Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Austrian composer

1756 - 1791

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an Austrian composer, is considered one of the greatest and most creative musical geniuses of all time. With Joseph Haydn, he was the leading composer of the classical style of the late 1700's. Mozart died before his 36th birthday, but he still left more than 600 works.

Mozart was born in Salzburg. His father, Leopold, was the leader of the local orchestra, and also wrote an important book about violin playing. At the age of 3, Wolfgang showed signs of remarkable musical talent. He learned to play the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that preceded the piano, at the age of 4. He was composing music at 5, and when he was 6, he played for the Austrian empress at her court in Vienna.

Before he was 14, Mozart had composed many works for the harpsichord, piano, or the violin, as well as orchestral and other works. His father recognized Wolfgang's amazing talent and devoted most of his time to his son's general and musical education. While serving as his teacher, Leopold took Wolfgang on concert tours through much of Europe. Wolfgang composed, gave public performances, met many musicians, and played the organ in many churches. In 1769, like his father before him, he began working for the archbishop of Salzburg, who also ruled the province. The Mozarts often quarreled with the archbishop, partly because Wolfgang was often absent from Salzburg. The archbishop dismissed young Mozart in 1781.

Mozart was actually glad to leave Salzburg, a small town, and seek his fortune in Vienna, one of the music capitals of Europe. By this time people took less notice of him, because he was no longer a child prodigy. But he was a brilliant performer and active as a composer.

Mozart married in 1782. He earned his living in Vienna by selling his compositions, giving public performances, and giving music lessons. None of these activities produced enough income to support his family. Mozart even traveled to Germany for the coronation of a new emperor, but his concerts there did not attract as much attention as he hoped. Mozart died in poverty on Dec. 5, 1791.

Mozart excelled in almost every kind of musical composition. Several of his 22 operas gained wide recognition before and after his death, and they still please audiences all over the world. The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787) are operas Mozart composed with words in Italian. The Magic Flute (1791) has German texts. Each of these operas contains arias (songs for single voices), recitative (rapidly sung dialogue), ensembles in which several people sing at the same time, and choruses. The orchestra provides an ever-changing expressive accompaniment. The drama ranges from comedy to tragedy.

Mozart wrote over 40 symphonies, many of which are performed today. Some originally were overtures (orchestral introductions) for operas, and last only a few minutes. His later symphonies, which are the most popular, are full-length orchestral compositions that last 20 to 30 minutes. Most consist of four movements (sections). His last and most famous symphony, Number 41 (1788), is nicknamed the Jupiter.

Mozart composed a great amount of church music, most of it for performance at the Salzburg Cathedral. He wrote Masses and shorter pieces called motets; and he set psalms to music, especially for the vespers (afternoon or evening) service. The music is beautiful and varied. It includes choral and solo parts, usually with accompaniment by organ and orchestra. Mozart's best-known sacred work is the Requiem (Mass for the Dead). He began it in 1791 and while writing it seems to have become concerned about his own death. Parts of the Requiem were composed during his final illness. He died before the work was finished.

Mozart wrote other, generally lighter, orchestral works, called serenades. Some were intended for outdoor performance. One has become well known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music, 1787). Mozart also wrote many compositions called concertos for a solo instrument such as violin or piano, with orchestral accompaniment. He often played the solo part.

Throughout his life Mozart composed chamber music -- works for a small number of instruments in which only one musician plays each part. Mozart concentrated on string quartets (two violins, viola, and cello). He was influenced in this by Haydn, whose quartets he admired, and to whom he dedicated six quartets.

Mozart's sonatas for keyboard (harpsichord or piano) and for violin and keyboard are outstanding. The piano was then still fairly new and was widely played by amateurs. More than any other composer, Mozart helped to make the instrument popular.

In spite of his hardships and disappointments, much of Mozart's music is cheerful and vigorous. He had a sense of humor and liked puns and practical jokes. He composed many lighter works. These works include the opera Cosi Fan Tutte (All Women Are Like That, 1790), much of his early instrumental music, and canons (rounds) with nonsense words.

Mozart also produced deeply serious music. His most profound works include his late piano concertos, several string quartets, the string quintet in G minor, and his last three symphonies--E flat major, G minor, and the Jupiter. Larger works contain both serious and light elements, as does Don Giovanni.

Mozart belonged to the Order of Freemasons and wrote several compositions for their meetings. Some scenes from his fairy-tale opera The Magic Flute were inspired by Masonic traditions and beliefs.

A catalog of Mozart's works was first prepared in the 1800's by Ludwig Kochel, a German music lover. Mozart's works are still identified by the numbers Kochel assigned to them. A famous music and theater festival held each summer in Salzburg features his works.

Contributor: Daniel T. Politoske, Ph.D., Prof. of Music History, Univ. of Kansas.

Additional resources

Landon, H. C. Robbins, ed. The Mozart Compendium. Schirmer Bks., 1990.

Solomon, Maynard. Mozart. HarperCollins, 1995.


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