Mozart and the Concept of Genius
What are the characteristics of genius? Why do many think that Mozart was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived? Does his music warrant this description? This lesson provides an introduction to the life and musical legacy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Why are you here?
Maybe you already love Mozart. Or maybe you used to know something about him and his music, but now you’ve forgotten. Maybe you want to examine what contributes to genius, or simply take the time to actively study Maynard Solomon’s acclaimed biography, Mozart: A Life.
Mozart’s genius has been accepted since the time he was a young child. What made him a genius? Nature or nurture? (Image from ‘The Hundred Greatest Men.’ New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.)
From the time he was a very young child to his premature death at age 35, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was recognized as a musical genius. From his very earliest years, his talent and precocity were undeniable.
- By the age of three-and-a-half, he was picking out tunes on the harpsichord.
- By the age of five, he had written his first minuets.
- By the age of nine, he had written his first symphony.
- By twelve, he had penned his first opera.
- By 1763, when he was 7, he and his family had left his native Salzburg for an extended three-and-a-half year concert tour of Europe.
Mozart lived until only a short time — and led a tortured existence — but in those years he composed some 600 pieces of music, and his musical and creative greatness never flagged. Today, he is considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time.
But the world is full of young prodigies whose talents flame out, and others whose work simply drifted into something less than stellar. All of which means that as we think about Mozart and his work, we have some questions to answer:
- How did young Mozart differ from other young performers?
- Did Mozart’s native talent mean that his genius would flourish no matter what the conditions? Or did his relatively privileged social position and his father’s intense tutelage pave the way for his artistic growth?
- What made the difference between him and his sister Nannerl, who received virtually the same training as her little brother?
- Why has his music remained so vital over the course of time while other once acclaimed composers have drifted into obscurity?
In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Genius at Work, we’ll examine Mozart’s life and his music. We’ll learn why he is acknowledged, in the words of his father, as “the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” We’ll also study a broad selection from his amazingly varied output — everything from compositions for piano and orchestra to church music and opera — spanning his entire musical career. We’ll start by reading about Mozart’s life; later we’ll hear and analyze musical selections illustrating the main points of the course. First, let’s look at what it means to be a genius.
Nine times out of ten, when people say the name ‘Mozart,’ the word ‘genius’ isn’t hard to find. But what does that mean? Geniuses have been recognized in all shapes and sizes and ages, appearing unexpectedly at any time and any place. While there have people like Mozart whose contemporaries recognized their greatness early on, not all geniuses are so lucky. For example, people actually thought Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were pretty stupid when they were children. Some geniuses burn brightly for a short time while others, like Picasso, sustain their productivity over a long and creative career.
There seems to be no common denominator among geniuses except for the distinctiveness of their talents. Throughout history they have excelled in every field, including music, mathematics, literature, politics, the sciences, just to mention a few. This course is part of a series that will examine the nature of genius across professions and social classes. Whatever the criteria, Mozart is one of the great geniuses of history, transcending time and social mores. His talents offer a fine starting place for our examination of the nature of genius.
Examining Mozart and His World
As we study Mozart, we’ll begin to comprehend the beauty and seemingly effortless perfection of his music. The next eight lessons will explore the genius of Mozart through his music and historical documents pertaining to his work. First we’ll trace the beginnings of his musical development and activities, especially through the correspondence of Mozart’s (what many consider to be) autocratic but well-meaning father, Leopold, who was his son’s guiding light and a unique musical talent in his own right. Then we’ll begin examining some of Mozart’s earliest compositions and study several of his greatest masterpieces, including The Marriage of Figaro, his last symphony (the “Jupiter”), and his unfinished Requiem.
We’ll also examine the world in which Mozart lived and flourished: 18th century Vienna and the Habsburg Empire under the rule of Maria Theresa and Joseph II. We’ll also examine how emerging Enlightenment philosophies shaped Mozart’s music. Finally, we’ll examine Mozart’s compositions in order to understand how and it remains so popular more than 200 years after his death. Fascination over his life and tragically early death only continues to enhance our appreciation of his music.
But first, we’ll take a glimpse of Mozart’s life, especially his achievements as a young child.
Child prodigy, creative genius, tortured soul– Mozart was all of these. Maynard Solomon’s biography seeks to learn what drove the man considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time.
Our principal text for the course will be Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life, from which you will be given regular reading assignments to expand upon topics introduced in these lessons. We’ll be discussing this controversial biography later in this lesson. There will also be suggestions for further reading from other books and for additional listening opportunities as well. Whenever a particular topic or composition piques your interest, feel free to notify me via the Message Board so that I can try to help you along in your quest for knowledge. In the end, I hope that these eight lessons whet your appetite to build a home library of Mozart’s music for yourself and to attend live performances of music by Mozart (and other composers, too) in your community.
You’ll find that the combination of the readings from Solomon’s text, the eight lessons, and the selections of Mozart’s music we’ll be listening to — buttressed by interacting with your classmates on the Message Board — will give you the most satisfying appreciation of Mozart and his music.
Reading Mozart’s Letters
During this course you’ll notice that I frequently quote excerpts from Mozart’s letters. However, you might like to read them more extensively in order to get a sense of Mozart the person and the times during which he lived from his point of view. Two choices are available to you. The standard edition of Mozart’s letters, also including the letters of other members of the Mozart family, is Emily Anderson’s translation, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd edition (London: Macmillan, 1985). The letters are chronologically arranged, with notes and a limited index.
A new alternative is Robert Spaethling’s translation, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000). This volume contains only Mozart’s letters, thus disallowing you from reading the other side of the dialogue. But the virtue of this translation is that it tries to reproduce not only the meaning of the original letters in German but also Mozart’s writing style — complete with spelling and grammatical mistakes and irregular capitalization. You might like to take note that, whenever possible, I’ve quoted from Spaethling’s translation.
Mozart’s Early Years
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on 27 January, 1756. He was baptized in the Salzburg cathedral the next day. The youngest of seven children only two of whom survived, he was named Wolfgang after his maternal grandfather Johannes, Chrysostomos after the saint on whose name day he had been born, and Theophilus (the Greek equivalent of the Latinized “Amadeus”).
The sounds of the harpsichord fascinated Mozart when he was barely three-and-a-half years old.
Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, was a musician and the author of the 18th century’s most important treatise on playing the violin, which he published the year of his son’s birth. Although Leopold was ambitious and his compositions were well crafted, they were not distinguished enough to bring him the wide spread fame and recognition he so eagerly sought. A violinist in the service of the archbishop, he only achieved modest success in his career, rising to the rank of Vice-Kapellmeister (assistant court music director).
Leopold married Anna Maria Pertl, the daughter of a civil servant. The couple’s two children, Wolfgang and his sister, Maria Anna, were both talented musicians. Nicknamed Nannerl (the “-erl” is an affectionate diminutive frequently added to names, as also in “Wolfgangerl”), Maria Anna was four and one-half years older than her brother Wolfgang. She began receiving harpsichord lessons from Leopold when she was about eight. The sounds of this simple music attracted her younger brother, who was soon spending hours at the keyboard. According to their father, Wolfgang took special delight in “picking out thirds (the basic building blocks of musical harmony) and sounding them.”
A Quick Study
Perhaps he wanted to imitate his sister or perhaps he sought his father’s attention but, in any case, Wolfgang was allowed to use Nannerl’s music book at least by the age of four. Leopold wrote that his son had “a lively disposition for every childish pastime and prank,” but that from the moment that he discovered music “his interest in every other occupation was dead, and even children’s games had to have a musical accompaniment if they were to interest him.” Nannerl confirmed that “even as a child he was desirous of learning everything he set eyes on; in drawing (and) adding he showed much skill, but, as he was too busy with music, he could not show his talents in any other direction” (quoted in Solomon, Mozart, p. 39).
Music was clearly at the center of Leopold’s household. An experienced, systematic music teacher who devoted his life to nurturing (and showing off) his children’s talents, Leopold gave his children intensive instruction and required them to practice relentlessly. He sensed the extraordinary talent in his son early on, proudly documenting that “This minuet and trio were learned by Wolfgangerl in half-an-hour, at half-past nine at night on 26 January 1761, one day before his fifth birthday” (quoted in Solomon, Mozart, p. 38).
Only a few weeks later Leopold entered Mozart’s first compositions into his music book. At age six Mozart taught himself to play the violin, the instrument on which his father specialized. Leopold soon became convinced of the divine origin of his young son’s special talents: “Every day God performs fresh miracles through this child.” The public press shared this viewpoint of the young Mozart’s abilities, frequently describing him as a “prodigy of nature.”
Discussing the Role of Biography
Do you think that a biographer such as Maynard Solomon should confine himself to “just the facts” of Mozart’s life? Or should he interpret the facts?
Nature Versus Nurture
Were Mozart’s early talent as a prodigy and his continuing development as a performer and composer the result of his environment — the structured education provided by his father (nurture)? Or was his development due instead to his genetic make-up, which was also provided by Leopold (nature)? Or is the combination of genetic make-up and early environmental stimulation inextricably bound together, and thus too complicated to separate? Psychologists have always had difficulty answering historical and personal questions like these because they rarely have the chance to compare individual cases of genius with other people raised in the same environment.
Fortunately, since she was raised in the same environment and apparently taught in a virtually identical way as her brother, Nannerl allows us to make such a comparison. Indeed, until Mozart was born, Leopold’s teaching was solely focused on her. And there is plenty of evidence that she developed into an impressive performer in her own right. Friedrich Melchior Grimm, known throughout Europe for his Literary, Philosophical, and Critical Correspondence (1753-90), said that she had “the most beautiful and most brilliant execution on the harpsichord.”
A Biological Difference?
Yet it appears that Nannerl did not have the same musical creativity as her younger brother, whose talents were clearly of a much higher order. Baron Grimm noted that technical proficiency was only part of Mozart’s precocity:
What is really incredible is to see him improvise for an hour on end and in doing so give reign to the inspiration of his genius and to a mass of enchanting ideas, which moreover he knows how to connect with taste and without confusion (quoted in Andrew Steptoe, Genius and the Mind: Studies of Creativity and Temperament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; p144).
Passages like this indicate that it is extremely unlikely that Mozart’s genius can be attributed solely to the environment in which he was raised. The childhood distinctions between him and his sister continued throughout their creative lives, suggesting a difference that may have been biological or genetic. However, it’s important to remember that, just as there are social norms today that influence the ways boys and girls perform, there were social strictures in Vienna that may have contributed to Nannerl’s failure to evolve as her brother did.
Early and Continuing Recognition
Mozart’s genius was not only recognized by his contemporaries, but also by virtually every generation that followed him. In fact, Mozart is the first composer whose music has been consistently and continuously performed after his death up until our own time. We’ll come back to this fact in the final lesson of this course, as we trace the reception of Mozart’s music after his death and up to the present.
For now, however, I suggest that you begin reading Solomon’s text as soon as you can. This lesson’s assignment consists of required reading, which should trigger discussion on the Message Board. As you read, pay attention to Solomon’s insightful and often brilliant discussions of Mozart’s music on the one hand and, on the other, his attempts to apply Freudian principles of analysis to Mozart’s life and work. He especially focuses on the often-tortured relationship between Mozart and his father, depicting Leopold as a possessive father intent on controlling every aspect of his talented son’s life.
You’ll soon learn that, while Mozart the young child was only too happy to please his father, Mozart the adolescent was less willing to sheepishly go along. It is this tension that interests Solomon and provides an interesting interpretation of Mozart’s life and music from the perspective of a post-Freudian scholar. As you read, think about whether you agree with Solomon — not everyone does.
Lesson 1 briefly introduced us to the life and musical legacy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart while provoking a discussion about the concept of genius. Our next lesson explores Mozart’s early career, including his frustrations with Salzburg and the opportunities he found upon leaving Salzburg for Vienna in 1781.
Assignment : Getting to Know Mozart
Read the Prologue in our course textbook, Solomon’s Mozart: A Life, entitled “The Myth of the Eternal Child.” Here the author includes other descriptions of Mozart’s amazing achievements as a young child and also lays the foundation for the underlying theme of his insightful book. He believes that, throughout Mozart’s life, Leopold struggled to control his talented son, not only because Wolfgang was the principal source of family income during his childhood years as a prodigy, but also because he saw him as an extension of his own personality and identity. After reading this fascinating Prologue, visit the Message Board and share your nascent opinion on this controversial subject.