One of the peculiarities of the classical music world is the way composers’ births and deaths dominate concert programmes and opera schedules.
Where would the Proms be without a dozen or so anniversaries every year? Or the world’s opera companies?
Musical scholarship isn’t much better – it only takes a famous composer’s centenary for a plethora of books on the same subject to be published within a short space of time.
So here we are, 250 years since Mozart’s birth on 27 January 1756, and it’s like Christmas for our musical Messiah. Or a funeral, depending on how you look at it.
It was at Salzburg, Austria, that Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart entered the world. His first two names are in tribute to his birthday being the feast of St John Chrysostum; Wolfgangus came from his maternal grandfather, and Theophilus from his godfather, Joannes Theophilus Pergmayer. What of the name Amadeus? It’s the Latin form of Theophilus, though Mozart rarely used it, preferring Amad or Amad. He was the seventh child of Leopold and Maria Anna Mozart, and one of the only two to survive (with his sister Nannerl, a talented keyboard player).
He started playing the klavier at three and composed his first piece at five. As children, Wolfgang and Nannerl toured Europe with their father, coming to London in 1764. They were received by George III, and Mozart studied with Karl Friedrich Abel (a pupil of J S Bach) and J C Bach (J S Bach’s youngest son). His earliest symphonies were probably written here, along with various other juvenilia.
His first forays into the world of opera came in the late 1760s, of which Bastien und Bastienne (1768) is the best known today. More successful was his visit to Italy in 1769, concluding in December 1770 with his marvellous opera Mitridate, re di Ponto. Lucio Silla followed a year later, and was ecstatically received.
Traditional biographies of Mozart claim that the new Archbishop of Salzburg, Colloredo, who employed the Mozarts, was ill-disposed towards them. Colloredo is blamed for Mozart’s artistic suffocation. In fact, it is clear that Wolfgang disregarded his court duties, which were implicitly meant to include writing sacred music (it was an unwritten assumption that he would); he wrote relatively little.
This is probably the reason why the journeys abroad slackened off: the Archbishop was annoyed by the composer’s lack of activity in writing music for the church, so he forbade the journies for a while. Leopold prevailed upon Colloredo to allow Mozart to visit Paris in 1777, and Mozart went with only his mother, who died there. His father stayed behind to appease the Archbishop, and was too ill to accompany them in any case, so Mozart had to inform Leopold of his wife’s death via a series of letters, in which Mozart at first talked about her as ‘ill’, even when she had already passed away, and then eventually broke the news of her death.
Mozart returned to Salzburg and became court organist, though his relations with the Archbishop were strained. He was invited to compose Idomeneo in Munich in 1781, a masterpiece in the opera seria genre. After this he resigned his position in Salzburg and moved to Vienna, marrying Constanze Weber in August 1782. This was soon after the premiere of his opera Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail, of which the Emperor said there were ‘too many notes’ or ‘very many notes’. This comment, however, derives from a biography of 1798, and belies the fact that the opera remained in the repertoire for many years and was very popular with audiences.
In 1785 Mozart began work on The Marriage of Figaro and the six ‘Haydn’ string quartets. The opera was a success, though it proved more popular in Prague – where Mozart was a hero – than Vienna. Don Giovanni was commissioned for Prague in 1787, and Leopold died that same year. Between 1788 and 1789, Mozart wrote his last three symphonies and began to experience a certain amount of financial pressure.
Emperor Joseph II commissioned Cos fan tutte in 1789, though this did not lead to his appointment as Kapellmeister as Mozart hoped. His final opera, The Magic Flute, was the brainchild of the actor and impresario Emmanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto. Composition of the opera was interrupted by an urgent commission for an opera to celebrate Leopold II’s accession to the throne of Bavaria in Prague in September 1791: La clemenza di Tito, which remains an undervalued work that deserves greater recognition.
At this time, Mozart also received the notorious commission from the anonymous gentleman for a setting of the Requiem Mass. This turned out to be the Count von Walsegg, who wanted to put his own name on the work, which was left unfinished at Mozart’s death on December 5, 1791. Most biographies of Mozart commence by describing the circumstances of his burial – in a ‘pauper’s grave’. In fact, it was the law of Joseph II to bury people in mass graves at this time, for reasons of hygiene and space. There is therefore no significance in the fact that Mozart’s grave was unmarked.
One of the things that makes Mozart famous – his early death – is also responsible for the misunderstanding of his music. To have died whilst writing a Mass for the Dead was a gift for sensationalist biographers, who take his comment about the piece being written ‘for himself’ to its extreme. Mozart stories always start with the image of child prodigy, and work up through his ill treatment in the hands of the Archbishop, his time of being misunderstood by the Viennese, his subsequent poverty when they didn’t want his music and into the ‘late works’ – the Requiem and The Magic Flute – to create a life story of a great composer that sometimes distorts the facts.
In fact, many of these notions are misconceptions invented in the nineteenth century, as the absorbing new documentary In Search of Mozart (shown on Channel 5 and now available on DVD) showed. Rather than fitting each piece of music into a general period, Mozart’s works, and the events in his life, should be read specifically. In particular, Mozart’s letters (soon to be published in a new edition by Cliff Eisen) present genuine documentary evidence about the composer’s character and personality. They reveal quite a different picture from the one usually on display. We find a Mozart who is hyper-intelligent and provocative; a great performer as well as a composer; someone not quite as poor as he would have us believe (he kept several servants right up to his death, for instance); and rather than being an embarrassingly vulgar character to his father, it is quite clear that the whole family enjoyed and used lewd humour. Certainly he angered his father, but it was his fecklessness that caused the tension between them.
Why does our attitude to Mozart’s life matter? Well, it affects the performance of his works. By treating his music as a ‘divine’ text, performers frequently approach the scores too gingerly, with almost too much respect, and this sometimes results in them sounding boring. Very often it’s the smaller orchestras and ensembles that make the most satisfying job of performing Mozart, which is why the London Mozart Players‘ Mozart weekend at St John’s Smith Square is something to look forward to.
This year, the world is celebrating Mozart’s music in a big way. The annual summer Salzburg festival is staging all of his operas, indeed an extra theatre has been built to accomplish the feat. Casts include Barbara Bonney,Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko.
In this country, the Royal Opera is about to unveil its new production of The Marriage of Figaro, which returns with a new cast and conductor in June. In October they’re presenting his jewel of a comedy, La finta giardiniera, an even more attractive proposition. Nearer Christmastime, ENO is also bringing us Figaro, though their future plans will not be announced until March.
The Proms promise to honour the composer in style, and the London Symphony Orchestra’s contribution continues after the summer with a series of the piano concertos played by leading pianists such as Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, Emmanuel Ax and Evgeny Kissin. This year, the Barbican is really going to town, with its annual ‘Mostly Mozart’ festival lasting much longer than usual and covering rare operas such as Il re pastore.
Despite the risk of overkill, the sheer breadth of performances of Mozart’s work this year, even in this country, is a tempting prospect. Try avoiding the obvious, though, and take the opportunity to experience something new. That way, Mozart’s music will remain engaging and fascinating.