E85.2073: Music Literature: The Classical Period
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791
The Prodigy Years 1760-1771

Copyright 1997-98 John V. Gilbert All Rights Reserved

Mozart was born in Salzburg which was then one of the partially independent units of the German Empire, a part of Bavaria which is now western Austria. From the first, Mozart's father recognized the genius of his young prodigy and served as his teacher and manager throughout Mozart's early years. Mozart and his older sister, Nannerl, were "showcased" throughout Europe. Thus it was that Mozart was exposed to the mid-Century style of Europe, of Italy, of Paris, and London.

Mozart's career might be examined as the

Mozart's life was so brief that the customary division of a composer's output as early, middle and late as might be done with Haydn, are irrelevant. During his years of travel, Mozart acquired facets of style and musical practice from the countries and cities he visited. He composed with such facility that one has to marvel at the enormous productivity that drawfs the output of many composers who lived to be twice his age. With each composition, Mozart was breaking new ground for himself. In his works we have the chronology of an emerging genius and we can share in his music the leaps that literally transform genre and style, leaving an imprint and model for others to follow.

The first of the travels began in 1762 and took the Mozart family to the Elector Court in Munich. Later that year Mozart went to Vienna, to Paris, Versailles, and finally to London. Everywhere Mozart was received as a charming prodigy who won the hearts of royalty and nobility. In Vienna, Leopold noted that young Wolfgang climbed on the lap of the Empress and "kissed her thoroughly." Both he and Nannerl were presented court costumes by the Empress, Mozart's costume having been designed originally for the youngest of the imperial children, the Archduke Maximilian, who later became Beethoven's patron.

His childhood works were more than just student works. They were the working "journals" for all that he was learning in his travels. We find his synthesis of elements of Viennese classicism, Stürm und Drang, emfindsamkeit, of French styles, and of the music he heard in London, especially the work of Johann Christian Bach. These earliest works reveal glimpses of what is to come and are quite original and inventive. In London, Mozart's father became seriously ill and their stay was prolonged. During August or September of 1764, while his father lay ill, Mozart composed Symphony No.1 in E-flat Major when he was eight years old. The symphony was performed in Londay on February 21, 1765. According to his sister, Nannerl, the symphony was to be played "by all instruments, trumpets, and timpani." Actually the work is scored for a Neapolitan orchestra which consisted of two oboes, two horns, and strings. However, there are two overlapping versions of the score, Mozart's earliest version and one with "improvements" made by his father, so that the scoring did change from the earlier intentions. Although it is certain that his father had a hand in editing the work, there are unmistakable traits in this first symphony that we will recognize in later Mozart works, especially the use of contrasting textures and of a contrasting lyrical second theme, often based on a descending musical motif or gesture. The rising bass figure near the end of the exposition is reminiscent of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The symphony is in three movements, with the middle movement in c minor a clear manifestation of the Stürm und Drang, an almost eerie, gothic atmosphere as interpreted through the eyes and ears of an eight year old.

Upon their return to Salzburg, the Mozarts remained there for less than a year. By now the young prodigy was taken seriously as a composer. On his return trip to Vienna (September, 1767-January, 1769), Mozart did not create the same sensation as his earlier visit; he was now twelve years old and no longer a surprise as a performer. However, he was invited to compose an opera for the Emperor. This commission was a honor, and Mozart composed La Finta semplice, but the work was not performed at that time. The work was passed over by theatrical management in order to perform a revival of Piccinni's highly popular La Buoana figliuola. There is nothing in this first opera to siggest that Mozart would soon dominate this genre. But it has also been noted that there was nothing to suggest that it had been composed by a child.

In December of 1769, Mozart and his father then made the first of three important visits to Italy. These visits were to have a profound influence of Mozart's development. His first trip included Milan, Bolgna, Naples, and Rome. Everywhere he was acknowledged for his extraordinary abilities as a performer, but his reputation as a composer was continuing to grow. Through his study of composition with Padre Martini of Bologna, Mozart was accepted into Bologna's Accademia filharmonica, even though there appeared to be some leniency with regard to the written examination required for entrance. He heard performances in Rome and it was from his experience there that the famous episode of his writing out the score from memory of Allegri's nine-part Miserere upon a single listening of the work.

In Milan, Mozart was commissioned to compose an opera Mitridate which was so successful that it led to Mozart's second visit to Italy in August of 1770. Mozart's acquisition and synthesis of the Italian style made him extremely popular with the Italians. This is attested to in that his third visit lasted from October 1772 to March 1773. After this trip he returned to Salzburg by way of Vienna from July to September, 1773. Once in Salzburg, Mozart remained there for the first time in many years for more than a year. It was during this time that Mozart and his father began to recognize that Salzburg was not a place where he could expect the kind of opportunity that his talents deserved. He asked for dismissal from his court appointment which was readily and gladly granted since Mozart had rarely been present.

By now, at the age of 17, the young prodigy had achieved an acknowledged status as an important composer. Everywhere he had traveled, from London, Paris, to Rome he had proven himself as a remarkable performer and an even greater composer. By this time he had composed almost 200 works included operas, songs, masses, concertos, symphonies, and sonatas. He had travelled the world and met most of the most important composers, performers and impresarios of his day. In his youth he had virtually conquered the musical world and the future lay ahead as a bright promise of things to come.

Yet, the seeds of his tragic life had been planted during this time. From his outstanding successes on the international scene and from the sheer magnitude of his work in his young career, Mozart should have attracted an important court position. Mozart and his father had hoped such a position would materialize in Vienna, which was the basis for several of their early trips to Vienna, but the Empress Maria Theresa, who had been cordial and polite (even presenting the Mozart children with court clothes) regarded them as beggars and warned her son about ever considering them to be associated with the court in any way:

You ask me about taking into your services the young Salzburg musician. I do not know in what capacity, believing that you have no need for a composer or for useless people. ...What I say is intended only to urge you not to burden yourself with useless people, and not to give such people permission to represent themselves as belonging in your service. It gives one's service a bad name when such people run about like beggars; he has, besides, a large family.
Thus Mozart's life would be one of ongoing financial insecurity. Yet, he could not know this as he entered the more mature and challenging years of his career. As a teenager of enormous accomplishment, the future could only hold the fame and rewards that his genius, perseverance, and achievements deserved.

It of interest to note that during this time the composer never spent one day in school. His education was through his father, his mother and older sister, his travels, and his capacity for immediately remembering everything he experienced. He read constantly, always on the lookout for a work that could serve as a libretto for an opera. In his letters he reveals himself to be more interested in people than things. He always gives detailed accounts of his meetings with people and his opinions of them. His letters do not go into great detail about the surroundings, cities, and buildings. He appears to be much more interested in people and music. It is this genuine interest that informs the music of his operas. His music serves as a manifestation of characters, an embodiment of his understanding translated into musical ideas.