kisses. It worked with both children, for both were geniuses and became by this method virtuosi. Then unfortunately, while Maria Anna, as a woman, remained subservient to male authority, Mozart became a man and wanted to make his own decisions.

3 Antonio Salieri

This feckless version of Mozart is widespread today because of the film Amadeus, taken by most people, because of its title, to be a biography of Mozart. Amadeus is a 1979 play and then a 1984 film script by Peter Shaffer directed by  Miloš Forman, which elaborates on an earlier play by Pushkin called Mozart and Salieri. Both plays, and the film, are really about Antonio Salieri, the leading Viennese composer of Mozart’s day and the man in charge of musical performances at the Emperor’s court there. Salieri was jealous of Mozart’s gifts as a composer, of which he was one of the very few to fully assess in all their genius, but determined to maintain his position of authority at the royal court. He intrigued against Mozart, and the guilt he felt at the success of his intrigues darkened his later years, after Mozart had died. The Mozart Salieri saw was Leopold’s Mozart, a trivial child like little man, who yet was the greatest composer he had ever seen. This was a widespread view of Mozart, fostered by Mozart’s family when he left Salzburg for Vienna in 1781. The plays, and film, attempt to explain why Mozart, with all his gifts, was not more successful. Neither plays nor film are historically accurate. A more likely explanation of this lack of success was the conservatism of Viennese society. They couldn’t see Mozart’s genius, just as Leonardo da Vinci’s contemporaries couldn’t see his genius. To this day audiences need to be told what’s good. That’s why talentless artists who are adroit self publicists have such success.

The master

I sometimes come across the claim that Mozart is the most popular composer of all time. I don’t know how this is assessed. Can we really measure CD sales, concert attendance, radio musical broadcasts, TV audiences, people who borrow a friend’s music, internet broadcasts and downloads, to come up with a total? Does the measuring start at 1791, and if so, how? Mozart’s music is popular, but do we count background music in shops, lifts and restaurants as part of that popularity? Or do we count only those who are passionate about Mozart’s music? I’m aiming here at trivialisations of Mozart and his music, at the belief his music is good for you, the belief that it puts people in a good mood. Not that’s a bad thing, but it puts Mozart and Kylie Minogue on the same wavelength, and they are doing different things.

I think of Mozart as someone who was a perfect balance of intellect and emotion. Both his emotional maturity and his intelligence were exceptional, but, more than that, they were in accord. This made him a superb dramatist, possibly the greatest dramatist who has ever lived, even though he never wrote a play. Given a libretto, he rewrote it to show how characters’ emotions affect their actions, and his best librettists could revise accordingly. All his mature music has a dramatic quality, which comes to its fullest form in the late operas. But it is also evident in many symphonies, concerti and sonata works. This made Mozart a pioneer composer of the romantic movement. When Charles Hazlewood presented the BBC’s The Genius of Mozart in 2004 he remarked at one point that Mozart’s last Symphony almost made redundant the entire career of Beethoven: an extreme statement, but I see exactly where he was coming from.

4 queen of night

This is Mozart the grandmaster, who knew precisely the structure of every musical form of his day and pushed them to their limits; who had seemingly such exact knowledge of the instruments he composed for he could have been an instrument maker. All it needed for Mozart was a virtuoso, usually but not always himself, and he pushed the instrument about as far as it could go. He wrote difficult music. When you watch Don Giovanni or the Queen of the Night and appreciate the singers’ acting ability, don’t forget they are at times singing at the very limits of their skill.

It’s hard to sum up the career of a man who wrote over 600 works in less than 30 years. I give my personal choice and would expect others to have their own. The first work of Mozart I heard was when I was 17, and I fell in love with it and love it still: the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for Violin and Viola (K. 364), written about June 1779, a little less than 12 months after his mother had died in Paris. Then, four years later, the Symphony in C, “Linz” (K. 425), written in four days October 1783, two months after a difficult visit Mozart and Constanza made to Leopold in Salzburg, and the death of Mozart’ s son Raimund in Vienna.

The sparkling piano concertos of early 1784, part of Mozart’s emergence as an impresario: in E flat (K. 449);  B flat (K. 450);  D (K. 451); G (K. 453); and later that year, B flat (K. 456), F (K. 459) and early 1785 in D minor (K. 466) and  in C (K. 467); and piano concertos of early 1786, in A  (K. 488); in C minor (K. 491): a time when Mozart’s sister married, his second son Thomas was born, he thought himself reconciled to Leopold, and he had joined a Masonic Lodge. He met and played a set of quartets for and dedicated to Haydn, and received his praise.

In 1786 also the superb and brilliantly realised The Marriage of Figaro (K.492), and the great Symphony in D, “Prague” (K. 504) later that same year. Then, the very next year, the disturbing Don Giovanni (K. 527).

The three greatest symphonies ever written, in mid 1788, in E flat (K. 543), in G minor (K. 550) and in C, “Jupiter” (K. 551).

5 Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte

In September 1789 while the revolution was raging in Paris, perhaps Mozart’s most beautiful work, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A (K. 581), and then, in January 1790, perhaps his best opera, Così fan tutte (K. 588).

Finally, the great works of Mozart’s final year. In January 1791  the Concerto in B flat for Piano (K. 595); in September Die Zauberflöte (K. 620);  in October the Concerto in A for Clarinet (K. 622); and in December the unfinished Requiem in D minor (K. 626).

Twenty four works, almost all from the last 10 years of his life, and a precious dozen from the last five. Mozart was about to do great things when he died. He was his own man, free of Leopold’s influence. Although comprising concerto format, symphony, chamber music and opera, the technical virtuosity of the last decade is Mozart’s least achievement. Here is a voice that understands you, whoever you are. Who shows you your weaknesses and strengths, and gives you the tools to deal with both. This is very involving music, and, for all its formal elegance, very unlike any other music ever written. Why someone hasn’t come up with a theory of whom really wrote it, as they have for the works of Shakespeare, I don’t know, as the achievement is almost unbelievable. This is the man who couldn’t get a job at the court at Salzburg!

The revolutionary

Mozart lived in interesting times, as the Chinese put it. In his childhood the European powers were squabbling among themselves, and the squabbles ended with the Seven Years War. The power of empires such as the Holy Roman Empire and that of Ottoman Turkey was challenged. England was slowly consolidating one empire, in India, while just as slowly losing another, in America. Ireland was agitating for Home Rule, and revolution was imminent, but dissent was cruelly repressed. In France the ancien regime was resolutely sticking its head in the sand and ignoring the need for social reform, as was the government in England, who couldn’t understand why John Wilkes wouldn’t go away. Finally, in Mozart’s last five years, America became an independent nation, separating from England over the issue of taxation rights, and the Revolution took its course in France, as the monarchy refused to examine economic problems ruining the lower classes. These political events were expressed in print as a concern with “rights”; and just who had them, and what they were, obsessed many writers of the time, and fuelled much debate.

6 Marriage of Figaro adam green maggie lacey and naomi oconnell photo by t charles erickson

The subject fascinated Mozart, who had both a personal experience, in his attempt to find independence from a father who wanted him to continue as a dependant child through his maturity; and a concern, shared by Leopold, with the unjust social system of the German countries, where a huge multiplicity of rulers of tiny states monopolised wealth and inhibited political and economic growth. When he heard of a subversive play by the dramatist Beaumarchais, Mozart sought it out.

Pierre-Augustin Caron, known as Beaumarchais, was an avid supporter of the American bid for independence from Britain, and from the mid 1770s lobbied the French government to lend support to America. At the end of that decade he expressed his ideas through the writing of plays, which were at first banned as subversive. These included The Barber of Seville in 1775 and the Marriage of Figaro of 1781. The last was finally cleared by the censor and premiered 1784. The play was evidently seen or read by Mozart  (he was fluent in French, Italian, English and Latin, as well as his native German) and he liked it so much he proposed the idea of an opera. Librettist Da Ponte modified the play even more than Beaumarchais had had to. Yet it remains still a savage attack on aristocratic privilege. I’ve no idea what Mozart thought of the French Revolution, but he had suffered under Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, and languished under the indifferent eye of the Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, and I’m sure Figaro’s ideas are Mozart’s own. At the close of the 18th century in Europe, the ideas of reform, or revolution, were held by many.

These ideas were actively promulgated by associations such as the Freemasons. Freemasonry began as a guild organisation in medieval times, but really became active, and popular, in the 18th century, and in Europe particularly it took on a political cast, dedicated to ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality. It  was connected in this way with the group known as the Illuminati. Both groups evolved in different ways, but in Mozart’s time they both expressed the ideals of the Enlightenment, and it can be supposed Mozart felt strongly about these ideals. He joined a Viennese lodge in 1784 and progressed to Master Mason. In the Lodge he was a highly esteemed member, and many of his friends in his last few years were Masons, providing him with emotional support and financial assistance at times. Mozart might have heard of The Marriage of Figaro, produced in 1784, the year he joined the Viennese Lodge, at a Lodge meeting. Beaumarchais was also a Mason.

7 Franz Liszt 1858

Mozart was aligned on the revolutionary edge of the politics of his day. He needed to free himself from parental control and interference, and grow up. And he needed to gain financial security, though aristocratic patronage was uncertain, and slow to materialise or pay. Although it doesn’t sound revolutionary now, Mozart’s solution to this group of associated problems was revolutionary: he become an entrepreneur. Mozart, like his father, organised a series of concerts. With no experience, and with his father wringing his hands in the background and forecasting failure, Mozart not only became an impresario from 1784, he became a star, the first commercial celebrity musician in history. Mozart showed the way for Beethoven, Liszt, and 20th century figures like Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley too, unlikely as that sounds. Before Mozart’s 1784 concerts, musicians were lowly employees in some aristocratic household. After the success of the concerts, featuring Mozart doing brilliant virtuosic work at the piano, and the exhilarating series of piano concerti he poured out over the next few years, the successful artists, and the more flamboyant ones, became stars. This changed the whole way people experienced music. For the first time music became something for the public.

Another aspect of Mozart’s revolutionary activities, but one I can’t talk about because of ignorance, was his compositions. Mozart was responsible for the consolidation of the classical genres we know today. Before his time the symphony and the concerto were very different forms to those performed now, mostly based on polite dance movements of the day. Because of his strength as a composer, Mozart turned them into featured pieces of greater length and sublime originality. There is in music really a before Mozart period and an after Mozart one. He introduced what we think of as progressive or experimental ideas such as dissonance, not progressive for him, merely part of his enormous creative range. He took the Andante movement, hitherto a vehicle of Baroque sweetness, and turned it into a story, of love and loss and enthralment. Never before in opera had there been such intricate ensemble singing. When you expected a regular progression of concerto movements, a fast, slow fast progression, Mozart would give you a slow, then a slower one. His earlier listeners often didn’t know what to expect. Through every piece he wrote you can hear the exaltation of the master exploring the medium to its fullest. It is really quite unfair to think of Mozart’s music as conventional merely because he didm’t invent any new forms. Like saying DJing is just like playing a record player.

So which Mozart do you go for? The small unimpressive man stunted by childhood illness who couldn’t handle money and died a failure, in poverty and obscurity, despite his gifts? Or the sublime genius, the greatest creative talent who has ever lived, as some say? Should Mozart be numbered with Tom Paine and Danton as someone who forever changed the way we have since looked at the world? If you merge these three ideas of the man, and listen to the drama inherent in any of his compositions, and wait till the slow movement, the three pictures will become a three dimensional one.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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