Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, an Austrian cathedral town where his father was a violinist in the orchestra of the archbishop, an important official in the Roman Catholic Church. All evidence indicates that Mozart’s natural musical gifts were phenomenal and became apparent at an early age. When he was six, his father took him on the first of several extended European tours, one lasting more than three years, during which he astonished audiences with his ability to compose, improvise, and perform at the keyboard and on the violin. The many surviving letters between members of the Mozart family and friends back home in Salzburg record the highs and lows of these trips, from the exhilaration of command performances before royalty to the dangers and discomforts of travel by coach and several serious illnesses that afflicted Mozart and his older sister, Nannerl, including typhoid fever. Herr Mozart’s reference to Wolfgang cutting a tooth reminds us that these trips began when he was the age of a first grader of today.
After his experiences in London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, and other musical capitals of the time, Salzburg seemed provincial and confining. But when at the age of 17 he had not been offered a satisfactory position in any large city, Mozart grudgingly entered the service of the archbishop. He found his duties in Salzburg abhorrent and his treatment by the archbishop demeaning. Frequent disagreements ensued, culminating in a stormy encounter in 1781 during which the archbishop released him from service “with a kick on my behind,” as Mozart reported in a letter.
Mozart spent the rest of his life in Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, home of the Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II, and one of Europe’s major cultural centers. Although he held some minor court appointments, he was one of the first composers to seek a career as a free agent rather than in the employ of the church or aristocracy. For a few years he presented a series of very popular and lucrative concerts of his own works, among them 12 spectacular piano concertos in which he was featured as the soloist. He also received several commissions to compose operas, among them Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague in1786 and 1787, respectively. But Mozart’s success was sporadic and short-lived. He died at age 35 and was buried in a common grave, his impoverished circumstances due in part to his extravagant tastes and inability to manage his finances. In retrospect he also emerges as a tragic casualty of a society in transition, a man too proud and conscious of his own genius to abase himself in the service of the ruling class, yet too profound a musical thinker to be appreciated by the new bourgeois audience.
Mozart was an extraordinarily prolific composer, creating enduring works in virtually every genre of his day — operas, symphonies, piano sonatas, chamber music, works for the Roman Catholic Church. As a composer of the classical period, the ideals of clarity and balance inform Mozart’s music, from his early piano pieces written at age six and seven through his great opera The Magic Flute and the unfinished Requiem Mass from the last year of his life. What sets him apart from his contemporaries is the mastery of counterpoint, intensity of developmental processes, expressive power, and sophisticated orchestration that characterize works written during Mozart’s decade in Vienna. This maturing and deepening of his compositional craft, while also creating works that would be accessible, seems to have been a conscious pursuit. As he wrote to his father in 1782:
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult. They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.
Two hundred and fifty years after his birth, Mozart’s works remain staples of the concert repertory of artists and ensembles all over the world.