Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived just 35 years. But he filled those years so totally with 626 musical works that the world today recognises him as one of the greatest composers ever. Among his works were 50 symphonies and 19 operas, including much-loved works like The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.
Mozart was born in the Austrian city of Salzburg, known for its salt mines, in 1756. His father, Leopold, was the choirmaster to the Archbishop of Salzburg.
It was while Leopold was giving lessons to his older daughter Maria Anna that he noticed that little Nannerl, as the family called Mozart, was totally enchanted by the music. By the age of five, he could play long pieces without a flaw and even create his own shorter compositions.
A letter from the Salzburg court trumpeter to Maria Anna in April 1972 recalls this scene. Leopold, on his return from a church service, found four-year-old Mozart very busy with a pen.
“What are you doing?” asked Leopold.
“Writing a concerto for the clavier (an early keyboard musical instrument). It will be done soon,” replied Mozart.
“Let me see it,” said Leopold.
Mozart responded: “It’s not finished yet.”
When Leopold picked up the sheet of paper, he found a scribble of musical notes, most of them covered with inkblots. That’s because Mozart dipped his pen to the bottom of the inkwell every time he needed to, so that inkblots fell on the paper each time. But the boy wiped his palm over it and kept writing, so keen was he on completing the concerto.
After he’d read the piece through, Leopold noted that it was so difficult that no one in the world could play it.
But Mozart said, “That is why it is a concerto. It must be practised till it is perfect.” And then the little one began to show his father how to play it!
In 1792, Leopold took Mozart to the court in Vienna, the Austrian capital, to play. This was the first stop of a tour that took them around the courts of Europe for the next three-and-a-half years. Soon, Mozart was the most famous child prodigy in Europe.
When he played, Mozart’s delicate face was dead serious. But during concert breaks, he behaved just as a child of his age probably would. He was even seen running around a royal court with a stick between his legs, pretending that it was a horse!
In Europe, city after city sang the praises of the young Mozart. At Bologna in Italy, he was made a member of the famous Philharmonic Academy – though officially only those over 20 could be admitted. In Rome, Pope Clement XIV decorated him with the Order of the Golden Spur. At Milan, he wrote his first opera, Mithridates, which was composed so quickly that Mozart’s tender fingers hurt!
But what was Mozart like at home? When he was about eight, Leopold fell ill with a bad throat ailment in London. The children were forbidden to make a noise, even to play a piano, until he was better. To keep his itching fingers busy, Mozart used music in a different way. He composed his first symphony – K 16 – for an entire orchestra!
Until he was about ten, Nannerl hated the sound of the horn. When it was played solo, he shuddered. Leopold wanted to cure his son of this fear, so he asked Maria Anna to blow a horn towards Mozart. But he turned pale at the very sound and would have fainted, had she not stopped at once. Luckily, she did.
On one occasion, two archduchesses were leading little Mozart up to the Austrian empress. He slipped and fell because the floor of the court chamber was very slippery due to polish. One of the duchesses, Marie Antoinette – who later became the queen of France – lifted the boy up and consoled him. In response, Mozart wiped his tears away and said to her, “You are very kind. I will marry you.”
Later, her mother asked Mozart what made him say these words. He said, rather solemnly, “From gratitude. She was so good, but her sister wasn’t concerned about my fall in the least.”
Today, all of Salzburg seems like Mozart’s town. Its dramatic cupolas and spires seem to call out his name. The house where he was born is now a famous museum, a shrine for music lovers. The city even hosts a Mozart Week every year, when the master composer’s works are played.
Mozart started young in the world of music. But his first notes of promise still ring true in our ears.