Mozart A Penguin Life

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 1999-06-01
  • Publisher: Viking Adult

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Mozart's unshakable hold on the public's fascination can only be strengthened by historian and biographer Peter Gay's bold new perspective which traces the legendary developments of the man whose life was a whirlwind of achievement.

Author Biography

Peter Gay is director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University.

Table of Contents

The Prodigy
The Son
The Servant
The Freelance
The Beggar
The Master
The Dramatist
The Classic
Notes 165(8)
Bibliographical Note 173


Chapter One

The Prodigy

The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness. A few five- or six-year-olds of his time could produce pretty variations on a theme or lure coherent tunes from a harpsichord with its keyboard covered so that they could not see their hands. But unlike other mid-eighteenth-century Wunderkinder, Mozart refined his inventions and his performances into breathtaking beauty and never showed the slightest sign of fading into ordinary adolescence, a fate that has always bedeviled prodigies. In the course of a sadly truncated life--he died on December 5, 1791, at the age of thirty-five--Mozart claimed a place at the thinly occupied pantheon of the greatest composers.

    Naturally enough, from his childhood on, ardent admirers turned Mozart into a celebrity whose life was obscured by legends. Nor have the scholarly efforts of modern biographers dislodged the images that fond music lovers like to summon up when they hear his name: Mozart the willful child unable to outgrow his infantile ways; the wizard so captivating that no one dared to question his credentials for a moment; the miracle worker who never needed to revise a single note in his lightning-quick impromptu inspirations; the exhausted volcano who took the mysterious commission to compose a requiem as a supernatural hint at his own impending demise; the derelict who was buried in a pauper's grave. Not even his name has survived intact: Mozart rarely used the Latinate middle name Amadeus and greatly preferred the French Amadé.

    By and large these tenacious caricatures are distortions rather than fabrications; most of them, as we shall discover, contain a kernel of truth. But many music lovers (like other lovers) demand an extraordinary talent to have lived an extraordinary life filled with memorable encounters, dramatic turning points, and dazzling achievements unduplicable, even unimaginable, by lesser beings. But Mozart's life in music is fascinating enough without embroidery; his reputation as a genius is not threatened by mundane truths.

    For Mozart was a genius, a rank that the most unsentimental biographer cannot deny him. The aged Goethe, who as a young man had heard the seven-year-old boy concertize in Frankfurt, considered him to be "unreachable" in music, on a level with Raphael and Shakespeare in their domains. Goethe defined genius as a "productive power" whose actions "have consequences and lasting life," and he noted that "all the works of Mozart are of this sort." Hence, when his father called young Mozart a "prodigy of nature," he was not simply engaging in salesmanship. Mozart's symphonies and piano concertos, piano and violin sonatas, chamber music and divertimentos, operas, concert arias, and masses reached levels that only a few composers have ever hoped to approach. Joseph Haydn, who could judge other composers with the authority guaranteed by his own achievement, famously told Mozart's father "before God and as an honest man" that his son was "the greatest composer" he knew "either in person or by name." In 1787, when Mozart was thirty-one, Haydn declined an invitation from Prague to write an opera buffa and called attention to the "Great, the inimitable works of Mozart, so deep and with such a musical understanding ." If men with influence would only recognize his worth, Haydn asserted, "the nations would compete to possess such a jewel within their fortified walls."

Joannes Christostomos Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart was born in Salzburg on January 27, 1756, the seventh and last child of Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart, née Pertl. Of his siblings, five died in infancy, and only one sister, four years his elder, survived: Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, called Nannerl. This appalling balance sheet was only too common in Mozart's century, even among the prosperous; Edward Gibbon's father, for one, gave each of his six sons the same first name, Edward, in the expectation--justified, it turned out--that only one of them would carry it to adulthood.

    Mozart's father, Leopold, who loomed large in his son's life, was a well-educated professional musician in the employ of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg as a violinist and assistant conductor--a kapellmeister. His textbook of 1756 on the art of violin playing spread his name across Europe. "The most excellent violinists that Germany possessed in the second half of the eighteenth century," noted one contemporary observer, "were trained by its means." This was the time for authoritative treatises on performance. Just four years earlier, the German flautist Johann Joachim Quantz had published an influential textbook on the transverse flute. If Leopold Mozart had written his autobiography, though, he would certainly have made much of his talent as a fertile and versatile composer. His compositions ran to the playful, but he could turn out a mass or an oratorio, a symphony or a concerto on demand. A few contemporary writers on music bestowed on him the epithet "famous," but only a handful among his works have survived in the repertory; his humorous six-part program piece, The Sleigh Ride , is still performed occasionally. In the end, whatever prestige remains to him rests on having been Mozart's father.

    As his copious correspondence attests, Leopold Mozart was a keen-eyed traveler and amateur social historian; his pages-long letters home from London, Munich, Paris, Vienna, Milan, and smaller places in between provide precise, valuable information about populations and customs, prices and the local state of health, the attitudes of the upper echelons toward music--which is to say about the Mozarts' offerings--and amusing anecdotes about incidents vividly observed. Another subject with which he liked to regale his intimate correspondents was his health--he chronicled his aches and pains in rigorous, technical detail as well as the medications he took, not forgetting the exact dosage he found most restorative.

    Though a lively correspondent, Leopold Mozart was a stern and self-absorbed schoolmaster. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who performed for years in Vienna and sang in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro , remembered him as "a pleasing intelligent little man." But not everyone agreed that he was pleasing. His favorite pupils--his children--found him an exigent if professional teacher. "You know," he wrote to a friend in 1766, when Nannerl was fourteen and Mozart ten, "my children are used to working." He tried to control his children's musical labors even when he was on tour with his son. Early in 1770, writing from Milan, he asked his wife anxiously: "Is Nannerl diligently playing the piano?" The portraits of him that have survived suggest a man severe and unyielding, marked by a prominent nose that was the most visible legacy he left to Nannerl and Wolfgang. His invisible legacy was more complicated.

    Mozart's mother complemented, certainly did nothing to resist, her husband's ambitions for his children, though on occasion she softened his extreme demands on Nannerl and Wolfgangerl. She had brought no dowry into the marriage, a state that Leopold Mozart a little drily described as "the Order of Mended Trousers." But she compensated for her poverty by being less tense about life, less filled with worries and hatreds than her husband. A sturdy traveler who accompanied her family on several extensive concert tours, she was good-natured, a welcome contrast to her husband's almost paranoid misanthropy; fortunately, considering her family, she seems to have been fond of music. But her paramount duty, as she never failed to impress on her children, was to serve her husband. To her mind, his moods deserved the closest attention; his demands were by definition reasonable.

    In Mozart's day, Salzburg, the town and the surroundings that bore its name, boasted some seventeen thousand inhabitants, a sizable city for the time. A small, semi-independent country squeezed between Bavaria on the west and the Hapsburg domains on the east, like most of central Europe part of the decaying Roman Empire, it was mainly susceptible to pressures from Vienna, and largely conducted its affairs as though it were Austrian territory. For many centuries, it had been ruled by a prince-archbishop, who dominated finances, education, the relations of church and state, with the submissive support of a mayor and a town council. The prince-archbishop, too, was the fount of whatever music or theater or festivals the local citizenry might enjoy.

    In the course of the eighteenth century, as travelers seeking the wilder, most picturesque aspects of nature discovered, Salzburg was an admirable place for the views. Situated on the river Salzach and virtually surrounded by hills, the town in which Mozart grew up was also amply supplied with colorful private houses and impressive public buildings--the cathedral, churches, the university--mainly dating from the seventeenth century. The urban scenery reminded visitors of a late-Renaissance town; to Mozart, the Italian cities he visited must have looked quite familiar.

    Salzburg was a mercantile town; its business was business. Among its inhabitants, only heads of households with a solid occupation--bankers, importers, wholesalers, manufacturers of spices and cloth--were recognized as citizens; during Mozart's lifetime, just around five hundred families, about one in seven or eight, qualified as Bürger . This gave them the right to stand for office, and they virtually monopolized the town's government.

    But this distinctive legal definition of Bürger was at least partially subverted by men of talent and adroitness, especially by those musically gifted, since the love of music was a widespread and authentic passion. The Mozarts were not Bürger , but they mixed with them socially, usually on a footing of equality. One of Leopold Mozart's closest friends and favorite correspondents was Johann Lorenz Hagenauer, a leading, prosperous dealer in spices who was also his banker, financial advisor, and, for years, the Mozarts' landlord. Except for passages marked "for you alone," Leopold Mozart's letters to Hagenauer circulated among friends and acquaintances in Salzburg. No wonder that some of the Salzburgers thought that these letters should be published.

    As one might expect, the Mozarts thoroughly adopted the values of the local bourgeoisie: hard work, honest dealings, fidelity to one's spouse, prompt discharge of debts. "You know," Leopold Mozart in 1778 warned his son, who, he feared, might incur frivolous financial obligations, "my credit here is good with everybody--as soon as I lose that, my honor is gone," and, he stressed, "you know that honor is more important to me than my life." At the same time, Leopold Mozart, and later his son, led a double life. For in addition to being welcome in Salzburg's leading middle-class circles, they were the more or less humble employees of the prince-archbishop, whose favor or disfavor could virtually dictate the ups and downs of their careers.

An open and affectionate child, Mozart craved affection in turn. He searched for signs of love wherever he could find or produce them. As a six-year-old on a visit to Vienna, his father reported, "Wolferl" jumped into the Hapsburg empress's lap, put his arms around her neck, and earnestly kissed her, apparently hoping for a like response. In the summer of 1763, when he was seven and on a concert tour, he suffered a curious attack of homesickness: "As Wolfgang woke up--I think it was in Augsburg--he started to cry," Leopold Mozart wrote to Hagenauer. "I asked why; he said he was sorry that he did not see Herr Hagenauer, Herr Wenzel, Spizeder, Deibl, Leitgeb, Vogt, Caietan, Nazerl etc., and other good friends." Even though he was with his parents and sister and the subject of flattering attentions, he seems to have felt unanchored and needy. Franz Xaver Niemetschek, Mozart's first biographer, recounts that the little Mozart would keep asking people whether they loved him, and when they playfully denied it, the boy, though given to jokes and pranks, would break down and cry. The inference that he was hungry for more love than he got from his parents is painfully plausible.

    Yet it was of course at home that he started on his musical education. When Leopold Mozart took time to initiate the seven-year-old Nannerl in the mysteries of the harpsichord--she was demonstrating a strong talent for it--her three-year-old brother felt inspired to try the instrument on his own. Seeking to secure his daughter's grasp on keyboard technique, Leopold Mozart had compiled a "notebook" of easy tunes arranged in a conventional step-by-step progression, and her little brother soon made the training manual his own. This Notenbuch was to acquire historic importance as a source to Mozart's early development. "Wolfgangerl," the father noted with fond precision and unfeigned astonishment, "learned this minuet and trio one day before his fifth birthday in half an hour at half past nine in the evening of January 26, 1761." It had not escaped him that such almost supernatural proficiency was worth immortalizing.

    Just after he turned five, Mozart took the inescapable leap--inescapable for him--from performer to creator. Two short pieces for clavier, which his father faithfully jotted down in the notebook, may rank as his first compositions, unless the almost illegible "concerto" he is supposed to have scribbled down a few weeks before deserves primacy. Utterly possessed by music, Mozart had little time or patience for anything else and even wove it into his childish games. And to improve his acquaintance with the muse, he taught himself the violin before he was seven years old. Soon he played it well enough to perform as a soloist in public.

Leopold Mozart did not long hesitate to capitalize on his promising children, and certainly not for their sake alone. They were to be his support in old age. A brief three-week tour to Munich in January 1762--Mozart was not quite six--served as a rehearsal for more extensive forays to come. Its evident success prompted a longer sojourn in Vienna toward the end of the year, complete with command performances at the imperial court and munificent fees. Even before the Mozarts had spent a month in Vienna, Leopold Mozart could deposit 120 ducats in his Salzburg bank, a sum exceeding two years' salary. Yet these excursions were eclipsed by a grand tour that kept the four Mozarts abroad for more than three years, from June 1763 to November 1766. When the family finally saw Salzburg again, Mozart was ten years old, a seasoned performer and composer.

    Much of that tour was consumed with extended stays in important musical centers: five months in Paris, fifteen months in London, and then, on the way back, three months more in Paris, with frequent stops along the way, mainly in the German states and the Netherlands in sizable commercial cities and sleepy capitals of duodecimo dukedoms. The fame of the brother-sister duo had spread across Western Europe, and they were given ample opportunities for displaying their charm and their precocious musicianship. In city after city, the Mozarts could confidently expect an invitation from the local ruler, from nobles and rich patricians, and assume, for the most part correctly, that one performance would bring calls for others. In London, advertisements for Mozart concerts, at least some of them no doubt written by Leopold Mozart, were addressed to the "Nobility and Gentry." In fact, the touring Mozarts cultivated such exclusive audiences everywhere they went. "We keep company only with aristocrats and other distinguished persons," Leopold Mozart wrote to Hagenauer from Koblenz in September 1763. Uneasily aware that it was inappropriate for him to indulge in such social boasting, he insisted a little defensively that "it's the truth."

    Leopold Mozart's travel notes and letters to Salzburg document that it was the truth. In Paris, in 1764, the Mozarts dined at the royal table, and the eight-year-old Wolfgang stood by the queen, repeatedly kissed her hands, and had her feed him tidbits. In London, they spent hours with the royal family and became downright friendly with them. "At all courts," Leopold Mozart wrote Hagenauer, "we have been treated with extraordinary politeness, but what we are experiencing here outdoes all the others." Pampered by the great, Leopold Mozart had nothing but contempt for the lower orders; he found them them disgusting and, worse, godless. And he disapproved of the Dutch because he thought them "a little coarse."

    Some serious illnesses slowed up the Mozarts during their grand tour; this was still the age of epidemics, and Nannerl, like Wolfgang, caught a touch of all the infectious illnesses going around, including a mild case of smallpox. It is easy to underestimate the perils and sheer inconveniences of such extended tours. Granted, the Mozarts' three-year-long expedition across Western Europe, launched in June 1763, took place under favorable auguries. Their world was again at peace: after seven years of war across Europe, North America, and India, old enemies--France and Britain, Prussia and the Hapsburgs, and the other combatants--had settled their differences. War in the eighteenth century was, of course, less devastating than it has become since. The separation of civilian populations and military forces was still sharp and clear; great cities were not yet home fronts, and the theater and music thrived little less than in peacetime. It is telling that Leopold Mozart fails to mention the Seven Years' War in his voluminous correspondence. But it had severely obstructed travel from one hostile capital to another, and the peace treaties of 1763 removed that handicap. Moving from Paris to London, as the Mozarts did in April 1764, was as easy (except for the seasick-making Channel) as moving from Salzburg to Vienna.

    But there were other ordeals quite independent of the international situation. The state of the roads, the hazards of the local food, the constant threat of infection, the unsettling experience of pulling up stakes over and over, the need to learn new languages (in which father and son Mozart excelled), and, in Italy south of Rome, the danger of rampant highwaymen, made these expeditions risky ventures even for travelers as privileged as the Mozarts. There were minor irritations as well: fleas and bugs tormented the travelers. On the occasions when father and son had to share a bed, the son complained of getting little sleep; and in turn the father reported, more in amusement than in anger, that his son snored.

    Their succession of triumphs and their lack of enthusiasm for Salzburg kept them postponing their return. The Mozarts had been awash in the applause, often the affection, of the great; from the perspective of the gratifications and the profits they had enjoyed, Salzburg seemed a dim prospect financially, socially, emotionally. It was a place where Leopold Mozart was only a servant, poorly paid and little appreciated.

    While each tour necessarily took on the local color, all had much in common. The Mozarts would offer a concert and were rewarded with precious snuffboxes and gold watches or in cash, just as precious to them. They prepared themselves for these events with meticulous care; more than once, Leopold Mozart quite unself-consciously speaks of their "producing themselves." They adroitly flattered those among the mighty they thought truly worth cultivating: the boy Mozart, no doubt at his father's urging, dedicated his earliest compositions to queens, lords, and countesses. This stratagem often paid off, literally. The queen of England, to whom Mozart dedicated six sonatas for harpsichord, gave him a present of fifty guineas. And they dressed as stylishly as seemed befitting the occasion--Goethe still recalled, more than sixty years after Mozart's appearance in Frankfurt, the "little man in his coiffure and sword."

    In his letters to his wife, who usually remained in Salzburg, Leopold Mozart retailed such tantalizing details. In England, the Mozarts tactfully adopted local fashions, however eccentric they seemed to their Austrian tastes, and they were astonished at their appearance. From London in 1764, Leopold Mozart exclaimed to Hagenauer: "How do you think my wife and my little girl, and I and the big Wolfgang, look in English clothes!" Mozart's passion for finery dates from this time.

    Wherever the Mozarts went, they found that for nearly all their audiences, the habit of listening was at best intermittent. In Mozart's day, music, sacred music alone excepted, was still largely mere entertainment. Its romantic exaltation into a profound semireligious experience that called for rapt silence was still some decades away, though there were signs of it in Mozart's last years. There is a much-reproduced painting of 1766 by Michel Barthélemy Ollivier which shows the ten-year-old Mozart bravely at the keyboard while a select, elegantly garbed assembly help themselves at a lavish buffet table.

    The Mozarts tried not to let this casual inattention disturb them. They were hard at work. "Master Mozart" (as London's impresarios called him) was busy performing and quite as busy composing; he cherished the moments he could spare for his life's vocation. Before he was eight, he had written sonatas for the violin, the harpsichord, and other instruments; during the following year, in 1765, he composed his first symphony. It is a lively, distinctly minor work in three movements, the whole lasting some twelve minutes, and scored for an intimate orchestra: four violins and violas, a double bass, a bassoon, two clarinets, and two horns. Like all his other boyish compositions, this first symphony, too, does little to foreshadow his later masterpieces, even though a benevolent listener might detect a touch or two of Mozartian pleasures to come, notably in the relatively individual voices he assigned to each instrument.

    The only astonishing element in this precocious effort, then, is the composer's age. It could have been written by someone else, and in large part it was; his father's shadow hangs over it, though we can hardly determine with this composition whether Leopold Mozart acted as copyist, editor, or, far more likely; fellow composer. Mozart spent invaluable hours in these apprentice years listening to the works of composers then in vogue, and like other novices, he diligently copied them out. His uncommonly alert absorptive capacity always awake, he freely appropriated dominant styles, and the musical ideas of his foremost contemporaries reverberated in his own. His manner of educating himself was the manner of nearly every great artist: he struggled toward originality by studying and imitating his elders.

    He was fortunate in his youthful journeys to the musical capitals of Europe; they allowed him to hear, at times to meet, the composers he took as his teachers. On his English visit, he made the acquaintance of, and soon became friendly with, Johann Christian Bach, a prolific composer of church music, operas, and symphonies, then settled in London and for some years better known than his father. It was his symphonies that made the greatest impact on the young Mozart; J. C. Bach's Italianate gracefulness, lightheartedness, and brilliant orchestration--it was called the galant style--based on sound technique, served him well.

    Mozart made his debut in the symphonic genre (quickly followed by several more) at a decisive moment in its history. Its origins go back to the so-called Italian overture, an orchestral piece designed to introduce an opera and conventionally divided into three movements: fast, slow, very fast. Mozart's first symphony, calling for molto allegro, andante, and presto, did not depart from this pattern, though before long he adopted the modern fashion of adding a fourth movement. But the roots of his youthful symphonies in the overture remained undisguised: when he was twelve, he utilized his seventh symphony as an overture for his opera La finta semplice . It was not until about 1773, when Mozart was seventeen and had written more than two dozen symphonies, that his true genius as a symphonist emerged. No. 29 in A Major (K. 201), rich in original thematic material, stands out as an arresting move beyond earlier exemplars; it would be at home in the repertory of any modern orchestra.

* * *

His audiences found Mozart's virtuosity overwhelming, particularly since he was plainly anything but a mindless circus entertainer but showed himself completely at home in the fundamentals of music. His father repeatedly records how this spectacular boy dazzled audiences with his photographic memory, formidable dexterity at the keyboard, and uncanny gift for weaving variations around a theme. Leopold Mozart treasured the fame his little boy was gathering even in prospect. "Now 4 sonatas by Mr. Wolfgang Mozart are at the engraver's," he wrote from Paris in February 1764, "and imagine the noise these sonatas will make in the world when it says on the title page that they are the work of a child of seven." Mozart was in fact almost a child of eight, but this minor, deliberate discrepancy hardly diminishes his accomplishment.

    Mozart's gift for learning new instruments was as uncanny as his playing and his composing. Half a year before his sonatas were being readied for print, his father reported: "The latest news is that, in order to entertain ourselves, we went to the organ, and I explained the pedal to Wolferl. Whereupon he instantly proved himself. He pushed away the stool, and, standing, improvised, treading on the pedal as though he had practiced it for many months. Everyone was covered with astonishment." Harpsichordist, violinist, now organist, all at the age of seven.

    Nannerl, too, was a talented performer, and widely praised as a harpsichordist as competent as her brother. Showing a glimmer of psychological insight, Leopold Mozart noted that his daughter played so well that everyone talked about her, and thus she no longer had to suffer from comparisons with his son. She also tried her hand at composing, though only for domestic consumption, and Mozart loyally praised his sister's efforts; he urged her to keep them up, though he could not suppress an undertone of disbelief. "I have been quite astonished that you can compose so beautifully," he wrote to Nannerl from Rome in 1770, acknowledging receipt of a song she had sent him. "In a word, the song is beautiful; keep trying something time and again." Yet Mozart's superiority both as a soloist and as a composer was too palpable to be ignored, a reality with which his sister gradually came to terms.

    Precisely because Mozart made so powerful an impression, cultivated music lovers anxious not to be taken in by an impostor expressed doubts about the originality of his extraordinary improvisations and precocious compositions. Their mistrust was endorsed by envious competitors who spread word that Mozart's accomplishments were too improbable to be authentic. Given to bouts of suspicion, Leopold Mozart is not a wholly trustworthy witness, and his repeated denunciations of the cabals against his son in the Vienna of 1768 have an air--to put it mildly--of extravagance. There is no independent evidence for his claim that Gluck was the chief schemer against his boy. His son's rivals, he charged, refused to attend Mozart's performances, since reports of his wizardry, they claimed, were nothing but palpable lies. Were his appearances not sheer bluff, arranged in advance? Is it not ridiculous to think this child can compose anything? The idea of a twelve-year-old writing an opera!

    Occasionally given to observations about contemporary culture, Leopold Mozart diagnosed this incredulity as a symptom of a general epidemic of disbelief: "Nowadays, people ridicule everything that is called a miracle and dispute all miracles. Hence one has to persuade them; and it was a great pleasure and a great victory for me to hear a Voltairian say to me, `Now for once in my life I have seen a miracle; this is the first!'" Skeptics would soon discover that this was not the last.

    The composition in contention among the musical powers in Vienna was Mozart's first full-scale opera, La finta semplice , an opera buffa. Though no performance could be arranged in Vienna, it was staged the following year in Salzburg. It is far from distinguished. What is notable is that the composer was a prodigy of twelve. And that prodigy, intent on showing his versatility, promptly composed the slight one-acter Bastien und Bastienne , a Singspiel--an opera with a German libretto and spoken dialogue--a hint, no more, of greater things to come.

In this atmosphere of distrust, specialists never tired of putting Mozart to the test. From London in 1764 to Naples in 1770, they investigated his background, watched his hands closely, gave him demanding unpublished scores to play at first sight, asked him at a moment's notice to extemporize songs about the passions or to write a fugue. In Florence in April 1770, the Marchese Ligneville, "the strongest contrapuntist in all Italy," presented him with the most difficult fugues and the most difficult themes to work out, which "Wolfgang played and carried through as one eats a piece of bread." Baffled by what they found, these professional doubters were soon reduced to seeking rational explanations for this marvel Mozart. One of these, the eminent Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste-André-David Tissot, who could boast of his acquaintance with Voltaire, thought he had solved "the puzzle of young Mozart" by speculating on the connections between his "moral" and his "physical" organization. In the company of all the other doubters of good will, Tissot was converted into a true believer in Mozart's genius.

    A child prodigy is, by its nature, a self-destroying artifact: what seems literally marvelous in a boy will seem merely talented and perfectly natural in a young man. But by 1772, at sixteen, Mozart no longer needed to display himself as a little wizard; he had matured in the sonata and the symphony, the first kind of music he composed, and now showed his gifts in new domains: opera, the oratorio, and the earliest in a string of superb piano concertos. Most of Mozart's works of the late 1760s and early 1770s were written on the road: he occupied the bulk of his time with an extended visit to Vienna and three trips to Italy, all designed to improve his family's bank balance. The expeditions to Italy expanded the lessons that Leopold Mozart had taught his son, and complemented the grand tours to England and France.

    In Italy, Mozart greatly profited from his exposure to new musical experiences and took possession of them. The most enduring dividend was the lessons he took in Bologna with the Italian composer and renowned teacher Padre Giovanni Battista Martini in the difficult science of counterpoint, the manipulation of several melodies played together. Martini--the "idol of the Italians," Leopold Mozart called him, and, a little carelessly, "the famous P. Martino"--was in his mid-sixties when the two met, and he immediately took to the fourteen-year-old. Recognizing that he had a genius before him, he defended him against his detractors and, rightly, thought that the best he could do for him was to put him through a thoroughgoing regimen of counterpoint exercises and of that most formal version of counterpoint, the fugue. The benefits of these tutorials were not immediately apparent in Mozart's work, but a decade and a half later he made counterpoint a central device in his last phase. In short, "Wolfg: is not standing still with his science, but grows from clay to day," wrote Leopold Mozart to his wife in April 1770 from Rome, "so that the greatest connoisseurs cannot find enough words to express their admiration." Mozart received most of his musical education abroad.

* * *

Mozart's promise had never been a secret, and became increasingly palpable year by year. The only question in his enthusiasts' minds was, Will it last? In 1769, the composer Johann Adolph Hasse, then highly esteemed for his operas and oratorios, wrote a letter of recommendation for Mozart that spoke of him in the most glowing terms: "I have looked at his compositions; they are certainly well done and I have seen nothing in them that smacks of a twelve-year-old boy." (Mozart was actually a year older, but the point remains the same.) "I have no reason to doubt that they are his own. I have tested him in diverse ways and he has done things which for such an age are really incomprehensible; they would be astonishing in an adult." He predicted great things for the young man--with one reservation: "One thing is certain: if his development keeps pace with his age something wonderful will become of him. Though his father must not overindulge him or spoil his nature with the incense of unwarranted praise. That is the only danger I fear."

    But the Mozarts had more serious matters to worry about. They undertook these expeditions partly to make money, but partly, too, to secure for Mozart that elusive permanent position his father hoped to find for him. In 1770, Pope Clement XIV awarded him the Order of the Golden Spur, a signal honor, and in the same year the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna elected him a member, even though at fourteen he was six years younger than its statutes provided for the age of admission. Wherever they went in Italy, father and son associated with royalty, ecclesiastical dignitaries, ambassadors, and rich English commoners on the grand tour. They dressed accordingly. In Naples in the spring of 1770, feeling the heat, they acquired a summer wardrobe: Wolfgang, Leopold Mozart wrote his wife, was wearing a suit in fiery reddish tones, "called in Italy Colore di fuoco," decorated with braids and silver-toned lace, and lined with material in azure. Writing to his sister, Mozart boasted that in their new clothes, he and his father were "as beautiful as angels."

    But these spectacular tributes proved to be largely symbolic. Even the opera he composed for Milan on invitation later that year, Mitridate, rè di Ponto , which proved a great success with the public and the critics alike, had only ephemeral rewards. Yet in the midst of triumphs and disappointments, Mozart kept composing, at the rapid rate that had become his customary speed, and with increasing sophistication. From the time in 1766 when the Mozarts returned from their grand tour to the end of the third trip to Italy in March 1773, he had written more than twenty symphonies, a clutch of string quartets, three short operas, concert arias for soprano, and sacred compositions.

At this time, now seventeen, Mozart had reached his full height, which was somewhat below average and unduly underscored his youthfulness. He was aware of it: when he wanted to imitate the other tourists and kiss the toe of Saint Peter's statue at Saint Peter's in Rome, he had to be lifted up "because I have the misfortune of being so short." This seems improbable, more a poignant joke than a real incident, but it shows how self-conscious Mozart was about his appearance. The several portraits we have of him, though they differ somewhat from one another as such portraits often do, agree on the fundamentals. What they show is a commonplace, hardly attractive face with a pronounced nose and large, serious eyes. Significantly, this last feature was the one that his admiring friend Niemetschek singled out, his "large, intense eyes," which lit up his plain appearance. This description, confirmed by others, captures Mozart in action as composer and virtuoso, an action that no portrait could fully explore but which lives in his work.

Copyright © 1999 Peter Gay. All rights reserved.

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