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Mozart in Brief

"Mozart is sunshine." So proclaimed Antonín Dvořák—and how better to sum up the prodigious genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791)? Listening to his rococo orchestrations, his rose-strewn melodies, and his insouciant harmonies, many listeners seem to experience the same giddiness as happiness. Scientists have found Mozart's music can cause the heart to pound, bring color to the cheeks, and provide the expansive feeling of being thrillingly alive. Yet, Mozart must have sensed how hard it is to recognize happiness, which is often something vaguely desired and not detected until gone. It is this melancholy undertow that makes Mozart modern—so modern that he is now the most popular classical composer, having banished Beethoven to second place. Shortly after Amadeus won the 1984 Oscar for best film—with its portrayal of Mozart as a giggling, foul-mouthed genius—Don Giovanni began to rack up more performances than La Bohème. The bewigged face graces countless "Mozartkugeln" chocolates, and Mostly Mozart festivals pay him homage. But a look behind the glare of the spotlights reveals that this blond, slightly built tuning-fork of a fellow was a quicksilver enigma.

Already a skilled pianist at age three, the musical prodigy was dragged across Europe by his father Leopold to perform for empresses and kings. In a life that lasted a mere 35 years, he spent 10 on the road—a burden that contributed to making him the first truly European composer. Growing up in Salzburg, the Wunderkind became less of a Wunder as time went by. Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo enjoyed dissing his resident composer by commanding him to produce "table music" with the same disdainful tone he commanded his chef's dinner orders. Being literally forced to sit with those cooks, Mozart finally rebelled. In March 1781 he married Constanze Weber and set out to conquer Vienna.

Hated by Mozart's father, Constanze is adored today, since we now know she was Mozart's greatest ally. Highly repressed by stuffy Salzburg, Mozart came to like his humor glandular (he titled one cantata "Kiss My XXX") and his women globular, a bill Constanze adequately filled. She no doubt heartily enjoyed the fruits of his first operatic triumph, the naughty Abduction from the Seraglio (1782). His next opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786), to no one's surprise, bombed. Always eager to thumb his nose at authority, Mozart had adapted a Beaumarchais play so inflammatory in its depiction of aristos as pawns of their own servants, it soon helped ignite the French Revolution. In revenge, wealthy Viennese gave a cold shoulder to his magisterial Don Giovanni (1787). Mozart was relegated to composing, for a lowly vaudeville house, the now immortal Magic Flute (1790), and to ghosting a Requiem for a wealthy count. Sadly, his star only began to soar after a tragic, early death. But in company with fellow starblazers Vincent van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe, we assume he must be enjoying the last laugh.

Updated: 06-2013

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