Mozart's Musical Genius
Some historical figures are inextricably linked with their particular field or pursuit. When we think of great scientists, for example, the names Einstein and Newton immediately spring to mind – while mathematicians praise Pythagoras, sculptors rave about Rodin, dramatists adore Shakespeare, and artists pay homage to Picasso.
Everybody has their favorite, but these are universally recognized as the best of the best, true geniuses whose insight and craftsmanship paved the way for all those that followed. And when it comes to music, one name stands out as having made a unique and unequivocally important contribution: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart was born on 27 January 1756, and died on 5 December 1791. He was baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart and was one of the most prolific and influential composers of the Classical era.
His father Leopold was also a composer, but once he recognized his son's genius he gave up composing for good, focusing his attention on Wolfgang's education.
Mozart Started Young
Wolfgang was a true child prodigy who had written his first piece of music by the time he was 5 years old. For the next 30 years he produced one masterpiece after another – some 600 works in total – until his untimely death at the tender age of 35.
The range and sheer volume of Mozart’s output is astonishing. Born in 1756, he was both a product of the Classical period (1750 to 1820) and one of its greatest proponents. Yet despite the fact that his music is so obviously of its time, it somehow transcends it, and continues to appeal to a global audience whose thirst for it seems almost insatiable.
Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp
Mozart was a Genius, but a Hard-Working one
Why does his music still resonate some 200 years after his death? For many listeners it combines easy listening with an effortlessness few composers can match. Every note seems to be in the right place, and on first hearing you might think there is something almost trivial or oversimplified about it. But that really is missing the point.
In the same way that we marvel at Van Gogh’s sunflowers, we rarely sit back and consider everything that led up to its creation. Mozart’s ability to compose music that flows so beautifully is not merely the result of a spurt of inspiration, but represents the combination of a gifted musical mind and hours of patient work.
Some of his music is “simple” in the same way as the later line drawings of Picasso: they both possessed the skill and experience required to fashion a masterpiece with just a few strokes of the pen.
Mozart could write what might be considered “crowd-pleasers” – but that would also impress his colleagues and fellow composers; the perfect combination of style and substance.
Map of Salzburg, Mozart's Birthplace
Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, more recently famous as the setting for the film and musical The Sound of Music.
Music Defined by Mozart Himself
If you ever wondered what music meant to Mozart, this quote attributed to him sums it up rather well -- and puts his music into a broader perspective:
"Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music." - W A Mozart
Mozart was an Influential Composer
Imagine living for just 35 years and changing the face of music forever. Well, Mozart did exactly that. He took some of the Classical forms we take for granted like the sonata, symphony, concerto, string quartet and opera, and totally reinvented them. He laid the groundwork for Beethoven and Haydn who followed him, making every idea work to its full potential and letting the music dictate things like structure and phrase length.
Mozart traveled extensively during his short life, promoted by his father who used his son’s talents to earn a living for the family. On his journeys he came into contact with some of the big names in music at the time, including Haydn, Clementi, and J.C. Bach. His creativity and zest for knowledge allowed him to soak up everything he heard, from the incomparable performances of the Mannheim orchestra to the sometimes silly but always passionate Italian operas, all of which helped shape and refine his own style.
Mozart Symphony 40 in G Minor
Whatever you think about it, Mozart's music has influenced almost every musician and composer who followed him. His scores form the basis of classical music study for almost every instrument, required reading and repertoire for any pianist with pieces that cover the whole gamut from the simplest to the most complex.
Mozart's work served as a model for many composers, from Beethoven to Chopin to Tchaikovsky. No doubt there is a composer somewhere today trying to emulate the great Austrian giant, writing variations on a theme of Mozart like Beethoven, Chopin, Reger, Sor and Glinka did. Tchaikovsky's Orchestral Suite No. 4 in G is titled "Mozartiana" as a direct tribute to Mozart.
Mozart Ave Verum Corpus
Mozart's Best Ten Years
Mozart was most productive during the years 1781 and 1791 (sometimes called his “golden age”), a ten-year span during which he succeeded in establishing himself as a serious and profound composer. It was at this time that he wrote some of his most well-loved and cherished works, including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto, and the unfinished Requiem.
Joseph Haydn is quoted as saying that the world would not see such a talent again for at least 100 years. Mozart’s gift was certainly recognized during his lifetime, something all composers must aspire to, but that didn’t mean his passing would carry the same respect or notoriety. He was buried in a common grave (i.e. for common people and not aristocrats) and laid to rest with little pomp or circumstance.
It is thought that Salieri, Süssmayr (one of Mozart’s students) and other musicians attended the burial. Shortly after his death, memorial services and concerts were given in Mozart’s honor in both Prague and Vienna. Biographies were written and publishers competed for the rights to print complete editions of his musical output.
Mozart Clarinet Concerto
Mozart’s Gift to Us
Mozart’s influence continues to be felt today. His piano pieces remain required study for students of all ages, while his orchestral and operatic works amuse and impress in equal measure.
Hundreds if not thousands of piano concertos have been written since Mozart’s time, but it was he who established it as a significant musical force. His symphony No. 40 in G minor – written in 1788 in the middle of his most productive period – is the very epitome of what a Classical symphony should be. His operas The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro are staples in the diet of many a company’s repertoire.
If he were alive today, Mozart would be a global celebrity. His music would fill cinemas and theaters worldwide, putting him at least on par with the very best composers for film, TV, and musicals. Since his death in 1791, few have been able to match his output or appeal. His music might be more than 200 years old, but it still dazzles and delights all those who take the time to listen.
Now take the quiz below to discover how much you've learned!
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Questions & Answers
Wasn't Mozart's sister also very talented and something of a wunderkind?
Yes, his sister was a talented harpsichord player. In those days, however, once a girl reached the age at which she could be married, she was urged to hide her talents. From that point on, everything she did was for the benefit of her husband and their family. Otherwise, she might also have written some wonderful music. And who knows? Maybe she did and it will be discovered some day.