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Who was the real Mozart? We explore the man behind the myths

The years since Mozart’s death have not been kind to historical truth. Romanticised tales of a tortured, poverty-stricken genius have warped our views of the composer and his music. Mozart biographer Jan Swafford uncovers the man behind the myths

Who was the real Mozart

On October 1791, Mozart wrote a letter to his wife Constanze, who was convalescing in the spa of Baden:

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‘I’ve just come back from the opera; – it was full as ever… Right after you sailed off I played two games of billiards with Herr von Mozart; he’s the guy who wrote the opera for Schikaneder’s theatre… I had Joseph get Primus to fetch me some black coffee, with that I smoked a glorious pipe of tobacco. Then I orchestrated almost the entire Rondo of the Stadler Concerto… But hold on, what do I see… It’s Don Primus with the cutlets! – che gusto! I am now eating to your health.

Constanze, sapped by almost  constant pregnancies during the ten years of their marriage, had been ailing for months, often away at Baden. Mozart missed her terribly and regularly went out to stay with her. But her health was improving and her husband was in a fine mood. He was enjoying the reaction to one of the greatest hits of his life, Die Zauberflöte, basking particularly in the praise of a supposed rival, Antonio Salieri, who had just attended the opera with Mozart and cheered it all the way through.

The joie de vivre in that letter is utterly Mozartian, an echo of much of his music and much of his life. That he had been feeling poorly for a while, mainly the result of massive overwork – two big operas, a clarinet concerto and other works completed in the last months – did not entirely crack that joie de vivre.

How was Mozart’s childhood?

It was just as in his celebrated childhood when, after a bout of smallpox that nearly killed him, as soon as he could sit up in bed he was practising card tricks and was quickly on his feet learning to fence and turning out symphonies.

When he wrote the letter to Constanze, Mozart had only weeks to live. That page full of life and love is his last surviving letter. But he wasn’t planning to die, and he had much to be hopeful about. He was about to take over as Kapellmeister of St Stephen’s Cathedral, the best-paying and most respected musical job in Vienna. Soon would come word that noblemen in Holland and Hungary were offering him a lavish yearly stipend for life.

That news came when Mozart was in bed, in bad shape but working away as best he could on a new commission, for a Requiem, that he had been delighted to get. Among other things it would be useful for his impending job at the cathedral. He had been seriously ill before, starting in childhood, so it took a while for him to realise that this time was different: he was lying on his deathbed and was never going to finish the Requiem.

All this is to say that the Mozart of legend, embodied in Peter Shaffer’s play and movie Amadeus – childish, misunderstood, impoverished, destined for a pauper’s grave – has little to do with the reality of his life. He had his problems like the rest of us, his dad could be a pain in the neck like a lot of dads, Wolfgang could be silly sometimes, but he had an ironclad sense of self-worth and self-protection, and if his money troubles towards the end oppressed him, he never lost his conviction that the trouble was temporary and would get better – which it did, though he didn’t live to enjoy it. He was buried in the same manner as most Viennese. By the end, he and Salieri were more friends than rivals.

We tend to expect our geniuses to be tragic and suffering figures. Mozart was no such thing. In the end there was only one real tragedy in his life: his death in mid-stride at 35, dozens of works unfinished in his drawer, the Requiem having to be completed by one of his students.

When did Mozart become a prodigy?

There is one element of the Mozart legend that is indeed true: he was the definition of a prodigy. He occupied that position from more-or-less aged six. What his father Leopold Mozart called ‘the miracle, which God allowed to be born in Salzburg’ revealed itself on 24 January, 1761, in the family living room. Wolfgang, three days from his fifth birthday, having never played a piece at the keyboard, sat down at the harpsichord and in a half hour mastered and memorised a minuet his sister Nannerl had been practising. If his sister was a budding prodigy, he was some kind of force of nature. Soon he began to compose pieces that quickly expanded in length and ambition. By age eight he was writing symphonies for full orchestra. All this unfolded with much help and correction from Papa, but the music still rose from the tiny child.

By that point Leopold had conceived an extraordinary plan: he would take both his children on the road to play in palaces and courts across the map. A violinist, teacher, composer and author of the most celebrated violin method of the day, Leopold was no less a master schemer and planner. His ambitions for his children were two-fold: first, to convince sceptics in the Age of Reason that God indeed worked miracles, his son a case in point; second, and in the end more importantly, to make a fortune for himself and the family to install his son as head of music, Kapellmeister, in some leading court.

So began the legendary years of travel that took the family around Europe and to England. They played in parlours of the middle class and the aristocracy, for kings and queens in Vienna and Versailles and Holland and London. The children were brilliant – they never resisted or failed to shine, and everybody was dazzled. Leopold crowed, perhaps without exaggeration, that as a player his daughter at age 14 was equal to the best in Europe. His son was likewise, but at the same time he was composing and before long publishing pieces of polished skill and manifest charm. He could also improvise fugues and sonatas, or pick up a tune and reel off variations on it.

Reports of the marvel flew around Europe. By age seven, Wolfgang was one of the more famous people in the world. When a few years later a teacher in Bonn discovered a ten-year-old prodigy named Beethoven, in a magazine article he introduced him as the next Mozart. If Leopold considered his son a miracle of God, however, thinkers of the Enlightenment tended to see him as a marvel of nature, to be examined in scientific terms. Wrote one observer in a report to London’s Royal Society, ‘If I was to send you a well attested account of a boy who measured seven feet in height, when he was not more than eight years of age, it might be considered as not undeserving the notice of the Royal Society. The instance which I now desire you will communicate to that learned body, of as early an exertion of most extraordinary musical talents, seems perhaps equally to claim their attention.’

Tour story: (left) Tea Party with the Prince of Conti at the Temple by Michel Barthelemy Ollivier – a young Mozart is at the piano; (far left) poster for the 1984 film Amadeus; (below) Leopold Mozart
Tea Party with the Prince of Conti at the Temple by Michel Barthelemy Ollivier – a young Mozart is at the piano

The stories of Wolfgang’s early triumphs entered the realm of myth. Like all myths they were rarely accurate, though the reality is astonishing enough. At age six he sat on the lap of the Empress in Vienna and kissed her, and vowed to marry her daughter Marie Antoinette (yes, that Marie Antoinette, later the doomed queen of France). After an exam in writing academic counterpoint he was admitted to an Italian musical society usually only open to adults who had studied for years (but his exercise was tidied up on the sly by a mentor). He listened once to a famous choral piece the Vatican had forbidden to be disseminated and wrote it down (actually he sketched it out and returned to listen again and make corrections). He was indeed writing symphonies from age eight and produced his first opera at 12, and from around that age amounted to a mature professional composer, but his manuscripts show revisions in his father’s hand through his teens and beyond.

Was Mozart the first true Romantic composer?

It is the business of fashioners of myth and legend, even when they do not make up things whole cloth, to gin up the astonishment, to make the fabulous more fabulous. In regard to Mozart this process took wing in the Romantic 19th century – much of that due to ETA Hoffmann, who besides being a writer of fantastical stories was a composer and critic. In his writings, Hoffmann shaped the Romantic ideal of music, as seen in his description of his prime musical hero: ‘Beethoven’s instrumental music open up for us the realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable…

We become aware of giant shadows that wave up and down, close us in more and more narrowly, and annihilate everything in us except for the pain of infinite yearning… and only in this pain, which, consuming within itself, but not destroying, love, hope, and joy, wants to burst open our breast with a full-voiced harmony of all passions.’ In those sorts of terms Hoffmann claimed Mozart as the first true Romantic composer, above all in how he portrayed Don Giovanni, the sexual force of nature and demonic hero who defies God to the gate of hell.

To take up Mozart into the delirium that was the Romantic ideal of art, and its myth of the artist as suffering demi-god whose work was addressed to the future, was a process maybe inevitable, but it wasn’t Mozart. It suited Beethoven, who was the main model for the Romantic cult of genius. And so Mozart was seen through a Beethovenian prism: revolutionary, suffering, misunderstood, addressing his greatest works such as the final three symphonies to a posterity that would finally understand him.

But to view Mozart and his art through the prism of Beethoven is not to understand him in his own terms. For centuries composers wrote only for their time, and it was assumed that they would be forgotten after their deaths. Most music heard was new music. The first composer whose work stayed at full value in the repertoire was Handel, who died when Mozart was three. Beethoven was probably the first composer to understand that his music was going to be part of a permanent repertoire. He used the word ‘immortal’ in regard to his ambitions. Mozart did not. There is no record of his ever talking about the reputation of his music after his death. He wrote for the audiences at his soirées and concerts, for the theatre, the church, for those who bought his work in publication.

Just how different were Mozart and Beethoven?

In that sense he and Beethoven were different kinds of artists. In both their times, most music was heard in private: quartets, sonatas and other chamber music were virtually never played in public halls, and even symphonies were often heard in private music rooms. Beethoven was the inspiration for a growing trend towards public performance in larger halls; he was involved, among other things, with the first string quartet to mount a public subscription series. To put it in a nutshell: Beethoven wrote for Humanity; Mozart wrote for people. Those people were the sort he knew in his wide circle of friends, from tradesmen and their wives and daughters and sons passionate about music, through to the high nobility.

Even if Mozart, as his father had counselled, hoped for a good Kapellmeister job and was about to get one at the cathedral when he died, in practice he was too independent and proud to be a functionary, and it is a good question whether he would have thrived in that sort of position. He was, meanwhile, a committed Freemason, that order part of the progressive political vanguard of that time, so he was clearly liberal in some degree. Die Zauberflöte is partly a Masonic allegory and a shining testament to the ideals of the Enlightenment. But we don’t know the details of Mozart’s political convictions, and there is no record of him seriously questioning the position of the nobility in political life. He was a sociable man, and a number of his friends, though by no means all, were aristocrats.

To end with a larger though not easily answerable question: if we put away the myths that the 19th century attached to Mozart and which lingered into our time, how does that apply to his music? One suggestion is to return to a point above: Mozart wrote for people, a lot of his work played in parlours and music rooms. So it was written for friends and music lovers, and in that sort of intimate and sociable atmosphere his art was intended to touch and delight his players and listeners, often with an incomparable display of beauty. The Romantics wanted art to shake the heavens and change the world. Mozart on the whole was a happy man, and in his art he wanted to make people happy. Surely for an artist that’s as noble a goal as any. As a document written during his lifetime declared, the great goals of humanity are ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Finally, in regard to one more myth, Mozart is only on record twice as using Amadeus (meaning ‘beloved of God’) for his middle name, and both times that Latinate form was deliberately pretentious – in other words, one of his jokes. He usually used the French ‘Amadé’, though like many of us he was a little hazy on which way the accent went. 

Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford is out now and is published by Faber

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