Alinari/Art Resource

The Mozart family; painting by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, circa 1780–1781

In 1778, when Mozart was twenty-two, he went to Paris for six months, accompanied by his mother, leaving his father and sister in Salzburg. It turned into a difficult time for him: his mother became ill and died, which he hesitated to reveal to his father, staging the news gradually in a letter that described her illness as dire even after she was dead. Most on Mozart’s mind, however—judging from his correspondence—were his efforts to make an impression on the French musical public. In a letter to his father, Mozart vented his fury at being asked to play the piano for the Duchesse de Chabot in a cold room without a fireplace, where the artistically inclined duchess and her guests were engaged in drawing. Mozart despised their perfunctory compliments (“O c’est un prodige, c’est inconcevable, c’est étonnant”), but then the duke arrived, “sat down next to me and listened to me very attentively and I—I forgot the cold and the headache and played in spite of the wretched clavier—the way I play when I am in the best of spirits.” Everything depended upon his rapport with his audience, even an audience of one—for if the listeners were “people who do not connect with me and my playing…I will lose all joy in performing.”

The letter reflected the raging indignation and unequivocal self-importance of a frustrated genius. Mozart blamed the entire French nation: “The French are by far no longer as Polite as they were 15 years ago; their manners now border on rudeness [Grobheit], and they have become terribly conceited [hoffärtig sind sie abscheulich].

Fifteen years earlier, at the age of seven, Mozart had been at the height of his renown as a child prodigy, and had been brought by his father to Paris and Versailles, where he had spectacular success. Even as a child he sometimes performed his own compositions, but he was above all famous for his piano playing. Mozart at twenty-two, wistful for the celebrity of his childhood and railing against French rudeness, still believed that the route to success was performance.

Simon Keefe’s Mozart in Vienna: The Final Decade emphasizes Mozart’s sense of himself as a performer and how he calibrated his work as a composer to the effects his music would have in performance. The “final decade”—from 1781 to his early death at thirty-five in 1791—comprised almost the whole of Mozart’s mature artistic life, and Keefe notes that the ever-increasing appreciation of his genius across the centuries and around the globe would have magnificently gratified the vexed young man in Paris in 1778. His posthumous fame, of course, has little to do with Mozart as a performer, but rather as a composer, and Keefe thus hopes to show how performance and composition were fully integrated during the final decade.

We feel we know Mozart vividly from his correspondence, which fills a thousand-page volume, an astonishing epistolary output for someone whose real productivity lay in the 626 items of the Köchel catalog of his works, from the K. 1 piano pieces of the five-year-old prodigy to the K. 626 requiem that he left unfinished at his death. Keefe uses the letters but strongly emphasizes materials that were surely closer to Mozart’s genius: his musical scores, from their first sketching in draft form, to the autograph full scores in his hand, to the performance copies and published versions. Keefe is particularly interested in how the annotations, alterations, and variations show that Mozart’s composing was an evolving process, as he anticipated, carried out, and then reconsidered the performances of his music. If you have the dedication (and musicological preparation) to follow Keefe’s analysis of the musical materials, his book will take you intimately close to the internal workings of Mozart’s creative genius.

When Mozart wrote from Paris about his mother’s illness—“she is very weak, still feverish, and delirious—they are giving me hope, but I don’t have much” (because she was already dead)—he attempted to console himself and distract his father in Salzburg with a description of a performance of the “Paris” Symphony (K. 297):

Right in the middle of the first Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures—there was a big applaudissement—and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement.

This is the Mozart for whom the act of composition was totally focused on how his work would strike his audience.

The concluding movement was even more purposefully constructed, and Mozart exulted in his own cleverness in calculating the reception of the dynamics:


The final Allegro pleased especially—because I had heard that here the final Allegros begin like the first Allegros, namely with all instruments playing and mostly unisono; therefore, I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars—then suddenly comes a forte—but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte—well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royal—bought myself an ice cream.

In composing the “Paris” Symphony Mozart was thinking about how to create a “good effect” specifically on a Parisian audience. When he went to Vienna in 1781 he focused on Viennese audiences. Count Karl Joseph Arco, the Salzburg court chamberlain who finally kicked Mozart out of the archbishop of Salzburg’s service by literally kicking him in the rear, believed that Mozart would never succeed in Vienna. According to Mozart,

He told me then: believe me, you allow yourself to be dazzled too easily; a person’s fame is of short duration here—in the beginning one is given a lot of accolades, and one earns good money, that’s true—but for how long?—after a few months the Viennese will want something new.1

Mozart wrote reassuringly to his father from Vienna: “My kind of music is far too popular for me not to be able to make a living. This here is a true Clavierland!” It was the piano, above all, that offered Mozart the means to showcase himself as both performer and composer. This meant finding a hall, finding a piano, putting together an orchestra, and selling tickets for a program at which he was the star pianist performing his own work, most notably the celebrated series of piano concertos created for Vienna in the 1780s. And his efforts also reflect the fact that the 1780s, the final decade of the ancien régime, ushered in our modern musical world, in which star pianists perform for dedicated subscribing publics rather than inattentive dilettante duchesses.

One year before Mozart’s arrival in Vienna, the Habsburg emperor Joseph II assumed full power following the death of his mother, the empress Maria Theresa, in 1780. Before that they had ruled together, the empress balancing reforming impulses with deference to dynastic tradition but inhibiting Joseph from acting fully on his own sympathies with the Enlightenment. After her death Joseph largely abolished censorship, moderated the terms of serfdom, limited the privileges of nobles, established religious toleration (later to include the partial emancipation of Jews as citizens), strictly subjected the Roman Catholic Church to the Habsburg state (provoking an unprecedented visit to Vienna from the indignant Pope Pius VI), and simplified church ritual in a spirit of austerity (Mozart composed almost no religious music during that final decade in Vienna). A certain social leveling between nobles and non-nobles along with the reduction of censorship led to the emergence of a public sphere of discussion and opinion. This public also held artistic opinions and could choose to subscribe to Mozart’s concerts, so that it was possible for him to pursue a musical career without depending entirely on royal or aristocratic patronage. Like other musicians, Mozart packaged himself for the public and, in Vienna as in Paris, tried to figure out what the public wanted.

Keefe is particularly interested in how Mozart’s piano music encouraged improvisation, or at least the appearance of improvisation, a sort of “calculated spontaneity” that allowed the performer to respond to his public even as it responded to him. While Mozart was eager to set dynamics for the Paris orchestra in 1778, Keefe argues that dynamics in the piano concertos are left deliberately flexible to allow the pianist to define his own relation to the orchestra, as in the C-major piano concerto (K. 415), composed for a concert in Vienna:

At its initial solo entry…the pianist has to determine whether to emulate the loud, exiting orchestra or to contrast with it, and, similarly, whether to finish piano at the end of the segment in bar 67 in order to match the dynamic of the entering first violins, or to distinguish itself by sustaining a forte (or a dynamic in between p and f) through to the end.

Keefe’s analysis makes some rigorous demands upon those who are not musicologists: one must pay careful attention to the musical examples as he describes their development. It would be useful to have a piano or recordings at hand while reading the book. In the case of K. 415, if you listen to the piano entrance after reading Keefe’s description, it will deepen your understanding of Mozart’s compositional strategy. The technical discussion points to the conclusion that Mozart in Vienna was exploring new kinds of “freedom” for the performer, a certain independence from patronage in relation to the public, and a degree of spontaneous decision-making about how to engage the public in the heat of performance.


While Joseph’s enlightened measures transformed every aspect of life in the Habsburg monarchy, the one that is most important for Keefe’s book (and possibly for Mozart’s compositional mentality) was the establishment of an eight-member imperial woodwind band, Joseph’s Harmonie: pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. (The horn, technically a brass instrument, is the woodwind’s mellowest companion, mediating between the two orchestral families.) We associate night music in Josephine Vienna with the strings of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, but you might have been more likely to hear woodwinds blending in the night air, as Mozart did on October 31, 1781—his name day, dedicated to the medieval German saint Wolfgang—when the composer received a musical gift:

At night, at 11 o’clock, I was treated to a serenade of 2 clarinets, 2 horns, and 2 bassoons—which as it so happens was my own composition…. The 6 gentlemen who performed it are poor devils who, however, played quite well together, particularly the first clarinetist and the two horn players. The main reason why I had written the serenade was to give Herr von Strack [the emperor’s valet]…a chance to hear something that I had composed; for that very reason I had put a little extra care into the composition; and indeed it was very much applauded. During St. Theresia’s night it was performed at three different locations—they had no sooner finished playing in one place than they were asked to play it somewhere else—and for money too. At any rate, these night musicians had asked for the doors to be opened and, after positioning themselves in the courtyard, they surprised me, just as I was getting undressed, most agreeably with the opening chord of E-flat.

Mozart, whose final opera of his final decade would be about a magic flute, was clearly stirred by the sound of the woodwinds, even as he recognized them as a career opportunity and attempted to capture the ear of the emperor’s valet.

Wien Museum Karlsplatz/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

An engraving of a scene from the 1791 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Vienna Freihaustheater

Mozart’s first major attempt to make an impression on the emperor was a German-language opera for Joseph’s National Singspiel company: The Abduction from the Seraglio.2 Presented in 1782, the work was timed to anticipate the centennial of the Viennese liberation from the Ottoman siege of the city in 1683. The concluding ensemble, celebrating the magnanimity of the Turkish Pasha Selim, was intended as a tribute to the emperor Joseph sitting in the audience at the premiere. The opera was aimed specifically at the Viennese public, with constant adjustments and alterations (Mozart sent the score to his father commenting, “you’ll find a lot of passages crossed out”), but there was perhaps nothing so characteristic of the Josephine decade as Mozart’s particular project immediately after the premiere:

A week from Sunday I have to be done with arranging my opera for wind instruments—otherwise someone else will do it before me—and collect the profits instead of me…you don’t know how difficult it is to arrange an opera for winds—you have to suit the character of each wind instrument, yet not lose the original effect.

The success of the opera at the court theater was amplified by wind bands performing the major arias around the city, with Mozart extending the frontiers of his genius by probing “the character of each wind instrument.” His serenades for winds in these early Viennese years were pioneering works, including the epic and unprecedented seven-movement, thirteen-instrument, fifty-minute serenade “Gran Partita” (K. 361), the supreme exemplar of this genre—which might have been composed for Mozart’s own wedding in 1782.

The capacity of woodwinds to mimic vocal expression is familiar to anyone who has listened to a saxophone singing a love song, or to every child who recognizes the woodwind voices in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf: the flute for the bird, the clarinet for the cat, the bassoon for the grandfather, and, everybody’s favorite, the oboe for the duck. Keefe is particularly interested in Mozart’s creative marrying of the woodwinds not just to the piano soloist in the concertos but also to operatic voices. Beginning with Abduction Mozart took particular pains to think through the relation of the wind instruments to the tenor voice of his friend and fellow freemason Valentin Adamberger, the first Belmonte. Keefe notes that Mozart made cuts in Adamberger’s second-act aria “Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen” (“When Tears of Joy Flow”)—eliminating some difficult melisma singing (of multiple notes on a single syllable), but also highlighting the effect of clarinets and bassoons as they harmonize in thirds. In 1785, Adamberger sang a solo role in Mozart’s Freemason cantata (Die Maurerfreude, K. 471), in which the tenor part was carefully accompanied by oboe and clarinet. Keefe argues that the composer learned to complement the operatic voice with woodwind accompaniment by listening to Adamberger in performance across the final decade.

In 1791 Mozart had a clear idea of what sort of orchestral sonorities he wanted to create for Benedikt Schack, the Bohemian tenor who created the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute; Schack himself was a wind player and composer of wind music who may have actually played Tamino’s magic flute music from the stage. About his first aria, “Dies Bildnis,” scored with double clarinets, bassoons, and horns, Keefe writes,

it is as if the wind material and concomitant dynamics invite wind players first to depict a kind of semidetached beauty independent of the strings, but then unambiguously to support Tamino’s personal expression of love by aligning with strings; the character’s emotional progression during the aria is reinforced by the winds’ progression from quasi-independent agent to integral component of a unified orchestral body.

Thus the wind players, as they negotiate their relation to the strings, with both groups supporting the tenor, enjoy a sort of agency to complete the composition along with Mozart, who died only two months after the premiere. In the act one finale, Schack as Tamino hit a high note on the word rein (pure) and held it for two measures, with flutes, oboes, and bassoons joining him for the second measure: “Semibreves [whole notes] in the completed score are given first to Schack by himself and then to Schack and wind instruments together: initially exposed as a solo note, the vocal [high G] is then cushioned above and below by wind semibreves.” This cushioning is one of the ways that Keefe imagines Mozart engineering the relation between woodwinds and tenor voice.

In the final piano concerto, in B-flat (K. 595), Keefe notes an unusual moment in which “an oboe floats serenely above the piano’s triplet quavers”—while an example from the sublime second movement shows the piano’s line “enveloped by a cohort of flute, oboes, bassoons and horns, unaccompanied by strings.” Keefe’s book is not principally about harmony or melody but rather about changes in timbre and texture as Mozart tried to anticipate and adjust the acoustical experience of performance, thinking about how woodwind instruments might “cushion” or “envelop” the solo voice of a piano or a tenor.

Keefe further suggests that Mozart would not have regarded his completed scores as “definitive,” but rather, had he lived longer, “would have felt no compunction, surely, about adding further pencil markings.” This implies a moral imperative for contemporary performers: “We owe it to these works and their composer to try to mirror in our own interpretations the intensely creative processes that led to their publication.” Keefe believes that Mozart should be accorded not rigorous fidelity to fixed scores but instead a commitment to the freedom that he embedded in them as he contemplated current and future performances, one of the many kinds of freedom under consideration in the world of the 1780s, when Don Giovanni sang “Viva la libertà!”

The decade would end in revolution and a radical break with the ancien régime, but in 1786, in The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva kneels and asks his wife for pardon, thus reconciling the social tensions of the opera and allowing for a harmonious conclusion. As the count ends his plea, the score shows two fermata markings—for pauses of indefinite length—over the two final syllables of perdono, rising a delicate half tone from A-sharp to B-natural. When Figaro was performed at the Metropolitan Opera this winter, the bass Luca Pisaroni, under the baton of Harry Bicket, daringly held those two ascending notes so long that operatic time stood still: the pardon, the reconciliation, and the happy ending of the comedy all seemed to hang suspended on them. Pisaroni and Bicket were, in a sense, exercising the musical freedom that Simon Keefe describes, the freedom Mozart left to his interpreters to mirror his own creative processes, by which composition and performance were joined together in the musical world of Vienna in the 1780s.