A Quick Primer on Mozart

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) crammed a prodigious number of compositions into the last 10 years of his life, of which he spent in Vienna. It was in Vienna that he experienced many of the high points of his life, both personal and artistic. He wed his beloved Constanze Weber (with whom he would have six children) at St. Stephen's Cathedral in August 1782, and led the premieres of several of his greatest operas. But knowing his troubled relations with his home city of Salzburg makes his Vienna sojourn an even more poignant one.

From the beginning of Mozart's precocious and prolific career, his father, frustrated in his own musical ambitions at the archbishopric in Salzburg, looked beyond the boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to promote the boy's fame. At the age of six, his son caused a sensation in the royal courts of Europe with his skills as an instrumentalist and impromptu composer. As Mozart grew up, however, his virtuosity lost its power to amaze and he was forced to make his way as an "ordinary" musician, which then meant finding a position at court. Not much more successful in Salzburg than his father had been, he was never able to rise beyond the level of organist (allowing him, as he noted with sarcasm, to sit above the cooks at table). In disgust, he relocated to Vienna, where despite the popularity of his operas he was able to obtain only an unpaid appointment as assistant Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's mere months before his death. By then, patronage subscriptions had been taken up in Hungary and the Netherlands that would have paid him handsomely. But it was too late. Whatever the truth about the theories still swirling around his untimely death, the fact remains that not only was he not given the state funeral he deserved, but he was buried in an unmarked grave (although most Viennese were at that time) after a hasty, sparsely attended funeral.

Only the flint-hearted can stand in Vienna's Währingerstrasse and look at the windows behind which Mozart wrote those last three symphonies in the incredibly short time of six weeks in the summer of 1788 and not be touched. For this was the time when the Mozart fortunes had slumped to their lowest. "If you, my best of friends, forsake me, I am unhappily and innocently lost with my poor sick wife and my child," he wrote. And if one is inclined to accuse Mozart's fellow countrymen of neglect, they would seem to have made up for it with a vengeance. The visitor to Vienna and Salzburg can hardly ignore the barrage of Mozart candies, wine, beer, coffee mugs, T-shirts, baseball caps—not to mention the gilt statues and all the other knickknacks. Mozart, always one to appreciate a joke, would surely see the irony in the belated veneration. Today, places with which he is associated are all reverently marked with memorial plaques.

—Gary Dodson

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