Having lost five children shortly after birth, Mozart’s parents had their new baby christened the morning after he was born on 27 January 1756. Leopold, Wolfgang’s father, was a composer and violinist who had recently self-published a violin primer which quickly became a standard text. His promotion to the position of deputy Kapellmeister in the court of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the prince-archbishop of Salzburg – he led the orchestra when the Kapellmeister was indisposed – had done little to satisfy him; it was another dead-end job. So he began to channel his musical ambitions through his son.
The family lived in a third-floor rented apartment in Salzburg, where Wolfgang, at the age of four, began to learn keyboard pieces that his father had compiled for his older sister, Nannerl. The Nannerl Notenbuch – which has survived very nearly intact – contains the first traces, annotated in Leopold’s meticulously neat handwriting, of Mozart’s talents. As he approached his fifth birthday, Wolfgang was memorising short minuets on the keyboard. A few months later, he began to produce technically assured pastiches which his father transcribed in the Notenbuch.
In January 1762, Leopold took Wolfgang, who was about to turn six, and Nannerl, who was 11, to Munich and then Vienna, where he showed them off to municipal bigwigs and royalty, often in exchange for large sums of cash. These extended tours, usually taken without his mother, Anna Maria, a rather shadowy presence, set the rhythm of Mozart’s childhood. Leopold encouraged his son to exchange ideas with musicians and composers from other cities, and to experience music beyond the limited fare available in Salzburg. He was a mean, efficient PR machine, a pushy parent and Malcolm McLaren figure rolled into one.
The ambition of their tours was breathtaking. Throughout those years of frenetic travel, Leopold sought out opportunities to promote his son, and to reap the financial benefits, while trying to encourage the development of an aura around Wolfgang. During a stay in Paris in 1763 they befriended Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, a German-born art critic and friend of Rousseau’s, who, since moving to Paris, had taken a keen interest in the development of opera, laying out his ideas in the influential essay ‘Poème lyrique’. Wolfgang, Grimm wrote in the journal Correspondance littéraire, is ‘such an extraordinary phenomenon that one is hard put to believe what one sees with one’s eyes and hears with one’s ears’.
With an advocate in the press, Leopold stepped up his promotional activities. A set of four violin sonatas were published in 1764 – complete with a gushing dedication to Princess Victoire, Louis XV’s daughter. The Mozarts were told there were rich rewards for European musicians bringing new music to London. They arrived in the spring of 1764, staying in Cecil Court, near Trafalgar Square, and later in a lodging house in Soho (opposite where Ronnie Scott’s jazz club stands). Within a few days Wolfgang and Nannerl had been granted an audience with King George III and Queen Charlotte, but their trip was very nearly derailed when Leopold contracted a throat infection that left him bedbound for weeks. With all concerts cancelled for the duration, Wolfgang was able to concentrate on composition for the first time in his life. In a house on Ebury Street in Belgravia, while his father was convalescing, he wrote his Symphony No. 1, a taut, three-movement work notable for the angsty harmonic crunch of its opening phrase. Three trips to Italy – the first beginning in December 1769 and lasting 15 months – were undertaken to enrich Wolfgang’s compositional language through immersion in Italian opera and church music. Ever business-minded, Leopold also secured his son three opera commissions – Mitridate, re di Ponto, Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla – and subsequent trips to Milan were taken to oversee rehearsals and attend opening nights.
The opera commissions will have felt especially sweet after Mozart’s first opera, La finta semplice, had been dropped before its première a year earlier. It was perhaps doomed from the start. The 12-year-old Wolfgang, who hadn’t yet so much as held a girl’s hand, decided to write a comic opera buffa about sexual protocol: lots of boys met lots of girls – too many, it turned out, to sustain a stilted storyline. Everyone involved assumed that the opera would fail – thus ensuring its failure. Mozart’s librettist, Florentine Marco Coltellini, delayed the opening night by tinkering with his text, which unnerved Giuseppe Affligio, the impresario who was bankrolling the project. The singers, now worrying about their reputations, suddenly began to find ‘faults’ in Mozart’s vocal writing (there were none). Leopold responded with a succession of indignant letters, while also attempting to quash malicious gossip suggesting that such an intricate piece was beyond a composer of Wolfgang’s age (he was accused of writing it himself). Affligio, keen to draw a line under the episode, threatened to sabotage the opening night (he didn’t say how), leaving Leopold with little choice but to withdraw the opera altogether.
For all his deviousness, Leopold was a religious man who believed with unshakable certainty that his son was a ‘miracle’ whom ‘God caused to be born in Salzburg’. He knew that Wolfgang’s talents far outstripped his own, and wrote that his faith guided him to educate Mozart in the riches of God’s world. His letters were filled with wonder at architectural and engineering innovations, from the new waterworks in Chelsea to Parisian timepieces. This fascination with emerging technologies rubbed off on Wolfgang, whose keen interest in the development of instruments resulted in two works for the newly invented basset clarinet – the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto (too often performed these days on the standardised modern clarinet) – while his music for keyboard was designed for the fortepiano, with its expanded range of notes (the fortepiano was an early version of the modern piano in which the strings were struck by hammers, rather than plucked with a plectrum in the manner of a harpsichord). He also made use of instrumental curios: the metallic clink of the keyed glockenspiel, obsolete since Handel’s day, helped summon up the fantasy world of The Magic Flute.
‘The idea that Mozart was disengaged from the modern world, and oblivious to anything other than music is an enduring – if false – biographical trope that became common in the mid-19th century,’ Cliff Eisen writes in a new biographical study which comes with this opulently presented 200-CD anthology released to celebrate the 225th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Eisen ends the first part of his study with a vision from the future. The German novelist Eduard Mörike’s Mozart on the Way to Prague, published in 1856, was written to mark the centenary of Mozart’s birth and was a self-conscious attempt to claim him as a Romantic. At one point Mozart stands in a forest, gazing in wonder at the canopy. ‘One might be in a church!’ he exclaims. ‘How many strange and beautiful things there are in the great world beyond, and how many here at home, of which I know simply nothing yet, in the shape of natural wonders, sciences, arts and useful crafts.’ Here Mörike had utterly missed the point. Mozart was, as the title of the novel implies, a well-travelled product of the Enlightenment. Twists of harmonic phrase occasionally hint at what would follow in the work of Schubert or Beethoven, but Mozart’s music emerged from Classicism more than it rehearsed the Romantic sensibility. Yet Leopold’s loose talk of miracles combined with an idealised view of the child genius to encourage the fancy that Mozart could float free from musical history: that, as Eisen puts it, his music belonged ‘nowhere’ stylistically and historically. Moving between Eisen’s study, an anthology of essays by experts included with the CDs, and the music itself shows how problematic all that idealisation and ahistoricism have been.
In 1991, Mozart’s bicentenary year, Philips Classics made the first attempt to document all of Mozart’s music with its Complete Mozart Edition. Even before that collection appeared a revolution in the interpretation of Mozart’s music had begun. The German conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Dutch conductor Frans Brüggen and the British conductors John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood became pioneers of what became known as ‘historically informed practice’, the aim being to liberate the music from the sentimentalised baggage and mannerisms imposed by misreadings and lazy habits. Orchestras with beefy brass and vast string sections – perfect for Tchaikovsky and Mahler – were stripped back to the proportions Mozart was accustomed to and his pieces were played on 18th-century instruments (or replicas) which revealed a lighter fabric of sound.
This new complete edition mirrors that cultural shift by privileging performances by Brüggen, Gardiner and Pinnock over Karl Böhm, George Szell and Eugen Jochum, pillars of the Austro-German tradition whose interpretations are now discreetly tucked away as ‘supplementary’ performances, historical oddities. Böhm never gets the notes wrong, but his orchestral plod suffocates Mozart’s supple, pliant curves. To be fair, Böhm, recording in the 1960s, was merely conforming to notions of how this music ought to be performed – making Mörike’s proto-Romantic spectre seem prescient. In the 1770s, when he was working as a court musician alongside his father in Salzburg, Mozart’s innovations struck listeners partly because of their distance from the protocols and formal markers they would have expected to hear. Until Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271, convention decreed that concertos open with extended orchestral introductions from which the soloist would emerge; but Mozart begins with a seemingly spontaneous dialogue between piano and orchestra, and then piles surprise on top of surprise with the nonchalance of a conjurer. Keyboard trills were usually a climactic gesture but Mozart’s pianist enters the fray again with a piercing trill that chisels into the orchestral texture, puncturing the symmetry of a phrase mid-flow – you’re reminded of Stravinsky. The stereotype that the architecture of his music was always proportional and arithmetically pure doesn’t count for much here: this music is pockmarked with structural surprises and smudges in the melody line.
Unlike his father, Wolfgang never took the requirements of court life especially seriously. He was prolific during his years in Salzburg, but his employer, Count Hieronymus von Colloredo, the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, a keen violinist who would occasionally grace the court orchestra with his presence, had reasonable cause to question why so little of that music was designed for court life. Wolfgang was far keener on writing instrumental and chamber pieces that played with form, which he knew would be of interest to his friends and associates, than on cranking out music to order. But creative autonomy wasn’t consistent with the realities of making a living. Leopold’s dual strategy – petitioning Colloredo for greater opportunities at court while also asking for time out to travel – backfired disastrously when Colloredo fired Wolfgang. Leopold needed to stay in Salzburg or risk his position as deputy Kapellmeister, so Wolfgang, now 21, set off with his mother – visiting Munich, Augsburg and Mannheim before arriving in Paris.
Baron von Grimm put pressure on his contacts, and a commission soon followed for the piece that would become the Paris Symphony. He also found mother and son accommodation in a nice part of town. But shortly after their move, Anna Maria was diagnosed with typhus. She died two weeks later, leaving Mozart with the unenviable task of giving his father the news. ‘Mourn with me, my friend,’ he wrote, explaining that his mother’s life ‘went out like a light’.
The truce with Leopold didn’t last long. Soon enough Wolfgang was receiving letters chastising him for spending too much money. ‘Your whole plan seems to be to drive me to ruin, simply in order to build your castles in the air,’ Leopold wrote. ‘After your mother died so inopportunely in Paris, you’ll not have it on your conscience that you contributed to your father’s death too.’ Leopold wanted his son to return to Salzburg, but Wolfgang span the journey into a four-month epic. It is during this period that Mozart became increasingly two-dimensional and defined by his personal and musical contradictions. He disliked Paris, the French people (he thought them ‘arrogant’) and French music in general, and doubted whether the language was suitable to be set to music, yet his Paris Symphony delighted in incorporating fashionable stylistic hooks, especially swirling, fanfare-like openings which pressed every orchestral player into action. And those elegantly expressed words to his father about Anna Maria’s death are in stark contrast with the repetitive, impulsive, sometimes obscene letters he sent to his cousin Marianne, with whom he was sexually infatuated.
By the time he arrived back in Salzburg, Leopold had smoothed things over with Colloredo, who was prepared to offer Wolfgang the post of court organist and generous dispensation for time off – a good thing too because almost as soon as Mozart took up the post he decided he wanted to move to Vienna. A commission from Munich for a new opera – Idomeneo – made the perfect excuse to escape. Eisen points to the divided nature of Mozart’s music during this period. His church music largely stuck to the rules about how such pieces ought to be organised and to sound, but embedded in his orchestral and chamber works were echoes of his travels: the orchestral extravagance of the music he had soaked up in Paris and Mannheim was now distilled and incorporated into his own work. Idomeneo represents a grand summation, musically and psychologically, of everything Mozart had been attempting to achieve. His template was the standard opera seria, in which archetypical noble characters slip between real-time action expressed in recitative form and more reflective arias and choruses. Mozart welded his opera together with motifs that flag up particular emotional states, but offset the danger of predictability by using harmonies that never quite land where the ear expects. Like the K. 271 piano concerto, the whole piece feels governed by secret codes and rules.
Idomeneo marked Mozart’s final break with Salzburg, as its success spurred him to cut his ties with Colloredo and move permanently to Vienna, absolutely against his father’s wishes. Crisis came when Wolfgang, aged 26, decided to marry Constanze Weber, whom he met in Vienna. He then called off the relationship when he found out that Constanze had allowed another suitor to measure her calves with a ribbon during a parlour game. But that was forgotten in the outrage he felt reading Leopold’s demands, in letter after letter, that they postpone the marriage. The wedding took place as planned, in August 1782; Leopold’s grudging consent arrived in the post the next day.
During the last ten years of his life Mozart produced more work for the theatre – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute – while his instrumental music teased with fantasy of a different sort. The introduction to his String Quartet No. 19, K. 465, later nicknamed the ‘Dissonance’, recycled a melodically wayward bass line from the String Quartet No. 15, K. 421, then slammed it against new melodic non-sequiturs (it all comes right in the end as Mozart suddenly introduces a warm blast of C major). The Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 is as abstract as Mozart ever dared. The hyperactivity of the clarinet disturbs the sobriety of the accompanying string quartet, tagging each member and making them scramble to catch up. The ‘Dissonance’ is one of a set of string quartets dedicated to Haydn, who is often referred to as the ‘father of the string quartet’ – you wonder what he made of Mozart’s disobedient harmonic prologue.
His correspondence with his father was now painfully businesslike. In May 1787 Leopold died, and Mozart allowed his relationship with Nannerl to drift. The only life that interested him was Vienna and Constanze – and the world of secret codes and rituals of his local masonic lodge, for which he wrote several works (all of them included in the New Complete Edition, none of them especially interesting). Despite the popular success of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni his finances were in disarray. Austria was at war with Turkey and musical patronage waned as the local economy suffered. To raise funds, Mozart was reduced to reorchestrating works by Handel, including the Messiah and Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (all of them included in the New Complete Edition, all of them spectacularly good), although his fortunes began to revive at the end of 1789 with the commission of Così fan tutte.
In the early summer of 1791, as he began work on The Magic Flute, Mozart experienced fainting episodes and became alarmingly weak with fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and joint pain. During a walk with Constanze, he raised the possibility that he was being poisoned, a conversation Constanze subsequently reported – so it was Mozart himself who unwittingly introduced into mythology the suggestion that he was murdered. His work in this period concerned the rituals of death. After the premiere of The Magic Flute in September, he began serious work on a full-scale Requiem for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, and the coincidence of subject and his own ill health preyed on his increasingly paranoid mind. Mozart convinced himself that whoever commissioned the Requiem had also decided to murder him: slow-acting poison, he thought, had been timed to kill him the moment he finished his score. The commission had reached him through unconventional channels. Count Franz von Walsegg, who had taken to commissioning music to pass off as his own during private performances at his castle in Gloggnitz, needed a requiem to commemorate his recently deceased wife and made an inconspicuous approach via an anonymous intermediary. It’s true that Mozart answered a knock on his front door from a stranger, but it wasn’t the grim reaper who paid him a call and commissioned him to write his own requiem.
Mozart died on 5 December 1791, leaving the Requiem unfinished. His symptoms were consistent with a streptococcal throat infection, which triggered a swelling of his kidneys; poison has been overwhelmingly discredited as a cause of death. Eisen doesn’t even mention speculation about the possible involvement of Antonio Salieri, a far less talented composer seething with professional jealously, or of a hit man acting on behalf of Mozart’s masonic lodge, displeased that The Magic Flute played fast and loose with masonic symbolism: any mason would apparently hear the three fortissimo chords that open the overture as a subliminal reference to their ceremony of initiation, which is heralded by three knocks on the temple door. The one slice of mythology about which everyone is sure – that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave – can be dismissed more easily. He was in debt, but not excessively, and was given a perfectly dignified funeral in accordance with state law. Constanze scrambled to find a composer who could complete the sections of the Requiem that Mozart had left in sketch form, keen to bank the remainder of the commission fee. The Requiem, commissioned to be passed off as the work of another composer, was duly handed over to Count Walsegg, the cracks tactfully papered over by another composer, Mozart’s friend Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
Other composers – Schubert, Beethoven, Mahler for instance – come to us laden with personal mythology, but it hasn’t interfered with the perception and performance of their music to anything like the degree it has in Mozart’s case. The correlation drawn between a sanitised, ersatz image of the composer and the sound-fabric of his music has been deadly, creating a soft-focus, mawkish Mozart. To counter this, the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, in his clarinet concerto Accanto (1976), transformed the elegant melodic sweeps and underpinning accompaniments of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto into agitated motor rhythms; in a central mad scene Lachenmann’s clarinettist is instructed to yank his instrument apart and blow through the debris as fragments of a recording of Mozart’s original piece are scattered in the background. In 1991, the British composer Michael Finnissy wrote WAM, a trio for flute, bass clarinet and piano which he structured as a montage of Mozartian trills, melodic passagework and bass lines, rendered unpredictable in performance as the three musicians read from unsynchronised scores, making rhythmic regularity or co-ordination of the material impossible. Ideals of ‘Mozartian perfection’ have become a loaded value judgment, Finnissy’s piece tells us, and here are a bunch of Mozart’s notes for you to hear afresh without any ‘helpful’ musical or historical cushioning. Both Lachenmann and Finnissy reconnect us with a fundamental truth. Our collective obsession has nothing to do with Mozart being God’s chosen one or any of Leopold’s other hocus-pocus. Mozart’s work has endured because of the notes he wrote, and the combinations into which he put them, which have proven endlessly intriguing and tell us things about music we didn’t already know.