M is for the Marvelous Mr. Mozart

M is for the Marvelous Mr. Mozart

In our exploration of how The Marriage of Figaro came about, we are finally at our third genius involved with this extraordinary work of art. Yes, I am talking of the great composer himself, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Since we have already spoken about the original play by Beaumarchais, and then how Mozart–seeking a project to collaborate on with Lorenzo Daponte–brought the play to the master librettist himself, I will dive right into discussing his life a little bit…. Or a lot! After all, he is the Marvelous, Miraculous Mozart.

Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, and even though he is known as “Amadeus” or “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” he was baptized as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. 

He was born at Getreidegasse 9, Salzburg. Today in Austria, it was at the time part of the Holy Roman empire. He started demonstrating prodigious abilities as a toddler: composing from the age of five and performing in front of European royalty, on piano and violin. His father, Leopold Mozart, promoted him and took him on tours all over Europe. Mozart was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy.

His older sister was Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed “Nannerl.” She was herself an accomplished musician, she began piano lessons at the age of seven with her father while a three year old Mozart looked on. Years after her brother’s death this is what she wrote about that time:

“He often spent much time at the Clavier, picking out thirds which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good.… In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the Clavier.… He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time.… At the age of five he was already composing little pieces, which he would play to his father who wrote them down.”

It was in “Nannerl’s Notenbuch” that the earliest compositions by Mozart were found (K.1-5).

His father, Leopold Mozart, was a native of Augsburg, then an imperial free city part of the HolyRoman empire. He was a minor composer but an extremely experienced teacher. He was appointed as the fourth violinist in the musical establishment of count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince archbishop of Salzburg in 1743. Leopold Mozart married Anna Maria Pertl in 1747, the two were regarded at the time as the handsomest couple in Salzburg.

During the early years Leopold was Wolfgang’s and Nannerl’s only teacher. But he did not just teach music; he taught his children all forms of academic subjects such as language, mathematics, reading, writing, literature, dancing as well as moral and religious subjects.

Despite the fact that later biographers and journalists embraced the very dramatic characterization of Leopold as intolerant, manipulative, autocratic and jealous of his son’s talent, it was quite the contrary. Family letters reveal a father who cared deeply for his son but was often frustrated in his ambition to secure Wolfgang a position appropriate to his genius. Without Leopold, Wolfgang’s artistic development is unimaginable. Leopold fulfilled a sort of universal function as a teacher, a private secretary to his son, an impresario, a propagandist and a travel organizer amongst many things. 

In the end, the accounts describing the Mozart household reflected a more unburdened place, where the children were allowed to be children. They played with a large group of friends from all social classes. Wolfgang loved to sing from an early age, anything having to do with music was absorbed with tremendous appetite and without effort.

However, these carefree early days were about to come to an abrupt end. Leopold Mozar,t mostly abandoning his own career, presented Wolfgang and Nannerl as child prodigies around the courts and musical centers of Western Europe. He first exhibited them in 1762 in the court of Maximilian III of Bavaria in Munich and at the imperial courts of Vienna in Prague. Over the next three and a half years they visited courts of Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, Dover, The Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Mechelen, then once again in Paris before making their way back home via Zürich, Donaueschingen, and Munich. Quite the extensive traveling for children, especially in the late 1700’s where traveling was nowhere as easy or for that matter safe as it is in our modern days! In fact, they all took turns enduring near fatal illnesses on these travels, first Leopold in London in the summer of 1764, then both children in autumn of 1765 during their stay in La Hague. During these exceptional travels, Wolfgang met many musicians and was exposed to the work of many other composers. A particularly significant influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom he visited in London in 1764 and 1765. At the age of eight Mozart wrote his first symphony, most of which was probably transcribed by his father. There was no doubt in Leopold’s mind, as he gave up composing himself, that young Mozart was a composing genius. By late 1767 the family again was in Vienna and stayed there until December 1768. From December 1769 to March 1771 Leopold and Wolfgang alone toured Italy. During that time in 1770, in Milan, at the age of 14, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate which was performed with success and led to further opera commissions such as Ascanio in Alba in 1771 and Lucio Silla in 1772.

Finally in 1773, he was hired and employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince Archbishop Hironymus Colloredo. By that time Mozart had many friends and supporters in Salzburg. That allowed him to work on many genres  including masses, a few minor operas, symphonies, sonatas, string quartets and more. During that period he composed his series of five now famous violin concertos and several piano concertos including the breakthrough K. 217 piano concerto in E Flat. Unfortunately, despite all his success, Mozart grew increasingly discontent with his position and multiplied his efforts to find a position elsewhere. Some of the reasons given were his low salary and his longing to compose operas, which were few and far between in Salzburg.

Between 1777 and 1778, Mozart resigned his position in Salzburg and ventured on a journey to find new employment that he felt suited and better. After visiting many European cities and getting acquainted with many musicians such as members of the famous Orchestra in Mannheim, considered at the time the best Orchestra in Europe, he settled in Paris to continue his search. As time passed with no suitable employment, he fell into debt and even took to pawning valuables. Unfortunately on July 3, 1778, his mother was taken ill and died. Possibly due to lack of funds, there had been a delay in calling a doctor and no doubt the guilt weighed heavy on the rest of the Mozart family. Due to lack of funds Mozart stayed at the Melchior Grimm, at the residence the Marquise d’Epinay. All the while, his father on his behalf still pursued opportunities of employment for him in Salzburg. Mozart was offered a post as court organist and concertmaster with the support of the local nobility; the annual salary was significantly higher than his former position there, but Mozart was still reluctant to accept. As his relationship with Grimm cooled, and nothing was coming of his stay in Paris, he left for Strasbourg, still hoping for employment out of Salzburg, he then lingers in Mannheim and Munich finally returning to Salzburg in 1779. Grudgingly taking up his new appointment, with all the undiminished discontent that had pushed him to pursue other opportunities in the first place.

In 1781 Mozart’s pivotal opera Idomeneo premiered with considerable success in Munich. Very shortly thereafter he was summoned to Vienna where his employer the Archbishop Colloredo was attending the celebration for the accession of Joseph ll to the Austrian throne. For Mozart this was potentially the opportunity of a lifetime. He was hoping to meet the new emperor, and determined to escape the grasp of the Archbishop. The relationship between Mozart and the Archbishop kept deteriorating as Colloredo wished to prevent Mozart from performing outside his establishment. Which Mozart protested vehemently. By May of that year, the quarrel came to ahead, Mozart attempted to resign and was refused, the following month permission was granted but in a grossly insulting way: the composer was dismissed literally with a “kick in the arse” administered as it were by one of the Archbishop’s minions.

Mozart decided to settle in Vienna and became a freelance performer and composer. The argument with the archbishop was all the more upsetting because his father sided against him, still holding onto the hope that his son would come back to Salzburg and fall in line, they began an exchange of intense and distressing letters. The debate only ended when Mozart was dismissed, therefore freeing the composer of both his employer and his father’s demands. His biographers characterize Mozart’s resignation as a revolutionary step significantly altering the course of his life.


In the early years of his career in Vienna, Mozart was very popular. Performing most often as a pianist, he soon established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna. Prospering as a composer, he completed in 1782 the opera The Abduction from the Seraglio which premiered in July 1782 achieving considerable success. The work was soon to be performed throughout German-speaking Europe and thoroughly cemented Mozart’s reputation as a composer. During his stay in Mannheim a few years prior he had met the Weber family, and originally he had fallen in love with Aloysia one of the four daughters of the musical family, she had rejected him. Fast forward a bit, and the Weber family has now moved to Vienna from Mannheim. Mozart became their lodger, soon courting the third daughter of the family Constanze. After a tumultuous courtship, and without the consent of his father, Mozart marries Constanze on August 4, 1782 in St Stephen’s cathedral, his father’s consenting letter would arrive in the mail a day later. The couple would go on to have six children, of whom only two survived infancy.

In 1783 Mozart and Constanze visited Mozart’s family in Salzburg, it is said that both his father and sister were “cordially polite” to his new wife, that the visit prompted the composition of one of Mozart’s greatest liturgical pieces the mass in C minor, not completed it was premiered in Salzburg with Constanze singing the solo soprano part. 

Around 1784 Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, the two composers became friends and when Haydn visited Vienna, they enjoyed playing together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart wrote six quartets dedicated to Haydn, thought to be a response to Haydn Op. 33 sets from 1781. Haydn saw Mozart for the genius he was and wasn’t shy about declaring it throughout his letters and personal conversations. From 1782 to 1785 Mozart became quite the concert producer with himself as a soloist in sometime unconventional venues, which only added to his popularity. He was described as “an eager composer-performer who delighted the audience, which was given the opportunity of witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre” Mozart and his wife  embarked on a somewhat extravagant lifestyle. Saving very little of his now very comfortable income. In December 1784 Mozart became a Freemason. Freemasonry played an absolutely essential role in the remainder of his life, he attended meetings, and a number of his friends were masons. He composed masonic music on numerous occasions, further developing his professional and personal network.

Since, and despite, the success of The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart did very little operatic writing in the four years between 1782 and 1786. 

This was all about to change.

Enters the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte… which led to the premiere, with all the history leading to it, of The Marriage of Figaro.

We know the premier was successful, and the reception of the masterpiece in Prague later in the year was even warmer. It led to a second collaboration between Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni, in October of 1787. Though that Second collaboration was acclaimed in Prague, it was less successful in Vienna a year later. Those two operas are amongst Mozart’s most famous Works and a mainstay to this day of the operatic repertoire. However at their premieres, their musical complexity caused difficulty both for listeners and performers. Unfortunately these developments were not witnessed by Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart had passed away the 28 of May 1787.

That same year, in December, Mozart finally obtained the steady post under the aristocratic patronage of emperor Joseph II, appointed as his “chamber composer”, a post that had become vacant the previous month after the death of Gluck. The appointment unfortunately was part-time and paying little, however this modest income was about to become important as hard times were coming for Mozart and his family. Mozart had achieved what he wanted and what his father had hoped for him: a stable position in the employment of the emperor, unfortunately the court records show that emperor Joseph II, aimed to keep the esteemed composer from leaving Vienna in pursuit of better prospect, therefore strangling financially the Mozart family.

In 1787 a young Ludwig van Beethoven spent several weeks in Vienna with the hopes of studying with Mozart. That said, no reliable records survive to indicate whether the two composers ever actually met. As the end of the decade approached, Mozart’s circumstances worsened dramatically.

By the time he was appointed as “chamber composer” to the emperor he had ceased to appear as frequently in public concerts and his income had shrunk. It was also a difficult time for musicians in Vienna as both the general level of prosperity, and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined, mostly due to the Austro- Turkish war. In 1788 Mozart saw a decline of his income of more than 66% compared to his best years around 1781. By mid 1788 the Mozarts had moved from their opulent housing in the center of Vienna to much less glamorous surroundings in the suburbs. The composer began to borrow money mostly from friends and fellow Masons in a pitiful sequence of letters pleading for loans, his biographers would postulate that Mozart had fallen prey to depression, and his musical output slowed dramatically. The major works for these years included the last three symphonies all in 1788 and the last of his collaboration with his friend Da Ponte, another masterpiece, Così fan Tutte, which premiered in 1790.


  1. It was to be Mozart’s last year until his final illness deprived the world of his incomparable genius. Paradoxically a time of high productivity, and by some accounts one of personal recovery. He composed frantically including some of his most admired works such as The Magic Flute, the final piano Concerto in B-flat and much more. Finally the unfinished Requiem popularized and ever present in our modern pop culture. La Clemenza Di Tito premiered in September 1791 in Prague, it was written on commission for emperor Leopold II coronation festivities. It was during the premiere that Mozart fell ill. He nonetheless continued his professional functions for sometime, conducting the premiere of the magic flute on 30 September. His health then deteriorated quickly, by the end of November he became bedridden. In his final days he was nursed by his wife, her sister, and attended by the family doctor. He was occupied and obsessed with the task of finishing his requiem on his death bed, and evidence that he dictated passages to his student Franz Süssmayr is, in spite of popular belief, minimal. 

Mozart died in his home on December 5, 1791 at the age of 35, at 12:55 AM. 

He was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St Marx Cemetery outside the city on December 7th. The expression common grave refers to neither a communal grave nor a pauper’s grave, but an individual grave for a member of the common people ( i.e. not the aristocracy, common graves were subject to excavation after 10 years, as the graves of aristocrats were not) Later reports say no mourners attended, that too is consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time. Later on Otto Jahn, in 1856, wrote that Salieri, Süssmayr, and Van Swieten, as well as two other musicians were present. The tale of storm and snow is false as well apparently the day was calm and mild. The cause of Mozart’s death is not known with certainty to this day. Official record of “ severe miliary fever” is more of a symptomatic description than any form of diagnosis. Many researchers have suggested more than 100 different causes of death including rheumatic fever, streptococcal infection, influenza, mercury poisoning and rare kidney ailments.

The description of Mozart’s modest funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer, in fact there were very many well attended memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague, ironically his reputation rose substantially after his death. One of his biographers describes an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for his compositions, while many publishers vied to produce complete editions of his works as well as biographies.


Mozart remains one of the most significant composers in history. He had an unparalleled influence on just about every composer of later generations and studying his scores has been a standard part of classical musicians training to this day. 

Ludwig van Beethoven, Mozart’s junior by 15 years was deeply influenced by him, and is thought to have performed Mozart’s operas while playing in the court orchestra at Bonn. Many composers have paid homage to Mozart by writing sets of variations on his themes. Beethoven wrote four such sets, Glinka wrote variations on a theme from Mozart’s opera the magic flute, Chopin’s variation on “là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, and Tchaikovsky‘s orchestral Suite No. 4 in G are but a few.

A quote by Charles Rosen The American pianist and writer, who penned the notable book “The Classical Style”:

“ It is only through recognizing the violence and sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work that we can make a start towards a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence. In a paradoxical way, Shumann’s superficial characterization of the G Minor Symphony can help us to see Mozart’s demon more steadily. In all of Mozart’s supreme expression of suffering and terror, there is something shockingly voluptuous.”


Here I end this miniature biography of our beloved Mozart, he was indeed marvelous and his music magical. I dare you to make it through a day without something related to himself and his music crossing your path!

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