Great dynasties of the world: The Mozarts

Pushy father, rebellious son

In 1756, Leopold Mozart, a violin teacher from Salzburg, and his wife, Anna Maria Pertl, had a son, their seventh child, whom they named Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus. The Mozarts lived in a small flat with ceilings so low that the rooms, according to one biographer, resembled "the filling in a sandwich". Squeezed happily together, the Mozarts also celebrated in 1756 the publication of Leopold's Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing. It seemed as though Leopold might have a great career as a pedagogue before him. As it turned out, it was his son who was to become his life's work.

Only two of Leopold and Anna's seven children survived – Wolfgang (pictured) and his older sister, Maria Anna (known as Nannerl). Leopold taught the young Mozarts everything he knew and from an early age they showed great musical promise – promise that, Leopold realised, could be turned into money.

The musical Mozart family began touring. Nannerl was accomplished, but it was the little lilac-coated Wolfgang who was the family's star performer. "All the ladies are in love with my boy," boasted proud Leopold, who acted as manager and mentor, and sold souvenirs as they travelled relentlessly round Europe. Together they toured Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Switzerland, Italy and England, seeing off various bouts of small pox, rheumatic fever and typhoid. The Mozarts were troupers.

The relationship between the Mozarts has often been retold, but can still best be traced through Emily Anderson's multi-volume translation of their letters, The Letters of Mozart and his Family (1938). The letters between father and son are particularly revealing: they have become, in the words of one critic, "the raw material for analysis". Psychoanalysts both amateur and professional might indeed have much to say about this extraordinary cache of family documents – Leopold was a great hoarder – which reveal a dictatorial father, a rebellious son and a family love of scatological humour. The Mozarts, in their letters, certainly seem odd, intense, and overly involved.

But John Rosselli, in his book, The Life of Mozart (1998), points out that we entirely misunderstand the family dynamic if we expect the Mozarts to behave in "modern British or American fashion, as one distinct individual facing others". The Mozarts, Rosselli claims, saw themselves as a family body of which they "were inescapably a part, even when they were angry with each other."

And they were often angry. And scolding. And full of reproach. When Mozart set off on tour without his father, for example, Leopold cautioned, "There must be attention and daily concentration on earning some money, and you must cultivate extreme politeness in order to ingratiate yourself with people of standing."

Father and son inevitably drifted apart. But in his last letter to his father, from Vienna in 1787, Mozart writes imploringly, inquiring of his father's sickness, "do not keep it from me, so I can be in your arms as quickly as is humanly possible".

In the second edition of his violin treatise (1769), Leopold promised to write an account of the genius of his son, announcing him to the world. He never got round to it. The music, of course, speaks for itself.

Inevitably, Wolfgang's own children would never shine as brightly as their brilliant father. Only two of the six children from his marriage to Constanze Weber outlived him. Karl Thomas Mozart was an accomplished pianist, but did not perform professionally; his brother, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, showed great potential as a composer, but was forever overshadowed by his father. On his tombstone was etched: "May the name of his father be his epitaph, as his veneration for him was the essence of his life."

Ian Sansom


Ian Sansom

The GuardianTramp

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