Suzuki Maven

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 1756 — 1791

The Miracle of Salzburg

It’s hard to talk about Mozart’s life without bumping into some incredible tales. Like the story that he began composing music at age five. Or how, just a few years later, he and his sister, Maria Anna, toured the courts of Europe, astounding royalty with their musical skills. Or how, as a young teen, he visited Rome near Easter and engaged in this clever bit of naughtiness: Because no one was allowed to publish a certain famous piece of Easter music—the Pope himself wanted to protect its specialness from constant performances—Mozart listened closely during the church service, then returned to his hotel room to write out the entire song from memory!
Exaggerations and myths can hide the true story of a famous person, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is certainly a very, very famous person. Musicians rank this genius from Austria among the finest composers in all of Western music. Many amazing Mozart stories, like these above, are true. They paint Mozart as the perfect “prodigy”—an extraordinarily talented child.
But they also hide the more amazing truth of his adult accomplishments. Like no one else, Mozart excelled in every area of composition—in chamber music, in concertos, in symphonies, and in opera. To each area, Mozart added important new ideas, pleasing his audience while challenging them, too. In each area, Mozart spanned the range of emotions. His operas show an understanding of people that belongs not to a showy prodigy but to a sensitive adult (though an adult with a great sense of humor as well). It is hard to imagine the musical change from Baroque to Classical without him.
It’s hard, too, to imagine Mozart without his teacher and father, Leopold Mozart. A violinist and author of a great book on violin technique, Leopold dominated his son’s life into young adulthood. He realized the potential of his toddler son (or as he called him, “the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg”), and devoted himself to Wolfgang so fully that he neglected his own duties as a musician to Salzburg’s prince-archbishop. Leopold became his son’s violin teacher, piano teacher, composition teacher, and career manager.
That career, as Leopold saw it, required international training, a wide reputation, and a prestigious court position. So the Mozarts traveled to Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and abroad to France, England, and Italy—where Wolfgang studied briefly with Padre Martini. By the time Wolfgang visited Germany for the premier of his first opera, the 19-year-old already had a minor job as the Salzburg court’s violin concertmaster. Here in Salzburg he wrote all five of his violin concertos, as well symphonies, keyboard works, and masses.
But his court duties hardly challenged the rising star, by now a master of international musical styles. “Find your place among great people,” his father counseled. Wolfgang yearned to work in the imperial capital, to succeed in the world of opera, and to “find his place” away from Leopold’s heavy influence.
Frustrations with Salzburg life boiled over when the archbishop’s slights turned turned downright insulting. At age 25, against his father’s wishes, Mozart left for Vienna. With no steady job, he taught, performed, published, composed on commission—and defied Leopold again by getting married. Yet he soon became the most famous pianist-composer of his day, performing concertos of symphony-like texture. In chamber music, too, he charted new waters. The innovative string quartets of his friend Joseph Haydn inspired him, and his music in turn influenced Haydn. In opera, too, Mozart triumphed with works both comic and profound like The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute.
Along the way, Mozart continued to travel, started a family, became a devoted Freemason, and lived regally. Without the income of a true nobleman, he often went into debt. Then, at just 35, after a brief illness, he died. His Vienna decade produced more great music than others could hope to write in a life twice as long. So furious was his pace that he wrote his last and perhaps finest symphonies—numbers 39, 40, and 41—in just six weeks. Many people wonder what Mozart could have done had he lived longer. What he did, in fact, is wonder enough.
© Andrew Campbell