As I write this article I am listening to 'Exsultate Jubilate' one of Mozart's most joyful works, composed when he was just sixteen years of age. Its rousing introduction always puts me into a lively mood, and I usually find myself standing to join in when it reaches the final triumphant 'Allelujah'. The work is a display of his sparkling brilliance, never flagging, and ending with a jubilant flourish in as lively a manner as it begins.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756 and became a child prodigy at an incredibly early age.
His father Leopold Mozart was an accomplished musician, and his sister Maria Anna, born in 1751, had proved to inherit the musical talent of her father. By the time of her brother’s arrival she was already an accomplished harpsichordist. But her gifts were nothing compared to those rapidly displayed by her brother.
Almost as soon as he could reach the keyboards he was picking out tunes. The young Mozart would listen carefully to his sister’s lesson, and as soon as it was over would sit at the keyboard and imitate perfectly the pieces he had just heard.
With tuition from his father he was soon playing the violin with the proficiency of children three times his age. By the time he was six he was composing minuets and other short pieces. The extraordinary thing was the innate sense of structure and balance that these pieces displayed. They were not childish doodling. He wrote his first symphony at nine years of age, and his first opera at twelve.
Music historians differ on whether Leopold Mozart nurtured his son’s genius, or exploited it. The truth is probably a mixture of both. He took his two child prodigies on their first tour of Europe in January 1762, when Wolfgang had just turned six.
Everywhere they went the audiences loved them. Wolfgang played the violin and the keyboard, and delighted everyone by playing at sight very complicated music by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, and Handel.
He was now embarked on a career as a professional musician and accompanied his father and sister to Munich, and then on to Vienna. They found the Austrian capital already buzzing with the news of the amazing Mozart children.
In 1769 Leopold again decided to take Wolfgang on tour, but this time to Italy, the home of opera. It was a great success, and Mozart continued touring off and on with his father until 1776, by which time he had written masses of string quartets, operas, symphonies, piano music, concertos, and a variety of other music.
Eventually however Leopold had to return to his role as court musician in Salzburg and encouraged his son to accept a similar position. But Wolfgang had other ideas. He was not happy with the lack of musical opportunities in Salzburg, and much against his father’s wishes, he quit and set off for Vienna in 1777. There he met Joseph Haydn who greatly admired his work, and the two became firm friends.
Whilst touring in Mannheim he encountered, and made friends with the Weber family who had two attractive daughters, Aloysia and Constanze. He fell in love with Aloysia, but unfortunately for him she ran off with an actor. Some years later he met the Webber’s again and this time fell in love with Constanze.
In 1782 they married and were extremely happy until financial worries, and Wolfgang’s health began to be a problem. The audiences who had feted him as a child had become indifferent. Burning the candle at both ends he would often work late into the night with little or no sleep. But he also loved to mix with friends and enjoy himself, and both he and his wife were careless with money. When he died in 1791 after a fit of delirium at the tragically early age of 35, one of the greatest composers of all time was buried in a paupers grave.
The notion that he might have been poisoned either by a jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer who ruled the roost in Vienna in Mozart’s time, or as a result of a Masonic conspiracy, still has its advocates.
As a member of the secret brotherhood of Freemasons, he was able to make good use of his knowledge of their arcane rites in ‘The Magic Flute’. The overture opens with grand chords from the brass instruments which parodies persons in high places, and matters of great import. While the lively action which follows hints of human comedy mixed with an air of mystery, and things unspoken.
This opera was an instant critical success when it opened in 1791, yet it failed to improve the fortunes of the impoverished composer
But Mozart had been a prolific writer who, in his short life, had composed over 600 works. And all the ideas, melodies, rhythms and instrumentation would be carefully worked out in his head well before he transferred them to paper, the only part of his work he found tedious. Most of his greatest music was composed during the last ten years of his life, that is between the ages of 25 and 35.
His work belongs to the Classical period which came about in the latter half of the 18th century. It was a time of order, simplicity, and refinement, and in marked contrast to the extravagant Baroque era that went before it.
Perhaps the most well known of his operas is ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, a story of love and intrigue, as well as of comedy and sadness. It contains some of his most glorious music, as it also revolutionised the whole form and style of opera.
There is a long history in opera of women, both sopranos and contraltos, appearing in male roles. The traditional Italian name for this is ‘travesti’, or ‘trouser’ roles. And in this respect Cherubino, the love sick page boy in ‘The Marriage of Figaro, is probably the most famous of all ‘travesti’ roles
Mozart was probably the most comprehensively gifted musician who has ever lived. He could play both the violin and viola to soloist standard, and while there have been other prodigies, none have been able to reach Mozart’s ability to combine a dazzling musical imagination with a total mastery of style and form, and matchless beauty of expression.