Context brings meaning to history. So, consider this: while colonists were rioting against the Stamp Act—prior to the American Revolution—something absolutely sensational was going on in Europe. A child prodigy was performing on the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the violin before the “oohs” and “aahs” of courts and crowds. The young star was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What was unknown at the time was that Mozart would die a mysterious death—at a young age!
Born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756, Wolfgang Mozart was picking out tunes on the keyboard by age 3. He first started playing the harpsichord as curiously as any small child would, even though his feet couldn’t reach the floor! But it was soon apparent that he was not like other children. By age 4, the boy wonder started formal music lessons; by 5, he was performing for audiences; and by 6, he was supposedly composing his own music!
Talent, like that found in Wolfgang Mozart, doesn’t bring an easy life. Wolfgang didn’t have much time for climbing trees and chasing fireflies like other boys his age. He was touring Europe through most of his childhood—traveling long distances by carriage or boat and staying up late at night to entertain adults.
Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, was his best music teacher and was also good at administration. Leopold saw to all the details that allowed his family to parade about. But it was hard for Leopold not to put pressure on his children, who brought in a large income. Ladies of the court lavished gifts and jewels and kisses on young Mozart. Everywhere he went, he was spoiled with praises.
But Wolfgang Mozart was much more than a talented teen. He was, above all, a composer. He proved it to himself in Salzburg by composing Masses, operas, and violin concertos (kun CHAIR toes). He went on tour again at age 21, but this time with only his mother.
Despite the family’s long-distance woes, Wolfgang met a girl on the way to Paris. He fell in love with her but lost her heart to someone else. Then, suddenly, Wolfgang lost his mother, too! She died while they were on tour in Paris. The family was crushed. Disappointment was everywhere for Wolfgang. His fame had waned as a child prodigy, and there was little demand for his work. His only consolation in Paris was discovering the piano, an instrument new to him.
Without good pay on the tour, Mozart was forced to return to Salzburg and be subject again to the demands of his father. Wolfgang, impulsive and frivolous, needed his father’s tough love—but he didn’t always appreciate it.
In 1781, Mozart got out from under his father again. He moved to Vienna where he fell in love with Constanze Weber, the younger sister of the girl who had broken his heart. Leopold did not approve of the relationship, but Mozart, who could be stubborn, married the girl anyway. Constanze was frolicsome like Mozart and a big spender. Together, they were poor financial managers of Mozart’s growing career.
In 1782, Mozart freed himself of annoying patrons. (They complained he used too many notes!) It was unheard of back then for a successful musician not to be under the care of a royal court or wealthy patron. But Mozart made himself a freelance musician, working for whomever he pleased, whenever he pleased. He rarely sat at a keyboard to compose, but wrote music at a table. Apparently, he could hear symphonies, concertos, and Masses in his head and did most of his composing there.
Though lack of funds was a constant bother, it would not prevent Mozart from composing. According to his wife, Constanze, Mozart carried scraps of paper with him for jotting down melodies and storylines trapped in his head. Two of his greatest stories were written as operas in 1786 and 1787. They were The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni — still hailed today as masterpieces in the world of opera.
The Marriage of Figaro is a lighthearted comedy; Don Giovanni is a darker opera, written after the death of Mozart’s father with undertones of their relationship. Mozart followed those works with three of his best symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41), a fugue, more operas, and more concertos. He wrote specific works for the keyboard, the violin, and the clarinet, which he was especially fond of.
In the summer of 1791, a secret patron approached Mozart to compose a requiem (REH kwee em), which is a Roman Catholic Mass for the deceased. Ironically, Mozart said in a feverish state that he was writing it for himself. Sadly, he died in December 1791 before completing it! He was just shy of 36. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious. According to Constanze, Mozart told her he believed he was poisoned! Some think he suffered from rheumatic fever. Plays and movies have depicted a rival composer named Antonio Salieri as his murderer. There is no solid evidence to support this theory, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. What do you think happened in the mysterious death of Mozart?
Regardless of what led to his early death, Mozart’s last days were spent in bed—singing parts of the Requiem with tears streaming down his face and giving instructions for its completion. Within two weeks of falling ill, he died. Legend says that Requiem was played at his own funeral, but this is doubtful. His funeral was small (because of his many debts), and Requiem was not finished. Constanze hired others to complete it after Mozart’s death. Quite frankly, she needed the money.
Some would say that while Mozart was successful as a classical composer but wasn’t particularly successful in life. His manners were childish, and his boastfulness annoying. Other musicians didn’t like him, but they couldn’t deny his talent. We may never know if a jealous rival cut Mozart’s life short or if he died of natural causes. But we do know that a monumental library of classical music has been attributed to Mozart and has stood over the course of time. That’s the thing about classics. They last.