Born: January 27 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
Probably the greatest genius in Western musical history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, Jan. 27, 1756, the son of Leopold Mozart and his wife, Anna Maria Pertl. Leopold was a successful composer, violinist and assistant concertmaster at the Salzburg court.
Wolfgang began composing minuets at the age of 5 and symphonies at 9. When he was 6, he and his older sister, Maria Anna (who was nicknamed Nannerl), performed a series of concerts to Europe's courts and major cities. Both children played the keyboard, but Wolfgang became a violin virtuoso as well.
In 1762 the Mozart children played at court in Vienna; the Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Emperor Francis I, received them. From 1763 - 66, the Mozart children displayed their talents to audiences in Germany, Paris, at court in Versailles, and London (where Wolfgang wrote his first symphonies and began a friendship with Johann Christian Bach, whose became a great musical influence on Wolfgang). In Paris, the young Mozart published his first works, four sonatas for clavier with accompanying violin (1764). In 1768 he composed his first opera, La Finta Semplice, which had its premiere in Salzburg. In 1769-70, Leopold and Wolfgang undertook a tour through Italy. This first Italian trip culminated in a new opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, composed for Milan. In two further Italian journeys he wrote two more operas for Milan, Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772).
In 1772, Archbishop von Schrattenbach died, to be succeeded by Hieronymus von Colloredo. The latter, at first sympathetic to the Mozarts, later became irritated by Wolfgang's prolonged absences and stubborn ways. In 1772, von Colloredo retained Wolfgang as concertmaster at a token salary. In this capacity Mozart composed a large number of sacred and secular works. Wishing to secure a better position outside Salzburg, he obtained permission to undertake another journey in 1777. With his mother he traveled to France, where he composed the Paris Symphony (1778) but he was unable to find a permanent position. His mother died in Paris.
When he returned to Salzburg he was given the position of court organist (1779) and produced a splendid series of church works, including the famous Coronation Mass. He was commissioned to compose a new opera for Munich, Idomeneo (1781), that proved he was a consummate master of opera seria. Summoned by von Colloredo to Vienna in 1781 he was dismissed after a series of arguments.
Mozart's career in Vienna began promisingly, and he was soon commissioned to write The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782). His concerts were a great success, and the emperor, Joseph II, encouraged him, later engaging him as court composer. In 1782 the now-popular Mozart married Constanze Weber from Germany, much to his father's dismay. The young pair visited Salzburg in 1783; there, the Kyrie and Gloria of Mozart's great Mass in C Minor, composed in Vienna and never finished, were performed. Mozart's greatest success was Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) (1786), composed for the Vienna Opera. The great piano concertos and the string quartets dedicated to his dear friend Josef Haydn were also composed during this period.
Mozart's fame began to disappear after Figaro. The nobility and court grew increasingly nervous about his revolutionary ideas as seen in Figaro. He sank into debt and was assisted by a brother Freemason, Michael Puchberg (Mozart had joined the Masons in 1784 and remained an outspoken member until his death). His greatest operatic success after Figaro was Don Giovanni (1787), composed for Prague, where Mozart's art was especially appreciated. This was followed in 1790 by Cosi fan tutte, the third and final libretto provided by the Italian poet Lorenzo Da Ponte; and in 1791 by Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), produced by a suburban theater in Vienna. During this period of financial strain, Mozart composed his last three symphonies (E flat, G minor, and the Jupiter in C) in less than 7 weeks (summer 1788). These had been preceded by a great series of string quintets, including the two in C and in G minor (1787).
In 1791, Mozart was commissioned to write a requiem (unfinished). He was at the time quite ill--he had never known very good health--and imagined that the work was for himself, which it proved to be. His death, on Dec. 5, 1791, which gave rise to false rumors of poisoning, is thought to have resulted from rheumatic fever, a disease which he had suffered from repeatedly throught his life. After a cheap funeral at Saint Stephen's Cathedral, he was buried in an unmarked grave at the cemetery of Saint Marx, a Viennese suburb. Much has been made of this, but at that time such burial was legally required for all Viennese except those of noble or aristocratic birth.
Mozart excelled in every form in which he composed. His contemporaries found the restless ambivalence and complicated emotional content of his music difficult to understand. Accustomed to the light, superficial style of rococo music, his aristocratic audiences could not accept the music's complexity and depth. Yet, with Josef Haydn, Mozart perfected the grand forms of symphony, opera, string quartet, and concerto that marked the classical period in music. In his operas Mozart's uncanny psychological insight is unique in musical history. His music informed the work of the later Haydn and of the next generation of composers, most notably Beethoven. The brilliance of his work continued until the end, although darker themes of poignancy and isolation grew more marked in his last years, and his compositions continue to exert a particular fascination for musicians and music lovers.
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