The Classical Period

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born: Salzburg, January 27, 1756

Died: Vienna, December 5, 1791

 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as young boy with family

At the age of four he could learn a piece of music in half an hour. At five he was playing the clavier incredibly well. At six he began composing, writing his first symphonies at the age of eight. He was constantly traveling all over Europe with his father, Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), a violinist, minor composer and Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The musical feats and tricks of young Wolfgang were exhibited to the courts (beginning in Munich in 1762), to musical academicians, and to the public. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, the young Mozart spent half of his time on tour. During these tours, Mozart heard, absorbed, and learned various European musical idioms, eventually crystallizing his own mature style.

Fully expecting to find an ideal post outside his sleepy home town of Salzburg and the detested archiepiscopal court, in 1777 Wolfgang went on a tour with his mother to Munich, Mannheim, and Paris. It was in Paris that his mother died suddenly in July, 1778. With no prospects of a job, Mozart dejectedly returned to Salzburg in 1779 and became court organist to the Archbishop. Mozart finally achieved an unceremonious dismissal from the archiepiscopal court in 1781, and thereafter became one of the first musicians in history to embark upon a free-lance career, without benefit of church, court, or a rich patron. Mozart moved to Vienna where he lived for a time with the Webers, a family he had met in 1777. He eventually married Constanze Weber in August of1782, against the wishes and strict orders of his father. Then for a time, things began to look bright for the young composer. Beginning in 1782 with the Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Mozart began turning out one masterpiece after another in every form and genre.

portrait of Mozart as young man

Mozart is probably the only composer in history to have written undisputed masterworks in virtually every musical genre of his age. His serenades, divertimenti and dances, written on request for the entertainment and outdoor parties of the nobility, have become synonomous with the Classical "age of elegance," and are perhaps best exemplified by the well-known Serenade in G major, which the composer called Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A little night music).

In Vienna, Mozart became a regular at the court of Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), where he wrote much of his greatest music. A sampling of Mozart's mature works comprise a virtual honor roll of musical masterpieces: the last ten string quartets, the string quintets, and the Quintet for clarinet and strings; the Mass in C minor and the unfinished Requiem; the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments, the Clarinet concerto, the late piano concertos, and the last six symphonies. Mozart's more than twenty piano concertos remain models of the classic concerto form, developed by him over time into works of symphonic breadth and scope. The concertos often begin with an elaborate sonata form first movement, followed by a tender and melodious second movement, and usually conclude with a brisk, engaging rondo, as in the Piano Concerto no. 22 in E-flat. In his last three symphonies, the second of which is the great Symphony no. 40 in G minor, Mozart infused this form with a passion and expressiveness unheard of in symphonic writing until the advent of Beethoven.

portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Of Mozart's operas, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), composed for the Viennese court in 1786, is the earliest opera still found in the repertoire of virtually all of today's opera houses. Through his dramatic and musical genius, Mozart transformed such operatic comedies and characters into living, breathing dramas peopled with real human beings. He found a kindred spirit in this regard at the Viennese court in the person of Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838), who supplied Mozart with the librettos of his three Italian operatic masterpieces. Figaro was followed in 1787 by Don Giovanni (Don Juan), written for Prague, where Figaro had been an overwhelming success. The intensity of Mozart's music in the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, in which the title character is dragged down to hell, unrepentant, at the hands of an avenging spirit, might even be said to have helped usher in the Romantic era. Having scaled the heights of Italian opera buffa, Mozart turned again to the German Singspiel in the final year of his life. Again he produced yet another masterpiece, this time with the unconventional combination of low comedy and high ideals. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) tells of a young prince who successfully endures the trials put to him by a fraternal priesthood in a search for truth and love, while the everyman character of Papageno in his song Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja yearns for the earthly pleasures of wine, food, and female companionship.

During his years in Vienna, Mozart also made the acquaintance of composer Franz Joseph Haydn. The two became close friends and the older composer's music had a profound influence on Mozart. Between 1782 and 1785, Mozart composed a series of six string quartets which he dedicated to Haydn. Upon playing through some of them together, Haydn said to Mozart's father, who was present, "Before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name."

Yet through his mismanagement of money (and as a successful composer of operas and a reknowned piano virtuoso, he made a great deal), and the documented incidences of his tactless, impulsive, and at times childish behavior in an era of powdered wigs and courtly manners, Mozart seemed to find it difficult to make a successful living. By 1790 he was writing letters to friends, describing himself and his family (he and Constanze had six children, only two of which survived) in desperate circumstances and begging for money. He was also by this time seriously ill, and had been intermittently for some time, with what was most likely disease of the kidneys. With the success of The Magic Flute and a newly granted yearly stipend, Mozart was just beginning to become financially stable when his illness brought an end to his life and career at the age of thirty-six. He was buried, like most Viennese in those days by the decree of Emperor Joseph, in a common grave, the exact location of which remains unknown.

The influence of Mozart on the composers that followed cannot be emphasized too strongly. He was idolized by such late nineteenth century composers as Richard Wagner and Peter Tchaikovsky; and his music came to influence the neo-classical compositions of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev in the twentieth century.




Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane