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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When I was very young, I used to say "I"; later on, I said "I and Mozart"; then "Mozart and I." Now I say "Mozart."
-- Gounod

It is now more than a hundred years since Mozart, once the pet of all the crowned heads of Europe, once the idol of the common people, expired, penniless, and almost neglected, and was laid to rest in a nameless grave, not one soul whom he had known in life standing by to see the coffin lowered. The records of musical history tell of no deathbed scene which leaves so deep an impression as that of Mozart. He had been commissioned to compose a Requiem and it was still uncompleted. His last afternoon on earth had come. Supported by pillows, though already exhausted by fits of coughing, he made painful efforts to join his pupil Sussmayer and one or two other acquaintances in singing the chorus parts of the unfinished work. The most vivid imagination cannot picture a more distressing scene than the dying man, unable to speak, extending his cheeks to indicate to Sussmayer the places at which the wind instruments should be employed. The evening wore on slowly enough for the sad, wearied watchers, and as midnight drew near the dying composer with difficulty raised himself from his bed, opened his eyes wide, and then, turning his face to the wall, seemed to fall asleep. It was the last sleep: an hour later and the perturbed spirit was at rest for ever.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The body lay for the usual time, and as the days of the old year were slowly dying, Mozart took his last long journey. A poor, scanty, straggling procession is observed wending its way from the house to the Cathedral, where a short service is to be held prior to the interment in the burial-ground of St. Mark, then lying in the suburbs of Vienna, but now a veritable oasis in the desert of the enlarged city. As the coffin emerges from the Cathedral in the pouring rain, some who have been at the service disappear round the angles of the building, and are seen no more. Others shelter themselves as best they can, and trudge with the remains along the muddy streets. But even these cannot hold out to the end. "They all forsook him and fled." And so, unattended except by hirelings, the body was borne away into the dismal country, there to be laid with paupers in a common grave, the exact site of which no one was to know in the course of a few years. In 1809 some admirers wished to visit the grave, but they were told that the ashes of the poor were often exhumed to make room for others, and Mozart was as unknown at the cemetery as the other fifteen friendless unfortunates who had been buried the same week. To-day, in that great necropolis, the monument to Mozart stands over an empty grave.

Let us see what manner of life was lived by this immortal master of music, who laid it down under circumstances so painful before he was thirty-five. If the had not a long life, he had a long name, for they christened him John Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart. The Theophilus was early dropped for the more euphonious name of Amadeus, and more lately the John Chrysostom was, in common usage, cut away entirely. Leopold Mozart, the father, was himself a professional musician: an excellent violinist and organist and Court composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg. He is pictured with his "old threadbare coat and oaken stick, a God-fearing, sensible, but somewhat narrow-minded man." He and his wife, the very model of a thrifty hausfrau, are said to have been the handsomest couple in that beautiful old town of Salzburg.

It was a Salzburg, in a very unpretentious dwelling, that Mozart was born, on the 27th of January 1756. the parents had seven children, but they all died in infancy except Wolfgang and Anna Maria, familiarly called Nannerl, who was to share some of her brother’s triumphs as a musical prodigy. Wolfgang’s talent discovered itself at the early age of three, when he would fix his attention on the harpsichord lesson being given to the seven-year old Nannerl. Even then, he would puzzle out little tunes on the instrument. Papa was, of course, overjoyed, and soon he had Wolfgang sharing Nannerl’s lesson. He made special arrangements of little pieces for him, and wrote them out in a book. The book remains to this day, with the proud father’s notes about his prodigy’s progress. Thus: "Wolfgang learnt this minuet when he was four." "This minuet and trio were learnt by Wolfgang in half-an-hour, at half-past nine at night, on January 26, 1761, one day before his fifth year." And so on.

The boy must try his hand at composition, too. He wrote a concerto, and when he was told it was good but too difficult he said: "Well, it must be practised till it is mastered," and then he showed the elders the way it should be played. Many years later, a young man asked Mozart to tell him how to compose. The gentle Wolfgang replied that the questioner was too young to be thinking of such a serious occupation. "But you were much younger when you began," protested the aspirant. "Ah, yes, that is true," Mozart said, with a smile; "but then, you see, I did not ask anybody how to compose." No! What was the use of lessons to a boy who would improvise fugues and then ride-a-cock-horse on his father’s walking-stick?

Well, these wonder-children created such a sensation in local circles that Papa Mozart began to think he might make some money out of them. So, when Wolfgang was only six, the three started away on a concert tour. They went to Munich, where the youngsters astonished the Bavarian Court by their performances. Then they went to Vienna, where the boy, on their arrival, "squared" the Custom House officer by playing him a minuet on the violin. The trio were commanded to appear at Court, and Wolfgang immediately became a great pet there. He would jump into the Empress’ lap, throw his arms round her neck, and cover her with kisses. The future unhappy Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was particularly charmed with him, and one day, when she helped him up after a fall, he innocently said: "You are good, and when I am a man I will marry you." It was a pity he didn’t!

All this was very gratifying to Papa Mozart, but he complained that there was no money in it. "If the kisses bestowed upon Wolfgang could be transformed into good louis d’or, we should have nothing to grumble at. The misfortune is that the hotel-keepers have no desire to be paid in kisses." At another time he wrote: "We have swords, laces, mantillas, snuff-boxes, gold cases, sufficient to furnish a shop; but as for money, it is a scarce article, and I am positively poor." It was only when they came to London in 1764, after being in Paris, that the Mozarts seem to have put money in their purse.

Here they played before George III and his Queen, who gave them twenty-four guineas for each performance. Wolfgang, too, got fifty guineas for a set of six sonatas composed and dedicated to the Queen. There were public concerts also, the advertisements of which read quaintly enough to-day. Thus one concert is announced: "For the benefit of Miss Mozart, of eleven, and Master Mozart, of seven, prodigies of nature. Everybody will be astonished to hear a child of such tender age playing the harpsichord in such perfection. It surmounts all fantasy and imagination, and it is hard to express which is more astonishing, his execution upon the harpsichord, playing at sight, or his own composition." In another advertisement, "ladies and gentlemen who chuse to come" are told they will find the wonderful boy at home every day from twelve till two, and "have an opportunity of putting his talents to a more particular proof by giving him anything to play at sight, or any music without a bass, which he will write upon the spot without recurring to his harpsichord." In a third advertisement it was intimated that "the two children will play together with four hands upon the same harpsichord, and put upon it a handkerchief without seeing the keys."

Mozart had been over a year in London when he left it in July 1765, never to return. The scholastic side of his training had yet to be seen to, and the boy, making his way through Holland and France, playing as he went, now returned to Salzburg, and settled down to serious theoretical study. It is a matter of debate among his biographers whether the feverish excitement of these prodigy exhibitions did not undermine his constitution and help to bring about his early death. It is likely enough. The precious days of youth should be devoted primarily to the storing up of health, without which lasting success is impossible. Nothing is more harmful to sound physical development and mental growth than the strain of extensive tours; and it can hardly be doubted that Mozart’s health suffered a serious check by the unnatural way in which his talent was stimulated in his earlier years. Still, it would be unfair to blame his father entirely, as some writers have done. Leopold Mozart’s after life sufficiently proves that his desire was unselfish, and that his heart was set on the welfare of his offspring. "God," he said, "has endowed my children with such genius that, laying aside my duty as a father, my ambition urges me to sacrifice all else to their education."

After the tours, then, the education began in real earnest. By the time he was fourteen, Mozart was generally considered to have mastered the whole technique of his art, and to himself nothing seemed necessary by way of finishing touch but a journey to Italy. Every young composer had that ambition in the old days. Some never realised it; Mozart did. When he got to Rome his first consideration was to hear the music in the Pope’s chapel. And here an interesting incident has to be recorded. Twice a year a celebrated Misereri by Allegri, an early seventeenth-century composer, was performed by the choir, but the work, which existed only in MS., was so highly esteemed that to copy it was a crime visited with excommunication. Young Mozart nevertheless determined that he would secure a copy, and after two hearings he had the whole thing so perfectly on paper that next year Dr. Burney, the musical historian, was able to publish it in London. All the great composers had wonderful memories, but Mozart stood pre-eminent. He had a constant habit of playing his concertos in public without a "bit" of music. In a concert at Leipzig, some three years before his death, he performed his concerto in C. The band all in readiness, Mozart sat down to the piano to begin the composition. What was the surprise of the audience, however, to see him place on the desk, not his part, but a small piece of paper scribbled with a few notes to remind him how some of the passages began. "Oh," he replied, upon being questioned by a friend, "the piano part is safely locked up in my desk at Vienna. I am obliged to take this precaution when traveling, otherwise people contrive somehow or other to get copies of my scores and print them -- while I starve." Of course all the virtuosi play from memory now, but the accomplishment was rarer in Mozart’s day.

The young composer’s progress through the Italian cities was a continued triumph. The Pope decorated him, looking upon his surreptitious copying of the jealously-guarded Misereri as too wonderful to be condemned. Poets made rhymes about him; medals were struck in his honour. When he was playing at Naples, the audience took it into their heads that a ring which he wore on his finger was a talisman, and interrupted the performance until he removed it, when he played more brilliantly than before. Everywhere the same enthusiasm was manifested. In fact it would only be wasting valuable space to dwell further on Mozart’s youthful triumphs. The record might be extended to portentous length, but, as one biographer has said, apart from the proof which these successes furnish of his extraordinary precocity, they are of little vital significance in the great problem of his career, except so far as they stimulated the marvellous boy to lay a deep foundation for his greater future.

We may, therefore, pass over a year or two and pick him up at 1777, when he went to Paris with his mother, half intending to make Paris his future residence. Unhappily, soon after their arrival his mother died. Then he found he could not get on with the French. "The French are, and always will be, downright donkeys," he said. "They cannot sing; they scream." He declared that their language had been invented by the devil. He objected also to their coarseness and their frivolity. "The ungodly arch-villain, Voltaire, has died like a dog," he wrote, Mozart was deeply religious, and Voltaire’s atheism shocked him. "I have always had God before my eyes," he once wrote. "Friends who have no religion cannot long be my friends." And we recognise the loving unspoiled heart of a boy in the young man’s words, "Next to God comes papa." In this matter of religious feeling he was like his friend Haydn. He returned to Germany in 1779, thoroughly disgusted with French music and musicians. This was the dawn of his classical period as a composer. And what hardships he had to endure! At Mannheim, where he had settled, lack of money pinched him close. "I have only one room" he told his father; "it is quite crammed with a piano, a table, a bed, and a chest of drawers." Yet he, too, like Haydn in similar circumstances, proposed to marry! He had fallen in love, and the episode makes a very pretty story. At Mannheim there lived a certain orchestral copyist and stage prompter named Weber, an uncle, by the way, of the composer of Der Freischütz. Weber had a daughter, Aloysia, a girl of fifteen, pretty and musical. Mozart was engaged to teach her singing, and she engaged herself to him -- temporarily. Mozart was only twenty-three at this time, and he was still largely dependent on his father, who advised him to "get the great folks on your side" before thinking of marriage. But Mozart would listen to no warning. He even proposed to take Aloysia to Salzburg "to make the acquaintance of dear papa"; hoping, of course, that papa would give way when he discovered the lady’s charms and accomplishments.

But papa would have nothing to do with Aloysia, even when told that she sang divinely and played sonatas at first sight. In the meanwhile Aloysia had obtained an engagement at the Munich Theatre. There she achieved a success, and the success turned her little head. An impecunious musician for a husband was now quite out of the question, and she frankly said so. Mozart bore the trail very well for a sensitive, emotional young man of twenty-four. He even wrote to his father: "I was a fool about Aloysia, I own; but what is a man not when in love?" Aye, what not, indeed!

Mozart was not long in making a fool of himself again. Aloysia had married an actor by this time; but copyist Weber had three daughters still on his hands, and one of them took Mozart’s fancy. He could not help himself. Constance Weber had "a pair of bright, black eyes and a pretty figure"; she was "kind-hearted, clever, modest, good-tempered, economical, neat." It was utterly untrue, as Mozart père had asserted, that she was extravagant. On the contrary, she dressed her own hair, understood housekeeping, and had the best heart in the world. Mozart loved her with his "whole soul," and she loved him. Mozart wanted a wife to look after his linen, and because he could not live like the fast young men around him. What more was to be said? A good deal, at any rate by "dear papa," who took the common-sense view that Wolfgang should wait until he could afford to keep a wife. Wolfgang, like the wayward son in the novel, held a different opinion. "Constance," he wrote to his father, "is a well-conducted, good girl, of respectable parentage, and I am in a position to earn at least daily bread for her. We love each other and are resolved to marry. All that you have written, or may possibly write, on this subject can be nothing but well-meant advice, which, however good and sensible, can no longer apply to a man who has gone so far with a girl. There can therefore be no question of further delay." This was emphatic enough. The letter was followed immediately by another, asking consent to an early marriage. As no reply came, Mozart took silence for consent, and, in the summer of 1782, celebrated a quiet wedding at St. Stephen’s, Vienna (where Haydn had been married twenty-two years before), his bride being eighteen and himself twenty-six.

Was it, then, a happy wedded life upon which Mozart thus entered? So far as can be gathered from his letters, it was -- for him. Indeed, if we look at Frau Mozart with her husband’s loving eyes, we shall see no fault in her from first to last. But unfortunately Constance knew next to nothing about housekeeping, and as Mozart himself soared far above such mundane things, the home was too often the scene of untidiness and disorder, to which the perpetual worry of pecuniary embarrassments added anything but a pleasing flavour. There is a pathetically significant story to the effect that a friend called one winter day, and found Mozart and his wife waltzing round the room. "We were cold," they explained, "and we have no wood to make a fire." Think of that, and then think of the glorious works Mozart produced under such depressing conditions! And, to whatever extent his wife may have been to blame for the irregularities and shortcomings of the household, he at least never grumbled. His devotion to her was of that simple and childlike nature which makes sunshine in the house, even when the prospect seems darkest. When he went traveling he carried the portrait of his Constance in his breast, and sent her a daily letter, couched in the most endearing terms. In one letter he "encloses" her 1,095,060,437,082 kisses! And so the chequered, yet withal happy, life went on to the end. Almost his last written words were addressed by Mozart to his wife: "The hour strikes. Farewell! We shall meet again."

Within the nine years of the composer’s married life four sons and two daughters were born to him. Only two of the sons, Karl and Wolfgang Amadeus, survived. The latter adopted his father’s profession, and died at Carlsbad in 1844. Karl was a modest Austrian official, "a book-keeper of some kind," and died at Milan in 1858. Neither of the two married, and so there is not a single descendant of Mozart alive to-day. His beloved sister, the prodigy Nanerl, became a handsome woman; married (in 1784) a widower with several children; and died in 1829, twenty-eight years after her husband. She was all her life devoted to music. She even composed a few pieces, and was an excellent teacher as well as performer. Mozart’s widow, it may be convenient to add here, remarried and long outlived her husband, dying as late as 1842. She had inspired her new consort (his name was Nissen) with such devotion to Mozart’s fame that he wrote a eulogistic biography of the composer. There cannot be many instances of a second husband doing that sort of thing for the first.

Mozart’s marriage was very nearly coincident with his serious start as a composer. With a wife and a young family growing up around him, he was spurred to endeavour in their interests. He settled in Vienna, where Haydn already was, and where Beethoven and Schubert would soon be; and there he burnt himself out, like a torch expending its light in the wind. As an American writer has said, poverty and increasing expense pricked him into intense, restless energy. His life now had no lull in its creative industry. His splendid genius, unsatiable and tireless, broke down his body, like a sword wearing out its scabbard. He poured out symphonies (forty-nine in all), operas, and sonatas with a prodigality positively staggering, even when we recollect how fertile musical genius has often been. Alike as artist and composer, he never ceased his labours. Day after day and night after night he hardly snatched an hour’s rest. We can almost fancy he foreboded how short his life was to be, and felt impelled to crowd into its brief compass its largest measure of results.

His greatest works of these years -- nay, the greatest works of his life -- are the operas of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Il Flauto Magico, a trio that have maintained their artistic supremacy despite the many changes occurring in musical taste during a century. Of the three, perhaps the greatest is Don Giovanni. The story has often been told how Mozart began the composition with his usual energy, appeared to get indifferent, and put off the work till near the time fixed for its production at Prague. To Prague he journeyed to finish the score; and it is said that he wrote a considerable part of work in a summer-house while he kept us a conversation with some gentlemen playing bowls near by. The overture, at any rate, was entirely written after midnight, the day before it was required for the first performance, and there was barely time for the copyist to write out the parts before the beginning of the opera, which, indeed, was somewhat delayed on that account. And yet, all that Mozart received for this immortal work was £20. A present-day copyist would get more than that for merely transcribing it. The prices paid to Mozart for some of his operas were incredibly and ridiculously small. In those days nobody seemed to think of the productions of musical genius as a marketable commodity. Even literary men were not paid at so much per thousand words then.

And, alas! there was little money to be obtained by other means. Mozart tried frequent tours to recruit his finances, but the returns were so small that, to purchase a meal, he would often pawn the gifts showered on him. There is an authentic story of his pawning his plate in order to get to Frankfort for the coronation of the Emperor. Audiences would carry him to his hotel on their shoulders and -- leave him to beg for his dinner. So he struggled on through his last years, with the wolf constantly at the door, and with an invalid wife, whom he passionately loved, yet must needs see suffer, not only from the lack of alleviating medicines, but from the lack of the common necessaries of life. Mr. Haweis says it is difficult to account for all this. But let us remember that Mozart’s purse was always open to his friends, and that he was obliged to mix on equal terms with his superiors in rank. He was open-handed almost to criminality, as when he once, in the course of a tour, lent a total stranger a hundred francs. There may have been bad management in the home, but we cannot read Mozart’s letters and accuse him of wanton extravagance. He had the social character and the failings of his time and environment -- that was all. And then he was such a poor business man. He lost a golden chance of bettering his fortunes under the patronage of the King of Prussia. He had almost made up his mind to accept the King’s offer, and came to the Emperor Leopold, more than half prepared to resign a small post he held. "What! do you mean to forsake me, Mozart?" ejaculated the Emperor. Emotionally touched, Mozart replied: "May it please your Majesty, I will stay." When friends asked him afterwards if he had not thought of obtaining some little piece of imperial favour by way of compensation at the time, and with such a powerful lever in his hand, he answered innocently, "Who would have thought of that on such an occasion?" This shows the character of the man. Who would not have thought of it?

In 1791 the composer entered upon his thirty-sixth and last year. His wife had been at Baden for her health, and when she returned she noticed with alarm a pallor more fatal than her own upon her husband’s face. Mozart, weak and ill, had grown silent and melancholy. And that Requiem commission, referred to at the outset, had been preying on his mind. It is a weird story, and may be told as recorded by Dr. Nohl. One day an unknown messenger appeared at Mozart’s door: a tall, haggard man, dressed in grey, with a somber expression of countenance: a most singular figure, quite calculated to make an uncanny expression. This man brought Mozart an anonymous letter, in which he was asked to name the sum he would take to write a Mass for the dead. Mozart accepted the commission, and fixed the price at fifty ducats. Shortly afterwards the messenger returned, paid the money, and promised an additional honorarium when the Requiem was completed. Mozart was told at the same time to spare himself the trouble of trying to find out the name of his employer, as that must remain a secret.

Mozart began the composition at once. But he could not get rid of the uncomfortable idea suggested by the mystery of the commission, and the fact that the work was for the dead. It soon preyed on his mind; and one day, after he had been toiling at it, he said, with tears in his eyes: "I well know that I am writing this Requiem for myself." So it proved, as we have already seen. Enough has been said on that point. But who was the mysterious person who commissioned this fateful work? He was a certain Count Walsegg, who wanted to pose as a composer, and who, having at length got the Requiem as completed by Mozart’s pupil, Sussmayer, had a transcript made, and performed the work as his own. The fraud was ultimately discovered, but not before the conceited Count had gained a measure of fame by decking himself out in the borrowed plumes of the dead master.

Mozart’s death took place on December 5, 1791. Success was just about to come to him, as it was about to come to Schubert when he was called away. As he lay there, with swollen limbs and burning head, Vienna was ringing with the fame of his last opera. They brought him, too, the well-paid appointment of organist of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where Haydn had sung as a choir boy; where he and Mozart had been married. Managers besieged his door with handfuls of gold pleading with him to compose something for them. Too late! too late now! Mozart had answered another call. One cannot help moralizing on the sad fate of genius cut off while its powers are still in the ascendant. Schubert died at thirty-one, Mozart at thirty-five, Purcell and Bizet (the composer of Carmen) at thirty-seven, and Schumann at forty-six. Think if Mozart had seen Bach’s sixty-five summers; if Schubert, born with Mercadante in 1797, had died with Mercadante in 1870! What grand creations might we not have had to add to the world’s heritage of music!

Mozart might be described as a sort of Peter Pan who never grew up. He was always the sublime child. All his adult life he suffered from abnormal restiveness. His barber has told what a trouble it was to shave him. No sooner was he seated, his neck encircled with a cloth, than he became lost in thought and oblivious of all around him. Then, without a word, he would jump up, move about the room, pass often into the adjoining one, while, comb or razor in hand, the hairdresser followed him. At table it was frequently necessary to recall him to a sense of his surroundings, for his fits of abstraction would recur continually, and directly an inspiration seized him he forgot everything else. He would twist and untwist a corner of his dinner napkins, pass it mechanically under his nose, making at the same time the most extraordinary and grotesque grimaces. Musical geniuses are apt to behave in that way. Wagner sometimes stood on his head, and Beethoven washes his hands in the middle of the room and emptied the basin on the floor.

As a man, barring perhaps his improvidence, Mozart was wholly admirable, though, along with Schubert, he has suffered from the charge of being dissipated. Considering that in his short life he produced the prodigious total of 769 compositions, ranging from the very largest to the simplest song forms, his failings in this direction must have been very venial. His portraits show him to have been a handsome man, though of slight build, with an ample forehead, regular features, cleft chin, dreamy eyes, and well-arched brows. His hair, of which he was rather vain, is of course powdered and in a tie; and he wears the high-collared, large-buttoned coat, plain neckcloth, and wide-frilled shirt of the period. He was always pale, and he had a pleasant though not striking face. Under excitement his eyes lost their languid look. One who was present at the rehearsal of Figaro wrote: "I shall never forget Mozart’s little countenance when lighted up with the glowing rays of genius. It is as impossible to describe it as it would be to paint sunbeams." In some reminiscence his widow said that he "loved all the arts and possessed a taste for most of them. He could draw, and was an excellent dancer. His voice was a light tenor; his speaking tone gentle, unless when directing music, when he became loud and energetic -- would even stamp with his feet and might be heard at a considerable distance. His hands were very small and delicate. His favourite amusements were bowls and billiards." To all this the enthusiastic widow added: "He was an angel, and is one in heaven now." Mozart was very particular about his clothes, and wore a good deal of embroidery and jewelry. On the whole he was perhaps insignificant-looking, but he did not like to be made aware of the fact, or to have his small stature commented on. It should perhaps be stated that he had a peculiarly-shaped ear passage, much smaller than usual, which may or may not have had a bearing on his musical sensibility. The lobe of the left ear was thicker than that of the right, a peculiarity also possessed by Haydn.

Mozart’s musical greatness has been acknowledged by all his fellow composers. Weber, Mendelssohn and Wagner praised him in enthusiastic terms. Meyerbeer’s eyes became moist when speaking of him. "Who is your favourites among the great masters?" Rossini was once asked. "Beethoven," he replied, "I take twice a week, Haydn four times, and Mozart every day." Once he put it even more pointedly than this. He had been speaking to a friend about Beethoven, whom he called the greatest of all musicians. "What, then, of Mozart?" he was asked. "Oh," returned the sprightly Rossini, "Mozart is not the greatest, he is the only musician in the world." Ferdinand David said finely that "Mozart was music made man." And finally we may quote Schubert. "O Mozart!" said he, "immortal Mozart! How many and what countless images of a brighter, better world hast thou stamped on our souls."

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Renaissance Music
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Classical Era Music
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