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A Prodigy of Nature’

Leopold Mozart’s description of his eight-year-old son might well have added that the boy was also a prodigy of Leopold himself, whose expert tutelage and unrelenting ambition had cultivated and exploited the child’s gifts. Leopold’s teaching and guidance were a sine qua non, for without the father’s long and omniscient supervision, the son would doubtless have become a different composer from the one whom the world adulates. But this does not imply that a Leopold-father or any kind and amount of education can explain the unfathomable miracle of Mozart.

The father-son relationship determined the development of Mozart’s character both in and out of music. Leopold was a composer, a violinist, and the author of a Violinschule still used as a treatise on performance practice of his time.1 For a man holding a humble post in a parochial orchestra, he was remarkable in his broad culture, his accomplishments as a writer, and his worldly wisdom—displaying, in his dealings with royalty, some of the skills of a diplomat. With such abilities, combined with his evident frustrations, he was understandably dazzled by his children and made their careers the main purpose of his life. After discovering that Wolfgang’s gifts were greater than the boy’s older sister’s, Leopold single-mindedly dedicated himself to his son, and never willingly let go. The father paraded the youth all over Europe like a performing animal, yet when Wolfgang finally and belatedly emancipated himself, he failed to satisfy Leopold’s aspirations, becoming an immortal composer but not succeeding in obtaining a prestigious and secure position.

Mozart’s youth was spent in concert tours, playing (harpsichord, organ, violin), composing, waiting attendance on patrons. As is evident in an excerpt from one of Leopold’s letters2 written at the start of a three-and-a-half-year journey, the life was hard:

We arrived in Munich on Sunday evening and on Monday…drove to Nymphenburg. Prince Z.…saw us from the castle as we were walking in the garden…. He asked whether the Elector knew that we were here [and] sent off a courtier…. Meanwhile we were to walk in the garden and wait for the reply…. A footman bade us appear at a concert at eight o’clock. It was then four o’clock. We walked…but were obliged by sudden rain to take shelter…. [The seven-year-old] Woferl was a great success. We did not get home until a quarter past eleven, when we had supper and got to bed late. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings we visited Duke Clemens…. [June 21, 1763]

Leopold’s strategy on arriving in a city was to advertise the Wunderkind and his sister, call upon prominent musicians, and either give a concert at his own expense or try to wangle an invitation for the children to play at court—with whatever form of remuneration this might bring. In Paris, for example, the daughter received a “heavy toothpick case of solid gold,” exactly the thing to delight the heart of a little girl of eleven. But then, few donors seem to have understood that a cash payment would have been more welcome. Wolfgang wrote:

Just as I had expected, I received no money but a fine gold watch…. I now have five watches and am therefore seriously thinking of having an additional watch pocket sewn on each leg of my trousers. Then when I visit some great lord…I shall wear two watches…; so that it will not occur to him to present me with another one. [Mannheim, November 13, 1777]

The ill effects of such a life were far-reaching, but most immediately apparent on Mozart’s health. With days spent in stagecoaches and nights in inns, and with all of the irregularities of a nomadic life, he was undoubtedly more often sick than he would have been at home. In letter after letter Leopold refers not only to his son’s colds, fevers, and undiagnosed complaints, but also to near-fatal bouts with smallpox and scarlet fever. Most parents today would regard this price of “fame and fortune” as too high, and though Leopold should not be judged by modern standards of child-rearing, his motives, pecuniary and otherwise, were undeniably selfish. Without the wonder child, the father would never have been able to set foot in the palaces of the nobility, or to boast about it to the burghers back home.

Moreover, Leopold was the one possessed with a Wanderlust; Wolfgang, at least in his letters, never so much as commented on the scenery or mentioned such extraordinary sights as those of Venice. Music was the boy’s passion, and he could have studied and composed at least as well in Salzburg, while leading a more normal life. True, his native city had no opera house, and his operatic experience was acquired during his travels, especially in Italy. But he could have learned as much from a single tour as from several: it is a mistaken notion that his lengthy immersion in the European musical scene gave him an unmixed advantage. What he chiefly learned from this exposure was the à la mode, and in that he was soon a master without peer.

Mozart naturally became aware of his superiority, too, and began to express contemptuous opinions of fellow musicians. Thus he reports on a performance by the Abbé Vogler:

It is much easier to play a thing quickly than slowly: in certain passages you can leave out a few notes without anyone’s noticing it. [January 17, 1778]

Of an evening at the opera in Mantua, Mozart wrote:

The prima donna…cannot open her mouth…. The seconda donna looks like a grenadier and has a powerful voice too, and, I must say does not sing badly seeing that she’s acting for the first time. [January 26, 1770]

No less outspoken about the morals and manners of dignitaries of State and Church, the fourteen-year-old drew a picture of a Dominican monk:

I have had the honor of lunching with this saint who drank a whole decanter and finished up with a full glass of strong wine, two large slices of melon, some peaches, pears, five cups of coffee, a whole plate of cloves, two full saucers of milk and lemon. He may be following a diet, but I do not think so since he also takes snacks during the afternoon. [Bologna, August 21, 1770]

The boy’s letters sparkle with such anecdotes, many of them recounted in dialogue form, evincing his affinity for drama. An occasional postscript, such as the one to his sister from Rome saying that he has “not yet seen any spiders or scorpions,” both betrays his actual age and brings him closer as a human being—as does the mention toward the end of his life of his fondness for billiards. His intelligence shows in his verbal facility: in parody, for instance in the invention of conundrums and of names, and in linguistic fluency, for at the Vatican he acted as his father’s translator.

Mozart eventually became so conditioned to his uprooted existence that it is questionable whether he could have tolerated a settled one, even if it had been offered to him; throughout his life he continued to move, if only from one Vienna residence to another. In an era when musicians depended for their livelihood on church or court appointments, Mozart worked on a free-lance basis, although persisting in the belief that a permanent job was what he wanted above all else, and that this would solve his many problems. After quitting the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, and thereby, at long last, rebelling against his father, Mozart had to depend on poorly paying pupils, miniscule commissions, and financially risky concert and theatrical ventures for an always fickle public. Leopold’s business acumen had not been transmitted to his son, and it would be difficult to conceive of anyone less prepared for such a modus vivendi.

The emotional damage resulting from Mozart’s peripatetic early life was even further reaching. He had not had much of a childhood, already being at the age of five a precocious and serious young man. His growth was partly inverse, in fact, and in his twenties and thirties he exhibited such symptoms of immaturity as impulsiveness and addiction to juvenile jokes. Forced into premature adulthood in some respects, in others he was not allowed to grow up at all, for he had never been given enough freedom to learn firsthand. Worse yet, the frequent separations from his mother, and her overshadowing by her husband, must have hurt him and may account for his later failures with women, as well as for the expressions of adolescent scatological sexuality in his letters—until recently considered unfit to publish except in expurgated form.

Above all, the fact that he was deprived of maternal love would help to explain his disastrous marriage to the totally unsuitable Constanze Weber. Certain feminine types in his operas—the Countess in Figaro, for instance—are surely in some measure the idealized fantasy creations of a boy who had longed for greater closeness with his mother. Yet though he must have grieved deeply when she died (during a trip with him in Paris), his letters about this are curiously empty of feeling, and the same is true of his remarks to his sister after the death of their father. Nor, evidently, was Mozart plunged into inconsolable despair after the deaths of four of his six children. Like his father, he was a fatalist, whether Deistic or some other kind; the philosophy of the Mozart family attributed almost every event to “God’s Will.”

Surprisingly, the consequences of the composer’s abnormal childhood have never been analyzed in relation to the character and development of his music, and little notice has been given to the effect of the father’s domination for almost two decades, which could not help but stifle the son’s artistic independence—as well as every other kind. During his entire formative period Mozart was indoctrinated with the necessity of mastering not only the traditional but also the au courant. At the time, he criticized the caliber of both, but his aim was to improve the forms of music rather than to reconstruct them or to redirect their course.

He accepted much of the world that he inherited, in other words, and never deliberately set out to be “original,” a quality that he does not seem to have valued. This statement requires explication, of course, since Mozart so revitalized each musical genre to which he turned his genius that he made it new. Furthermore, he was always exploring new possibilities—in combining instruments, for example, in using poly-rhythms (the Oboe Quartet), in employing scordatura, etc., etc. Finally, too, he could not help being original, and though repeating the same cadence thousands of times and with the same limited materials (A, B, and C, so to speak), he always introduced variants.

All of this is only to say that originality is possible within a traditional frame as well as in the making of a new one. In drawing this distinction it may be useful to compare Mozart and Beethoven, while disregarding the factor of radical political and social changes during the period between the two masters. To some extent, therefore, Mozart seems to have been born to his identity, while Beethoven had to forge his. And at a time of life when Mozart was subject to his father’s dictation and had already been much exposed to cosmopolitan musical environments, Beethoven was primarily self-taught and his musical experience was provincial. Some have argued that Mozart was also trained to supply music according to specifications and on demand, while Beethoven imposed his creations on the world. But this was not always the case, and temperaments must be taken into consideration. Whereas Mozart was comparatively conciliatory (if a singer complained of a difficulty, he would remove it), Beethoven never accommodated himself to anyone (and would remove the singer). In such ways the traditionalist might be distinguished from the revolutionary—but we should always bear in mind that neither term implies a value judgment.

The paradox of Mozart is that music history would not be greatly different if he had never existed—though obviously music itself would be immeasurably poorer. He has been called the founder of German opera, but Weber would have developed that without him, even if from inferior roots; and despite the influence of Figaro, Italian opera had its own sources. In instrumental music, Haydn provided Beethoven with the indispensable examples in sonata and symphony. But if the line of succession leads around, rather than through, Mozart, the reason is that his kind of perfection could be neither improved upon nor repeated.

The greatest challenge of Mozart’s life came from his encounter, in the spring of 1782, with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which was strong enough to turn Mozart for a time from his own so-called style galant. But today’s audience, accustomed to hearing polyphonic and homophonic music side by side, cannot easily grasp the impact of Bach on Mozart, especially as first experienced in the overpowering form of The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of the Fugue. Mozart’s friend Baron van Swieten had received these masterworks in Berlin from Frederick the Great himself, and every Sunday in the months following, a few musicians met at van Swieten’s Vienna home to study and perform them. Mozart transcribed some pieces from the Clavier, no doubt in order to become even more familiar with the music through the additional perspective of string instruments.

Soon Mozart was composing his own fugues, and, for the first time in his life, coming upon problems that he could not solve. The manuscript of the unfinished keyboard Fugue K. 401,3 with its surprising number of corrections—surprising for Mozart—and the ten unfinished fugues from the same year (1782) reveal the difficulties that he was having. Moreover, some of the fugues that he was able to complete, such as the second movement of the Violin and Piano Sonata K. 402 and the Gloria in the C minor Mass, belong to unfinished works, indicating that he sacrificed the totality of some of his conceptions because of his preoccupation with fugue-writing. Mozart scholars generally describe the fugue in the Sonata as Handelian4 though the stretti are in the manner of Bach. But no matter, since the piece is little more than an exercise and hardly seems to have been written for performance, the violin part merely fulfilling contrapuntal requirements, without exhibiting much instrumental personality. Also, if the eighths at the beginning are played at a tempo commodo, the sixteenths at the end prove to be too fast.

Yet it should not be inferred that Leopold Mozart had neglected to instruct his son in canon and fugue, even though these forms were out of fashion and already had been while Bach was composing them. The technique of counterpoint that Mozart had learned at the age of fourteen was not only remote from Bach, however, but was also dead, an ecclesiastical anachronism practiced only by such pedants as Padre Martini, who became Mozart’s teacher in Bologna during the summer of 1770. While in that city, the Padre’s illustrious pupil applied for admission to the Accademia Filarmonica and was required by his examiners to complete a composition by adding three contrapuntal voices above a given bass. But Mozart made mistakes and had to recopy the piece after the Padre had corrected it. It was then presented to the jury, and Mozart was “passed,” though probably only because of his fame, the shrewd Italians taking no chances on being ridiculed by history. Leopold misrepresents the incident (making his readers wonder about possible exaggerations in other cases as well), but the explanation would seem to be that Mozart was simply bored by the whole episode. Certainly if he had had any acquaintance with Bach and had been asked to write a fugal elaboration on one of his subjects, the outcome would have been very different.

Though Mozart’s contrapuntal skill had matured in the interim years—he mentions improvising three-voice fugues—and though he prided himself on being a “learned” composer (i.e., in polyphonic art), to construct a fugue in the shadow of the Well-Tempered Clavier was a task of a larger order, and the struggle to assimilate Bach’s fugue style lasted for over a year.5 Only once, in the Qui tollis from the C minor Mass—conspicuously not a fugue—does Mozart approach Bach on his own ground and achieve and sustain a similar intensity in a comparably lofty structure. The monumentality is in fact unlike anything else in Mozart’s music, which generally provides relief for the in-between moments of life.

The dramatic aura of the Qui tollis is its most familiarly Mozartian feature, and the ending (which recalls the last measures of the introduction of the yet-to-be composed “Prague” Symphony) would alone identify the music as written by the creator of Don Giovanni. Dramatic, too, are the antiphonal choruses, the sudden changes in dynamics, the ostinato accompaniment (inspired by the flagellating rhythm of “Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs” in Messiah?), and the separation of the chorus and orchestra (respectively representing Christ and the goading soldiers?). And though the idea of syncopated choruses is at least as old as Monteverdi’s Nisi Dominus, the use of it here is astonishing. The chromatic harmony, unprepared dissonances, cross relations, deceptive cadences, and the like are no less amazing. As for the remaining movements of the Mass,6 the best of them are no more than examples of Mozart’s usual genius. He knew what he had done and that it could not be equalled.

Mozart’s abundance makes virtually impossible the cataloguing of even his most salient qualities, let alone the illustration of them in individual pieces. It must suffice to mention only one seldom noticed habit, that of lavishing great music on what most other composers would consider unworthy mediums. Thus the Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica^7 is no mere sound-color etude but a piece of depth and consequence. On the technical side, Mozart amplifies and reflects the “glasses” with a quartet of flute, oboe, viola, and cello. The tone of the flute being similar to that of the solo instrument, Mozart features the former and uses it to complete phrases that exceed the range and dexterity of the latter. The accompanying quartet generally plays legato, in imitation of the rubbing articulation of the “glasses.”

Finally, since these sweetly reverberating goblets are in the treble, Mozart provides tenor and bass parts in the strings, which, at the end, play an accompaniment figure suggesting treadle action. The specialities of the contraption are ringing four-part harmonies in slow tempo, and echoing solo lines, conjuring the thought of Pythagorean acoustical experiments or Voices from Other Dimensions. But the composer cared less about “effects” than about music, and, at one point, as if deliberately to draw attention away from the novelty of the timbre, he startles the listener with a harmonic progression that turns from what promises to be a modulation to G, to one to the dominant of A flat. Mozart has both dignified a toy and composed an immaculate piece of music.

One of the phenomena of Mozart is his transcendence of temporal boundaries. As with other composers, his life, though brief, divides into early, middle, and late. But as with no other, some of his work confounds by ignoring not only his chronological development but also that of history. The Andante from the Sinfonia Concertante (K. 364) is one example. Described as “a worthy follower to the introductory movement,” it is scarcely an adequate preparation for this profound creation. Though written as early as 1779, it shows that Mozart had already felt emotions that are associated with nineteenth-century romanticism. This is not to say that the music actually “sounds like” or “anticipates” the later period but only that Mozart has shared in its feelings. To take the Andante apart, and to analyze it, however, will not explain how an emotion belonging to a future time can have been projected into a body from an earlier one. Perhaps this reverse transmigration is proof of Mozart’s eternity.

From Plato’s “essences” to Russell’s “resemblances” philosophers have busied themselves with theories of the “universal.” Mozart’s universality is not a theory, however, but a daily celebration. He had a philosophy of art, nevertheless, and a wise and human one. It was expressed in connection with some newly composed piano concertos, in a letter to his father:

Here and there are things which only connoisseurs can appreciate, but I have seen to it that those less knowledgeable must also be pleased without knowing why. [December 28, 1782]

(In the next issue Robert Craft will review the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Le Nozze di Figaro.)

  1. 1

    Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, Second Edition, translated by Editha Knocher (Oxford University Press, 1951).

  2. 2

    The Letters of Mozart and his Family, edited and translated by Emily Anderson. Second edition prepared by A. Hyatt King and Monica Carolan. Two vols. (St. Martin’s Press, 1966).

  3. 3

    The autograph score was on exhibit at the Basle Kunstmuseum during the summer of 1975, along with many other music manuscripts dating from the early 1600s. Several well-known works by Mozart were also included, as well as a newly found letter. This was noteworthy, as very few Mozart letters have come to light since the publication of the “complete” correspondence forty years ago. The catalogue, Musikhand-schriften in Basel aus verschiedenen Sammlungen, can be purchased from the firm of Otto Haas, London.

  4. 4

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart unter dem Einfluss Georg Friedrich Händels, by W. Siegmund-Schultze (Leipzig, 1956).

  5. 5

    The Fugue in C minor, K. 426 (December 1783) manifests Mozart’s triumph through and over the Bach fugue, every variation and the twelve stretti being derived from the subject and the reversable counterpoint counter-subject with a skill that matches Bach’s.

  6. 6

    The Philips recording of the Qui tollis can be recommended, though in the Sanctus movement the chorus anticipates the first entrance by a long sibilant that makes the listener grateful not to be sitting in the front row.

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