[To be honest, I can’t even remember why this was written. All I have is the date, 2004. It seems to me like fun, though. Obviously it was intended for non-specialists.]

Mozart on the Road

More than two centuries after his death, a man who lived a short lifetime is one of the most popular musicians who ever lived. He was short, not very attractive, and fond of pranks. Some of his letters–and even some of his music–contain the kind of pee-pee and ca-ca jokes that editors still won’t print. He was a loyal friend but often had to borrow money because he was so poorly paid for his work. Today he even has a popular festival named after him. Nearly every opera company in the world performs his operas, while orchestras play his symphonies and soloists play his sonatas and quartets.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is still probably the greatest legend among musical prodigies. He had a very unusual childhood. At an age when most children are in kindergarten, Wolfgang was already on the road, spending most of his time traveling from one major city in Europe to another in the company of his father. Through most of his childhood, Wolfgang continued these travels, rarely spending more than a few months at home in Salzburg, where he had been born in 1756. It was an amazing start to one of the greatest careers in music.

Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, was an excellent violinist and a talented composer whose music is still sometimes performed, although not as often as his son’s. Leopold wrote an instruction book for playing the violin which is still used by students. Apparently he had a good general education also, because he was his children’s only teacher, guiding them in studies not only of music but also of several languages, including English, and other academic subjects.

Leopold recorded that his son Wolfgang began to play the harpsichord when he was three. Just before his fifth birthday, Wolfgang learned his first music, on the harpsichord; it took him half an hour, as Leopold proudly recorded in his journal. Leopold helped write down Wolfgang’s first composition in 1761, when the boy was only five years old. We can still hear this piece, a minuet, and although it is simple music, it is well written and includes a few individual turns of melody and harmony.

The following year, Wolfgang made his first prodigy tour, leaving his home in Salzburg with his father for appearances in Vienna and other cities. There is a legend that, when Mozart performed in Vienna before the Empress Theresa, he slipped and fell. The Empress’s daughter, Marie Antoinette, who was two months older than Wolfgang, helped him up, and Wolfgang immediately asked her if she would marry him. If she had, she would have led a life of poverty but she would also have escaped being executed during the French Revolution.

In Frankfurt, a newspaper ad gave an idea of the young musician’s range of abilities:

“He will play a concerto for the violin, and will accompany symphonies on the harpsichord, the keyboard being covered with a cloth, with as much facility as if he could see the keys. He will instantly name all the notes played at a distance, whether singly or in chords on any instrument. He will finally improvise on the harpsichord and the organ, as long as may be desired and in any key.” This was, remember, a boy of six.

The famous German poet Goethe attended Wolfgang’s performance. Goethe was only 14 himself. Many years later he wrote to a friend, “I see it as if I were still there, the little man with his child’s sword and his curly hair. A rare phenomenon like that of Mozart remains a truly inexplicable thing.”

When Wolfgang was seven, the family undertook a grand tour. Along with his older sister Nannerl, who was also a gifted musician, Wolfgang performed in at least 20 cities, staying in Paris for five months. This was at a time when the quickest and safest form of travel was horse-drawn stagecoach along dirt roads, extremely slow and uncomfortable by our standards. A good day’s travel then was equal to what we cover comfortably by car in an hour or two, or by airplane in a few minutes. While in Paris, Wolfgang got his serious career as a composer started by writing five sonatas for violin and harpsichord, which were published soon afterwards.

The next year the Mozarts traveled to London, where they stayed for more than a year, and when young Wolfgang wrote his first symphony. At eight, Wolfgang was able to come up with tunes, to develop them in the form of a symphony, and to think of and write out all the parts for a small orchestra. Many adult professional composers today can’t do all of those things.

The travels continued through most of Wolfgang’s childhood. By the time he was fourteen, in 1770, he had visited most of the major cities of Europe, often for extended stays, with his father accompanying him, and sometimes his mother and sister also. Everywhere he went he was acclaimed a miraculous child. He continued to write music of nearly every known type: sonatas, symphonies, concertos, songs, operas (short and full-length), and many dances. Mozart loved to dance, and throughout his life he wrote some of his music for dance halls.

While learning his trade as a composer and musician through his own efforts and lessons from his father, Wolfgang and Nannerl worked in a wide variety of job situations–some of them less rewarding than others. During one month in London, the children were on display from noon to three every day in a hotel salon. Curious spectators paid an admission fee to Leopold, and the children would then perform–like a Live Prodigy Jukebox. They would play music they liked (mostly composed by Wolfgang), or sight-read any keyboard music the patron brought along, or even play with the keys covered by a handkerchief.

Sometimes Wolfgang found himself in better situations, though. In one famous incident, when he was six, he performed in Vienna for the Austrian royal family. After he played, Wolfgang jumped into the lap of Empress Maria Theresa, and, as Leopold wrote home, “put his arms round her neck and kissed her heartily.” That was the way these travels went–sometimes well-rewarded performances for royalty, sometimes poorly paid engagements for anyone with the price of admission.

Unfortunately, Leopold’s greatest hope for Wolfgang never came to pass. He was hoping that some rich nobleman, member of royalty, or church leader would give Wolfgang a well-paid job as court or church composer and director of its musical establishment. That was the way most successful composers made their living. For some reason Wolfgang never achieved this goal, and he had to struggle to make enough money to support his family throughout his adult life.

A tour of Italy, beginning in 1769, started very well. In Mantua the local orchestra performed some of Wolfgang’s compositions. In Milan, Wolfgang was commissioned to write an opera–which, with his typical professionalism, he delivered on schedule. The famous composer Martini, who lived in Bologna, offered Wolfgang lessons in counterpoint, which were accepted gladly.

But Wolfgang’s uncommon intelligence almost got him into serious trouble when he and his father arrived in Rome. Wolfgang was now 14 years old. They arrived on April 11, in time for Easter, and went to St. Peter’s to hear the famous Miserere by Allegri sung at the Sistine Chapel.

Leopold wrote about the incident in a letter to his wife on April 14, 1770:

“You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers in the chapel are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it. To copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down. As it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands, so that we shall not incur the censure of the Church.”

This Miserere was a beautiful piece for chorus by the 17th century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. It was so prized at the Vatican that nobody was allowed to have a copy of the music, or even a part of it, without permission of the Pope. It was performed only at the Vatican, by its chorus, and only during Holy Week. The piece is very complex in texture, using a double chorus, double orchestra, and organ, all with separate parts. Its beauty was enhanced by a kind of improvised counterpoint the chorus was trained to sing. It was not written in Allegri’s original score. Wolfgang had written the entire score down as soon as he arrived at his hotel. At a second performance on Good Friday, Wolfgang sneaked the score into the Sistine Chapel to check his memory and make a few minor corrections.

Leopold was right. By papal decree, it was forbidden to copy or reproduce the music under threat of excommunication. Being expelled from the Catholic Church would have been a serious problem for Wolfgang, who often wrote music for the Church. And with his secular authority at the Vatican, the Pope could have sent someone who copied Allegri’s music to prison.

But after hearing the piece performed just once, Wolfgang was able to copy out the entire work from memory, improvisations and all.

This was an amazing feat. Imagine, for example, watching a television program once, and then writing it out from memory–not only the spoken dialogue, but also the color and style of the costumes for every character in the show (even people seen only in the background), the sounds of the voices, the camera movement, and every detail of the sets. That’s how complex this piece of music was. And Wolfgang did it after only one hearing. He went back to the Vatican so he could listen to the music again, but only to check his work.

Word of this amazing feat spread around Rome quickly. Before the Mozarts could leave, Wolfgang and his father were summoned to an audience with Pope Clemens XIV. There is no exact record of this meeting, but we do know its results. The Pope questioned Wolfgang about his memory, and asked for proof that he was able to reproduce music he had heard. He was not convinced that the boy genius had done this copying on his own and suspected that some treachery was involved.

Apparently Wolfgang gave a satisfactory demonstration. Further, his personality and abilities so pleased the Pope that instead of punishing Wolfgang, Clemens XIV gave him a gift and let him go free. A few months later he gave Wolfgang a special award, the Cross of the Order of the Golden Spur.

The remainder of Wolfgang’s story is not always a happy one. After outlasting his appeal as a child prodigy, Wolfgang became a professional musician who had to compete with other adults. In his native Salzburg, he was poorly paid and treated with disrespect by his employer, and he eventually left in his early twenties to settle in Vienna. He continued to tour Europe, but he found that his music was not as popular as that of other composers.

Today, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most-loved of all classical composers, we can explain this situation easily. His music was just too good for most audiences of his time. In Paris, he was considered too difficult, and he had to write simpler music while writing letters home deploring the taste of the Parisians. Even at home in Vienna, he gradually lost much of his audience by writing music that was too serious for the frivolous taste of most concert-goers. Sometimes he would advertise concerts of his new music in Vienna but would fail to sell enough tickets to make them profitable. If Mozart had lived longer, he might well have found a good home in the city of Prague, where his some of his last operas and symphonies were very popular. He was very well received when he travelled there. But he never had the chance to establish himself in Prague.

When Mozart died, before his 37th birthday, the musicians and music lovers who appreciated his music were shocked and saddened. There were even rumors that a less important composer named Salieri had been jealous of Mozart and had poisoned him. Poor Salieri went to his grave still protesting his innocence. (Today we think Mozart died of a kidney disease.) His funeral was not well-attended, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. Some writers thought these events were evidence of a conspiracy. But they weren’t. Mozart belonged to the Masonic Lodge, whose members did not believe in funerals or memorials.

Mozart never did get a job that would pay well enough to make him independent and allow him to write whatever he wanted. Almost every piece he composed was written because someone was going to pay him for it, but the pay was seldom very good. He didn’t have a miserable life by any means. He made a happy marriage and had many friends. He often enjoyed his work. We can see that in the original manuscripts of his four Horn Concertos, written for a horn-playing friend who was also a cheese merchant. Mozart wrote the music with several colors of ink and scribbled insults to his friend in the margins. He also loved his collaborations with writers and performers when creating his wonderful operas, some of which are still very popular today.

If Mozart had known he was only going to live 36 years, he would probably have lived them the same way he actually did. He made very good use of his time, at least from our viewpoint. He wrote more than six hundred pieces of music, ranging from small songs to large symphonies and operas, and most of them are still performed today for our enjoyment. He was truly an amazing person, as his contemporaries could tell when he was still a small boy.

For those who don’t know Mozart’s music at all, a good way to start is with the lively overture to his comic opera The Marriage of Figaro. In just a few minutes we can hear the ingenuity and sparkling good spirits that music lovers still appreciate in his music. For a slightly larger dose of Mozart, try his famous Serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”). It has four short movements, ranging in mood from the pleasant bounciness of the opening to the thoughtful lyricism of the slow movement to the spirited hijinks of the finale.

And when you’re ready for Mozart at his greatest, try two consecutive Piano Concertos. No. 20, in the key of D Minor, has so much tragedy and drama in it that the audiences in Vienna recoiled in horror from the music. It wasn’t pleasant enough for them, but today listeners find it very intense and moving. Immediately afterwards, Mozart wrote the Concerto No. 21, in the key of C Major, as gracious and beautiful a piece of music as anyone ever wrote. It’s sure to put a smile on your face.

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