Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756.
Before the age of four, he had exhibited such extraordinary powers of
musical memory and ear-sophistication that his father, Leopold,
decided to sign young Wolfgang up for harpsichord lessons. The boy's
reputation as an unexampled musical prodigy grew faster than wildfire.
At five, he was composing music; at six, he was a keyboard virtuoso,
so much so that Leopold took Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna on a
performance tour of Munich and Vienna.
Young Mozart was constantly performing and writing music. He was
the toast of Austria, and gave many concerts of prepared works and
improvisation. Wherever he appeared, people gaped in awe at his divine
gifts. By his early teens, he had mastered the piano, violin and
harpsichord, and was writing keyboard pieces, oratorios, symphonies
and operas. His first major opera, Mitridate, was performed in
Milan in 1770 (when he was still only fourteen!), to such unqualified
raves that critics compared him to Handel.
At fifteen, Mozart was installed as the concertmaster in the
orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Things did not go very well;
Mozart didn't get along with the Archbishop, and relations
deteriorated to the point where, in 1781, he quit this lofty position
and headed for Vienna - quite against his father's wishes.
Mozart, now a grown man, initially thrived in Vienna. He was in
great demand as a performer and composition teacher, and his first
opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was a hit. But life was
not easy. He was a poor businessman, and finances were always tight,
especially after his marriage to Constanze Weber. Political infighting
at the Vienna court kept him from the patronage that composers of the
period so relied upon, and he descended to a life of genteel poverty.
His music from the next decade - and it came at a blisteringly
prolific rate - was only sporadically popular, and he eventually fell
back on his teaching jobs and on the charity of friends to make ends
meet. In 1788 he stopped performing in public, preferring to compose.
But fortune never turned, and when he died in 1791 at the age of
thirty-five, he was buried in a pauper's grave.
To say that Mozart was a composer of unequalled genius is scarcely
scratching the surface of this man's remarkable gifts. He wrote music
- complete and perfect, down to the last accent and inflection - as
fast as he could think, and this astonishing rate of production
continues to stupefy scholars today. In his short life, he composed
over 600 works, including 21 stage and opera works, 15 Masses, over 50
symphonies, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 27 concert arias,
17 piano sonatas, 26 string quartets...the list is endless. And what
makes these numbers doubly unfathomable is the peerless craft with
which each piece of music was created.
Mozart was a master of
counterpoint, fugue, and the other traditional compositional devices
of his day; more than this, he was perhaps the greatest melody writer
the world has ever known. His operas range from comic baubles to
tragic masterpieces. His Requiem, composed not long before his
own death, stands with Bach's St. Matthew Passion as the
supreme example of vocal music.
In recent years, Mozart's fame has reached new heights on the
popularity of the film Amadeus. Music scholars love to poke
holes in what is admittedly a fantastical portrait of Mozart's life,
and ensuing arguments over his relationship with his musical "rival"
Salieri, his method of composing, and the events surrounding his death
have created more public misunderstandings about this divine figure
than ever existed before. What the recent Mozart vogue has created for
the good, however, is increased awareness of his music, which must be
counted among the absolute wonders of the world.