The Eternal Genius of Classical Music
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music. Unlike any other composer in musical history, he wrote in all the musical genres of his day and excelled in every one.
Barbara Krafft. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1819.
He was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756, the son of Leopold Mozart, a court composer-violinist, and his wife, Anna Maria. Mozart’s musical genius was apparent from an early age. He began composing music when he was just five years old and showed exceptional ability on the harpsichord and violin. With his father’s encouragement, he and his older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl”) began performing as child prodigies across Europe.
Leopold viewed his son as a divine gift, referring to him as “the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” He felt a deep sense of obligation to God, believing it was his duty to bring his son’s extraordinary talents to the world’s attention. Mozart’s first European tour, when he was just six years old, took him and his sister to Munich, Paris, London, The Hague, and Zurich. The siblings performed for royalty and aristocrats and met many of the leading musicians of the day.
The trips were long and arduous, but they were a great success. Mozart continued to tour and perform across Europe throughout his childhood and teenage years, composing new music and refining his craft. It appears that Nannerl’s music career had ended by this point. Approaching the age of marriage, she was bound by the conventions of the time, which forbade her from displaying her artistic abilities in public.
Mozart married Constanze Weber in 1782 when he was 26 years old. They had six children together, but unfortunately, only two survived infancy.
Louis Carrogis Carmontelle. The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl, c. 1763.
Mozart has never been renowned for cutting-edge structures or innovative techniques, but instead for his mastery and inventive redefinition of old forms. However, his piano concertos are an exception to this rule, showcasing his command over the keys. Piano Concerto No. 21 (1785) is the quintessence of this command. With its swirling chord progression, relatively slow pacing, and light, graceful touches, Mozart’s subtle phrasing and use of different tones are hidden by the relatively uncomplicated notation.
As such a versatile composer, Mozart was able to shift from such serene tinkering to the heavy-handed, shocking, and dominating force of his most famous opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). Its intense theatricality and emotive phrasing proved that the musical accompaniment can breathe new life into the characters and plots of these performances. The music gradually gets more exciting and intense, with sudden bursts of loud, dramatic notes. This is done to match the excitement and drama happening on stage, making the music more engaging and thrilling to listen to.
Also, like today’s pop hits, Mozart understood the craft of an effective melody, and Serenade No. 13, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1787) is quintessential in this regard. The piece is really fast and energetic, with sudden changes in volume. It has a catchy tune that’s played by the strings, and there are a lot of powerful and repetitive sounds that make it exciting. Sometimes, the violins sound like they’re fighting with each other, while other times the music becomes quieter and more gentle.
But it is perhaps Mozart’s symphonies that are the most celebrated, especially Symphony No. 40 (1788). Only one of two of his symphonies to be composed in a minor key, the composition is evidence of a growing romanticism influence, resulting in even stronger expressive tensions between instruments and tone color. The mood shifts dramatically between wispy gracefulness, explosive celebration, and threatening, rhythmic pulses of sadness. Mozart's symphonic works demonstrate his skillful use of harmonies that create a sense of tension and release, as well as his ability to create engaging musical conversations between different instruments. Although Mozart refrained from using excessive musical complexity, his skill and craftsmanship in this regard remain unparalleled.
Despite his success, Mozart faced financial difficulties throughout his life, often living beyond his means and relying on loans from friends. Historians speculate that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder, which could account for his alternating periods of hysteria and intense creativity. He also struggled with health problems, including what is believed to have been rheumatic fever and kidney disease, which may have contributed to his untimely death at the age of 35.
Mozart’s influence on music has been immeasurable, and his works continue to be widely performed and celebrated today. His mastery of multiple genres, including opera, symphonies, chamber music, and piano music, established him as one of the greatest composers of all time. His compositions are characterized by their beauty, complexity, and emotional depth, and his innovations in form and structure paved the way for future composers.
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but that an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop.” —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“What’s even worse than a flute? Two flutes!” —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“If we cannot write with the beauty of Mozart, let us at least try to write with his purity.” —Johannes Brahms
“The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.” —Richard Wagner
“Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I’ve got only the keyboard in my poor head.” —Frederic Chopin
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