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Mozart - one of history's most tragic figures

25 August 2020
Soldier standing looking worried, other man has hands on his shoulders smiling.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. Despite not being appreciated as a composer during his time, he is the greatest and most celebrated composer of the classical period and the most gifted musical genius in history.

Mozart was not like any other prodigy. His was not just a big talent, it was that of genius. At the age of four, he could learn a song on the piano in just 30 minutes. He also taught himself the harpsichord, organ and violin. Admittedly, his father was one of the greatest violin teachers of his day, but nevertheless, Mozart was able to sow the seed and grow it by himself.

At the age of six he started playing in public. He toured, or rather was toured, relentlessly. He spent 14 of his 36 years away from home. The young performer delighted his noble audiences, who rewarded him with flattery rather than money. Mozart would not have been the composer he became without the first-hand grasp of the music of the late 18th century's leading composers that was afforded to him through his journeys.

After the Italian tours, Mozart returned to Salzburg and began composing for Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, but the work was unchallenging. In 1778, Mozart's ever-ambitious father sent him to Paris with an order to 'put yourself in the company of the great'. But now, at the age of 22, Mozart was no longer the boy wonder who hung out with Marie Antoinette. He was an adult musician who could barely speak French.

Left out of high society and running out of money, Mozart and his mother, who was chaperoning him, holed up in a cold and dilapidated hotel. His mother fell ill and died in July 1778. Alone and too scared to tell his father what had happened, Mozart got his friend, Abbé Bullinger, to tell him the news. Leopold Mozart ended up blaming his son for her death.

At the age of 26, Mozart married Constanze Weber, having, some years previously, been smitten by her sister, Aloysia. In the same year, his new opera, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail premiered and he began writing the six Haydn String Quartets Nos. 14-20, dedicated to the man himself, his friend Joseph Haydn.

Many of Mozart's greatest works were written because of financial need, or because of a particular job he held at a particular time, rather than out of a desire to be creative for creativity's sake. He was equally comfortable writing symphonies as he was composing operas and he excelled at creating choral masterpieces, just as he did when it came to penning piano concertos. Mozart became partial to clarinets, often substituting it for the oboe. He was also very fond of the sonority of the French horn.

What makes Mozart’s work so revolutionary? Johannes Brahms noted the exceptional 'purity' of his music. To the American composer Leonard Bernstein, Mozart’s works were 'bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness and enlightenment … over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s—the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering—a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.'

Mozart died in the early hours of 5 December 1791 and is buried just outside Vienna in an un-marked grave.