“My great-grandfather used to say to his wife, my great-grandmother, who in turn told her daughter, my grandmother, who repeated it to her daughter, my mother, who used to remind her daughter, my own sister, that to talk well and eloquently was a very great art, but that an equally great one was to know the right moment to stop.”–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on this day in Salzberg, Austria in 1756. Today is the 258 anniversary of his birth.
The youngest of seven children, only Wolfgang and he sister Maria Anna (whose nickname was Nannerl) survived infancy. His father, Leopold Mozart was a composer, teacher and violinist. Leopold began teaching Nannerl to play the keyboard. Little Wolfgang looked on and was soon absorbing the basics of the instrument. By four years old Leopold would play a game with his son, teaching him a minuet which Wolfgang would play back “faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time… At the age of five, he was already composing little piece, which he played to his father who wrote them down.” [Mozart: a Documentary Biography]
Starting in 1762 the Mozarts began to tour Europe. At first Leopold, Nannerl and Wolfgang all performed, but by 1769 Nannerl was left at home, and Leopold focused his efforts exclusively on Wolfgang. The purpose of the tours was to showcase the talents of the family and to try to get a position as a court composer. In March of 1773, at 17 years of age, Mozart was appointed as assistant concert master for the Royal Court of Salzburg. Wolfgang was prolific in composing a number of instrumental pieces (string quartets, symphonies, sonatas) and vocal works (masses minor operas). Most notable works from this time period were his violin concertos (espeically K. 216, 218 and 219) and his breakthrough Piano Concerto in E-flat (K. 271). But Salzburg offered him neither the salary nor the opportunity to write operas that he desired and he began to look elsewhere.
Here’s Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218
He resigned from his post and traveled to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Munich touring, and looking for a new position. Eventually he wound up in Vienna as an independent composer and performer.
The year 1784, proved the most prolific in Mozart’s performance life. During one five-week period, he appeared in 22 concerts, including five he produced and performed as the soloist. In a typical concert, he would play a selection of existing and improvisational pieces and his various piano concertos. Other times he would conduct performances of his symphonies. The concerts were very well attended as Mozart enjoyed a unique connection with his audiences who were, in the words of Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon, “given the opportunity of witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.” [Biography.com]
In 1776 and 1777 he had back to back operatic successes when he joined forces with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.Emperor Joseph II appointed him “Chamber Composer” a decade later.
It was a part-time appointment with low pay, but it required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls. The modest income was a welcome windfall for Mozart, who was struggling with debt, and provided him the freedom to explore more of his personal musical ambitions. [Ibid]
His financial problems continued, due in part to his lavish spending, and in part to the fact that Austria was at war. The composer sank into depression.
The two-year period of 1788-1789 was a low point for Mozart, experiencing in his own words “black thoughts” and deep depression. Historians believe he may have had a cyclothymiacs personality with manic-depressive tendencies, which might explain the periods of hysteria coupled with spells of hectic creativity. [Ibid]
He rallied in 1791 (his final year). He composed The Magic Flute, one of his most beloved Operas, along with piano and clarinet concertos, a string quintet in E-Flat and his Ave Verum Corpus . All the while he was working on his Requiem.
Here’s Mozart’s Ave Verum:
Mozart died at the age of 35 on December 5 1791. The cause of death is unclear. While his death certificate list “Military Fever” as the final cause, there have been over 100 theories on how he died (including mercury poisoning and rheumatic fever.)
He composed more than 600 works in his short life. “Works that are widely acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music.” [The New World Enclyclopedia]