Mozart, the Incomparable Musical Genius

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was among the most prolific, versatile, and popular composers of all time.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was among the most prolific, versatile, and popular composers of all time.

by Ray Setterfield

December 5, 1791 — Known today simply as Mozart, one of the greatest musical talents the world has ever known died mysteriously on this day at the tender age of 35. Baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, he was known affectionately by his wife and friends as "Wolfie".

Today he is commonly referred to formally as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the middle name inspiring the stage play and Oscar-winning 1984 film Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce as the musical genius. Amadeus is the Latin form of Theophilus – the name of Mozart's godfather.

Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756, by the age of four Mozart had learnt to play a clavier – a stringed instrument that had a keyboard. By the age of five he was playing the harpsichord and violin as well as any professional and he would entertain people with his talents.

By the age of six he had studied and admired the works of Bach, Handel and Haydn and began to write his own compositions.

His father Leopold, a minor composer and musician, was aware that his son, who could write music before he could write words, was a rare musical genius and took him on a number of European tours to perform as a child prodigy, often in front of royalty.

At the age of 12 he composed his first great mass: Missa Brevis in G major and he wrote his first opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, in 1770 when he was only 14 years old.

At that age he was also responsible for releasing to the world one of the most sublime pieces of choral music ever written. Not by himself but by Italian priest Gregorio Allegri whose Miserere is a setting for Psalm 51. It was composed probably during the 1630s for use in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel during matins as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week.

The Vatican wanted to preserve the music’s reputation for mystery and inaccessibility so transcribing it was forbidden and it was performed only at those particular services. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication.

Mozart visited the Vatican with his father and after hearing Miserere performed just once he returned to his lodgings and wrote the entire choral composition, consisting of five voice parts, out from memory, perfectly.

During his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Mozart was later summoned to Rome, but instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered him with praise for his feat of musical genius and the ban was lifted.

From the age of ten to seventeen, Mozart's reputation as a composer grew and he went on to earn a lot of money from his successful operas. But his spending was extravagant and he often faced financial difficulties.

On one of his journeys in 1777 he fell in love with Aloysia Weber who was 16 and studying singing. Mozart wanted to take her to Italy to make her famous, but his strict father put a stop to such nonsense.

Five years later Mozart married Constanze Weber, one of Aloysia's three sisters. They were to have six children, but four died in childhood. Mozart’s father did not approve of the marriage but Constanze was a loving wife though, like Mozart, she was hopeless with money and they were often poor.

There are several stories about Mozart’s final illness and death, and it is not easy to be sure what happened. While working on one of his best works, The Magic Flute opera, he was asked by a stranger to compose a requiem (a mass for the dead) and told to write it in secret.

The mysterious stranger was in fact an employee of Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, a disreputable count who was known to commission works from admired composers, then pass them off as his own. The count intended the requiem to be a memorial to his young wife who had died a few months earlier.

Years later Constanze claimed that Mozart became convinced he had been poisoned and was writing the requiem for himself. In any event, he died at his home in Vienna before finishing it.

Stories persisted of Mozart being unceremoniously dumped into an unmarked pauper's grave on a grey day as snow fell. But the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians sets the record straight:

"Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December. If, as later reports say, no mourners attended, that too is consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time. The tale of a storm and snow is false; the day was calm and mild."

The expression "common grave" refers to neither a communal grave nor a pauper's grave, but to an individual grave for a member of the common people – not an aristocrat. A wooden marker – obviously long lost – was used to identify the grave.

The cause of Mozart's death cannot be known with certainty. The official record has it as "severe miliary fever", but over the years nearly 120 causes of death have been put forward including acute rheumatic fever, streptococcal infection, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment.

However he died, the world must be grateful that he lived. Mozart composed over 600 works, including some of the most famous and loved pieces of symphonic, chamber, operatic, and choral music.

He was a master of every type of music he wrote. He was a child star, one of the greatest pianists of his generation, and the most well known composer in Europe by the age of 20. He wrote half the number of total symphonies he would create between the ages of 8 and 19. He was also, it seems, a bit of a philosopher, writing down these words:

"I cannot write poetically, for I am no poet. I cannot make fine artistic phrases that cast light and shadow, for I am no painter. I can neither by signs nor by pantomime express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can by tones . . . for I am a musician."

Published: November 7, 2018

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