‘A Prodigy of Nature’

Leopold Mozart
Leopold Mozart; drawing by David Levine

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…

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