Mozart: where to start with his music

He was a child prodigy who excelled in every genre to which he turned his hand, his music combining melodic beauty and the most daring formal perfection – all coloured by his remarkable gift for emotional ambiguity

In the opinion of many the greatest of all composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) began his career as a child prodigy, and went on to achieve pre-eminence in every genre to which he turned his hand. His music combines melodic beauty, with innovative formal perfection and a remarkable ability to capture and explore deep ambiguities of emotion and feeling.

Music you might recognise

Many of his works are immediately familiar, among them Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K525; Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K550; and the slow movement of Piano Concerto No 21 in C, K467, popularised in the 1960s by Bo Widerberg’s film Elvira Madigan, and heard since in countless adverts. (The letter “K”, appended to Mozart’s music, refers to Ludwig von Köchel’s 1862 catalogue of his output). Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh filmed Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and countless directors have used his music in their films, including Luis Buñuel in L’Age d’Or and Elem Klimov in Come and See. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, filmed in 1984, is a well-known, if inaccurate, dramatisation of Mozart’s years in Vienna, coloured by the much voiced, if hugely disputed idea, particularly prevalent in the 19th century, that his music was divine in origin and represents the voice of God embodied in sound.

Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt – video

His life …

He was born in Salzburg, the son of a composer-violinist at the city’s archiepiscopal court. Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) was determined to exploit Wolfgang’s talent, which was apparent by the time he was five, when he composed his first pieces. From the age of six, Leopold took his “miracle” son on extended tours of Europe, exhibiting him at courts and academies, where his precocity as both composer and pianist was much admired. Wolfgang absorbed and assimilated the music he heard during their travels, composing his first symphony when he was eight, in London, where the Mozarts encountered Johann Christian Bach (Johann Sebastian’s youngest son), whose own symphonies influenced the boy’s work.

Mozart wrote his first opera, the Latin intermezzo Apollo et Hyacinthus, when he was 11, following it a year later with Bastien und Bastienne, a singspiel (a work in German with spoken dialogue) and the Italian comedy La Finta Semplice. When he was 17, he entered the service of the new Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus von Colloredo, though he was later permitted to make forays elsewhere, to Paris and Mannheim in 1777-78, finally without Leopold, and Munich in 1780-81.

Illustration of the adventurer and author Casanova
Reflecting a contemporary fascination with erotic manipulation ... Casanova. Photograph: ullstein bild/Getty Images

He came to detest Salzburg as restrictive, though his years in the city saw the gradual consolidation of his style. Many of his symphonies date from this period, as does his first important piano concerto, No 9 in E Flat K271, commonly known as the “Jeunehomme”. His five violin concertos were composed between 1773 and 1775: the adagio of the Third is an exquisite example of his bittersweet melodic style. The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola – among the first works to use the viola as a solo instrument – dates from 1779.

And times …

Mozart lived during the closing years of the Enlightenment, when the philosophical rationalism of the early 18th century was challenged by cults of feeling that pre-empted Romanticism. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also a composer, encouraged ideas of sensibility and subjectivity, and Bastien und Bastienne parodies Rousseau’s 1752 opera Le Devin du Village. Mozart also lived at a time when an emerging bourgeoisie began to challenge aristocratic assumptions about privilege and libertinage, which strongly colours the emphasis on class conflict and differing codes of sexual behaviour in his later operas. His librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte was a friend of Casanova, while the games of erotic manipulation of Così Fan Tutte echo those of Laclos’s 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Why his music still matters …

Idomeneo, Mozart’s first mature opera, was premiered in Munich in January 1781. Later that year, Mozart broke decisively if acrimoniously with Colloredo’s court, settling in Vienna as a freelance composer, performer and teacher, though in 1787, he secured a part-time position at the imperial court, primarily composing dance music. In 1782 he married the soprano Constanze Weber. Though the idea that Mozart lived in poverty has been much exaggerated, the couple were frequently short of money. Mozart became a Freemason in 1784: his later correspondence with his fellow Mason Michael von Puchberg contains repeated requests for financial assistance.

Tom Hulce in the title role of the 1984 film Amadeus
Tom Hulce in the title role of the 1984 film Amadeus. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

In the last decade of his life, he produced a sequence of extraordinary masterpieces on which his reputation primarily rests. For his own subscription concerts, he composed 15 remarkable piano concertos, Nos 11 to 25, for himself and his pupils to play, giving the form new prominence, depth and seriousness. Discovery of the works of Bach and Handel strongly influenced his use of counterpoint in both symphonic development and operatic ensembles. He also became friends with Haydn, drawing upon the latter’s pioneering innovations in symphonic and chamber music. His chamber works from the period also include two major string quintets and the E Flat Divertimento, K563, the first important work for string trio in musical history.

His most familiar symphonies also date from the 1780s, including the concise Haffner No 35 in D, K385, from 1782, and the more expansive Prague No 38, also in D, K504, premiered during his first visit to the city in 1787. His last three symphonies were written in rapid succession during the summer of 1788. Mozart’s use of counterpoint is little short of dazzling in No 41 in C, K551, the Jupiter, above all in the final movement, which weaves five themes together in one of the most jubilant passages in the entire symphonic repertoire.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, recorded at the Aix en Provence festival in 2017 – video

In 1782, meanwhile, the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an imperial commission, proved popular at its premiere, though its virtuoso vocal writing provoked the Emperor Joseph II’s infamous comment that the opera had “too many notes”. The late 1780s were dominated, however, by his collaboration with Da Ponte on Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così Fan Tutte (1790). Figaro and Così are both described as opera buffas (comic operas), while Don Giovanni, with its metaphysical narrative of desire and damnation, is a “dramma giocoso”, altogether darker in mood. All three are works of tremendous humanity, driven by an astonishing succession of arias and extended ensembles, which reveal Mozart’s ability to empathise fully with each of his characters in turn, even in moments of violence, moral uncertainty or existential crisis, resulting in a sense of profound emotional ambiguity that far transcends any conventional notion of comedy and tragedy.

In 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart composed a further pair of string quintets, his only Clarinet Concerto, and his last two, very different operas. La Clemenza di Tito is an opera seria examining the moral responsibilities of absolute power. The singspiel Die Zauberflöte was written as a popular entertainment, not unlike pantomime, for a suburban Viennese theatre, overlaying a sprawling fairytale with esoteric Masonic imagery.

At his death, he left unfinished his Requiem, commissioned by an aristocratic patron, who probably intended to pass it off as his own. We owe the legend that Mozart came to believe he was writing it for his own funeral to Constanze, whose veracity has frequently been questioned. Its first posthumous completion, by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, is nowadays most frequently heard, though others have prepared performing editions of the score.

Mozart’s music has never been out of the repertory, though the reputation of individual works fluctuated after his death: the 19th century, for instance, found Così Fan Tutte trivial, and it was only in the 20th that its subtlety and sadness became widely appreciated. The depth and range of Mozart’s symphonies and concertos, however, have long represented the pinnacle of classical form, and his operas are performed in every opera house in the world. In Mozart’s own lifetime, Haydn acknowledged him as a genius superior to himself, and the many composers who later considered him the greatest of all include Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.

Great performers …

Mozart’s music has been extensively recorded, using both conventional forces and period instruments. Interpreters as far apart as Karl Böhm and Charles Mackerras have tackled the complete symphonies, though few have quite captured the exaltation of the Jupiter more powerfully than Otto Klemperer, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s intense way with the late symphonies is immensely appealing. There are complete cycles of the piano concertos by Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia and Christian Zacharias, while significant interpreters of the violin works include Isabelle Faust and Giuliano Carmignola. Karl Böhm’s recordings of the major operas have been much admired over the years, with John Eliot Gardiner and Harnoncourt providing superb alternatives. Klemperer’s authoritative way with Don Giovanni, though, remains uniquely compelling: his Zauberflöte is similarly still considered a classic, as is Erich Kleiber’s 1955 recording of Le Nozze di Figaro.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Handel: where to start with his music
Hallelujah! This week, the composer whose music illuminated Georgian London, and who refined the art of bringing emotion alive in works that still resonate for us today

Erica Jeal

04, Nov, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Britten: where to start with his music
The man who put British opera on an international stage and changed the UK’s musical map for ever, his pacifism and his sense of being an outsider inspired much of his most memorable writing

Erica Jeal

16, Sep, 2020 @4:09 PM

Article image
Haydn: where to start with his music
Humorous, earnest, prolific and always deeply humane, the Austrian composer is credited with inventing the symphony and the string quartet. Even if that’s not strictly true, his creativity shaped western classical music

Rian Evans

14, Oct, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Beethoven: where to start with his music
We begin our new series with Beethoven, the gruff uncompromising genius who changed music forever

Andrew Clements

01, Jul, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Stravinsky: where to start with his music
His music started a riot and was chosen by Disney to create the world. He collaborated with Picasso and Auden and influenced composers from Boulez to Tavener. Twentieth-century music is unimaginable without Stravinsky

Andrew Clements

22, Jul, 2020 @10:49 AM

Article image
Schubert: where to start with his music
The most poetic musician who ever lived? It’s hard to disagree with Liszt’s appraisal of Schubert, who, in his short life, used his astonishing gift for melodic and harmonic invention to create many enduring masterpieces

Andrew Clements

30, Sep, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Brahms: where to start with his music
Our new series continues with Brahms - for some a reactionary, for others a radical, the highly wrought dramas of his symphonies and concertos and the quiet distinction of his chamber works have ensured his music endures

Andrew Clements

08, Jul, 2020 @1:52 PM

Article image
Mahler: where to start with his music
Conceived on a massive scale, Gustav Mahler’s seismic symphonies draw on the folk poetry of his native Bohemia and include the longest ever written by a major composer

Andrew Clements

29, Jul, 2020 @11:01 AM

Article image
Dvořák: where to start with his music
The Czech composer found inspiration in the New Worlds of the US, and his music has been to the moon, but it was in his native Bohemia that his heart lay.

Rian Evans

11, Nov, 2020 @12:04 PM

Article image
JS Bach: where to start with his music
With religious music so involving he could inspire faith in non-believers, the German composer’s sense of harmony makes him a shared reference point for all classical composers

Erica Jeal

26, Aug, 2020 @9:00 AM