Bursting with creativity? Enthusiasm? Talent?
What to do when your child exhibits extreme giftedness?
For Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the greatest child prodigy the world has ever seen, the answer seemed clear: let it out and seize every opportunity to expose the gift God had imparted!
And so, the list of Wolfgang's accomplishments starts racking-up early. Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756, he was a virtuoso in pretty much everything musical he touched – harpsichord, piano, violin, organ and composition – and was performing in tours across Europe by age six to the likes of Empress Maria Theresa. All under the watchful eye, of course, of Leopold, a highly regarded violinist, court musician, composer, pedagogue and author of A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, who put his own career on hold to oversee his son’s musical development and chart his early career path, often pairing him with older sister, Maria Anna (Nannerl), also a gifted musician. Soon the young Mozart could namedrop many a famous musician, such as Johann Christian Bach, whom he was briefly taught by when was eight. Four years later, he would compose his first opera, La finta semplice (The Fake Innocent).
At the ripe, old age of thirteen, after months of composing prolifically, Mozart so impressed his father’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, Siegmund Christoff von Schrattenbach, that he was appointed an unpaid position as court concertmaster, and his father was granted both permission and funding to take young Mozart to Italy. Leopold intended to expose his son to Italian musical influences and hopefully secure future Italian court positions for them both, though the latter motive was obviously hidden from the Archbishop. The Archbishop likely suspected as much anyway, intimating, perhaps as added incentive, that young Mozart’s concertmaster position might draw a salary upon their return!
The highly productive trip, over a year in length, included many concerts for various Italian nobility, an audience with and knighthood by the Pope, the writing and performance of the opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, and memberships in both the Verona and Bologna Accademia Filarmonica. Mozart would make 2 subsequent trips to Italy to compose and produce commissioned operas – Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla.
Perhaps, while surveying Wolfgang’s whirlwind career thus far, it would be easy to criticize Leopold’s choices, given the difficulties of travelling extensively in those days, the unrelenting tour schedule and our modern understanding of childhood development. But then again, we weren’t living in his day. A day of comparatively few opportunities for non-nobility/non-aristocratic members of society, of poor working and living conditions; a day when common ailments could easily bring death and putting food on the table was a common struggle; and worst of all, a day when children often did not survive to adulthood, a pang Leopold and his wife experienced five times.
Perhaps Leopold was just doing what he thought best. Isn’t that all any of us can do?
Returning to our whirlwind, between the second and third trips to Italy, the Archbishop died and was replaced by Hieronymus von Colloredo, who granted Mozart a meagre concertmaster salary, and thus began their strained relationship.
When Wolfgang’s perpetual discontent with his employment situation in Salzburg eventually led to his dismissal in 1777, despite his pumping out works in an array of genres, Leopold secured another position for him as a court organist and concertmaster, which Mozart did not want to accept. A father who couldn’t let go? A son who wanted his freedom? Sounds as complex as many a modern relationship struggle!
Cut loose, Mozart composed and performed his way through cities such as Augsburg, Mannheim, and Paris as well, where, sadly, his mother died in 1778 while accompanying him on tour. Adding to that blow, none of these tours resulted in the permanent employment he had been seeking, though the success of his opera, Idomeneo, in Munich would become pivotal, stoking his love for opera.
In 1779, he finally showed up in Salzburg to fill the position his father had previously arranged for him, but resigned two years later.
Mozart then settled in Vienna, hoping to obtain a court position with the Emperor, Joseph II, but had to settle instead for a commission, for which he composed the Singspiel (German Comic Opera), The Abduction from the Seraglio. He free-lanced as a pianist, teacher and composer, which proved moderately successful, but being a poor money manager, financial problems would plague him continually. He met Franz Joseph Haydn and the two became fast friends, dedicating string quartets to each other in mutual admiration, and both joined the Order of Freemasons, a secret society not lacking in rumours as to its true purpose. Leopold also joined.
Mozart fell in love with and married opera singer, Constanze Weber, in 1782, against his father’s wishes. Of their six children, only 2 survived.
In 1786 the successful launch of Mozart’s famous opera buffa (Italian comic opera), The Marriage of Figaro, was followed by the run-away-hit, Don Giovanni. And at long last, he was granted a court position – Imperial Court Chamber Music Composer to the Emperor.
1787 brought Mozart both a glimpse of the future in the form of young Beethoven, whom he heard perform, and a mourning of the past with the death of Leopold. He seemed to struggled after this, but rebounded in 1791, creating some of his most famous works such as The Magic Flute opera, and Requiem (mass for the dead) - an unfinished work, commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who intended to plagiarize it. However, it was completed by Mozart student, Franz Xavier Sussmayr after Mozart’s death.
Tragically, after a period of illness, he died on Dec 5, 1791, at the age of 35, and was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave.
Mozart’s unequalled natural genius continues to stun the world centuries after his death. With fascinating musical imagination, his compositions epitomized the grace, excellence and balance of Viennese Classicism in all genres. He was partial to symmetrical phrase structure, kept diatonic and chromatic harmony in balance, enriched sonata form, expanded concerto structure with double-exposition first movements and orchestral music with wind instruments, shaped 18th- century piano style, and was greatly inspired by Johann Christian Bach, and the Mannheim orchestra.
His passion for opera and indomitable creative spirit pushed the genre to new heights, elevating characterization and plot lines to their musical counterparts and pushed humour closer to an art form with his ventures into opera buffa and Singspiel.
While debate rages on as to the quality of relationship between father and son in Wolfgang’s adult years, some casting Leopold as controlling and manipulative while others cut him more slack, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. No one’s perfect. But if we give Leopold the benefit of the doubt and forgive him any faults, hopefully we will be afforded the same grace in the end when our lives our scrutinized by others.
And though his precious son’s musical gift was extinguished early, it continues to captivate through hundreds of manuscripts, the very existence of which is owed, in part, to a devoted father.
Ready to be inspired yet again by more than music? See you next time!