Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, son of Leopold Mozart, a violinist and composer in the service of the Prince Archbishop. He started music lessons when he was three. By the time he was five years old, Mozart was already composing his own music and playing for empresses, electors and royal families. A child prodigy, Mozart was especially gifted in playing the piano, the harpsichord, and the organ, all the while composing for other instruments and vocal music. He was also fluent in Italian and French as well as his native German. There is no evidence of his formal schooling and it appears that his father was his tutor in all subjects. His father recognized his son’s exceptional talent and was determined to make him famous. A child prodigy could be quite a financial gain to a relatively poor family.
At the age of twelve Mozart had composed his first true opera, La finta semplice (The Pretended Simpleton). The singers refused to perform in a piece conducted by a little boy and there were accusations that the piece was written by his father, not the son. The theatre cancelled the contract and refused to pay Mozart his fee. During his teenage years, Mozart toured most of Europe, visiting Vienna once and Italy three times before returning home to Salzburg in 1774. In 1777, his parents thought it would be best for Mozart to find work somewhere else. Mozart and his mother moved to Munich, and then to Mannheim before settling in Paris. He returned to Salzburg in 1779 after the death of his mother. During this time, Mozart wrote many sonatas, operas, sacred works, symphonies, concertos, serenades and dramatic music. The success of the opera seria, Idomeneo, prompted the young composer to take permanent residence in Vienna.
Soon after his next operatic success, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) in 1782, Mozart married a young woman by the name of Constanze Weber and they lived in Vienna for the rest of their lives. The couple would have six children, only two of which survived infancy. Soon after, Mozart would meet Lorenzo da Ponte and would collaborate to create his three greatest operas: Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte.
Mozart’s years in Vienna coincided with the reign of Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790). It was a period of enlightened reform throughout Europe, including Vienna. Censorship was largely abolished and tolerance laws for minorities were adopted. The emperor Joseph was a practical man. A childless bachelor, he kept a simple household. He dressed in plain clothing and thought of himself as the people’s emperor. Some reforms he imposed included censured funeral banquets, better training for physicians, increased availability of medical treatment, and protection of illegitimate children against discrimination. He also opened the royal hunting grounds as parks for the general public. Joseph was also a dedicated musician and practiced at least one hour a day.
A typical day for Mozart during his early years in Vienna would entail arising at six, composing until nine or ten, giving lessons until about one, giving concerts in the evening, and then composing for a few more hours. He would sleep only five or six hours a night. He was one of the first self-employed musicians in Vienna. The musical scene in Vienna was intense. Mozart was in demand as a guest artist and accompanist. The public also craved new compositions continually, thus Mozart was constantly composing. He would often compose a whole piece in his mind before committing it to paper. He would also carry scraps of paper so he could jot down ideas at any time.
Although he had a steady income from new works, ticket sales from concerts, royalties from publishers and fees from lessons, he did not know how to manage his money properly. Mozart and his wife spent lavishly. He dressed like nobility, as he felt his image was essential to his success. He also gave generously to his friends and charity. He never saved money and when emergencies occurred he had to borrow money. One such emergency was the illness of his wife Constanze.
In 1791, Mozart died from a feverish illness. He had been working on a Requiem Mass that had been commissioned anonymously. Mozart became obsessed with the notion that the mass was for his funeral, but we now know that a Count Walsegg commissioned it.
There a few myths that surround the death of Mozart, some of which are perpetuated by the 1984 film Amadeus. The fist myth is that Mozart was poisoned. The film and other sources imply that rival composer Antonio Salieri was involved in his death. This is completely untrue and was denied by Salieri on his deathbed. Recent research suggests that Mozart died of rheumatic fever, an illness he had suffered many times in the past. The second myth surrounding Mozart’s death is that he was buried in a pauper’s grave forgotten by the rest of the world. This myth again is false.
Mozart’s funeral was no different than most Viennese funerals of the time. Emperor Joseph II had issued a series of ordinances to cut down on the spread of disease and on ostentation. All cemeteries within the city limits were closed and new ones were opened a distance out of town. After the church ceremony the corpse would be carried without ceremony to the cemetery. To speed up the decomposition process no coffins were used. Bodies were placed in linen sacks in a grave with others, and covered with lime and earth. To save space no memorial stones were to be placed by the grave, but could be erected by the cemetery wall. This was the type of funeral that Mozart had. Mozart’s death was also announced in many European papers and many members of the Viennese music community were at his funeral, though his wife, Constanze was too ill to attend. Mourners accompanied his body to the city gates, but few could afford a carriage for the long journey to the cemetery for the burial. Soon the funeral customs of this time changed and future generations unfamiliar with these customs inferred that Mozart had been buried as a pauper. In the end, it doesn’t matter how Mozart died. His music will live forever.