Meet the Genius: Mozart’s Life in Salzburg and
Vienna in the Late 18th Century
This lesson will provide an overview of life at the court and for the common person in Salzburg and Vienna. We will explore Mozart’s frustrations with Salzburg and the opportunities he found when he moved to Vienna in 1781.
Mozart as a Child
Lesson 1 offered an introduction to Mozart’s life and musical legacy. Today’s lesson offers an overview of his early experiences in Salzburg and his travels through Europe, and his career up until the time of his death in Vienna. Next lesson we’ll take an in-depth look at historical, political and cultural context in which Mozart lived and worked.
Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, shown here in a detail of a 1493 map by Hartmann Schedel. (Courtesy the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
A ‘Miracle’; a ‘Musikus’
Leopold was the first to acknowledge his young son’s special gifts when he wrote that he was “a miracle, which God has allowed to see the light in Salzburg.” The 18th-century music historian Charles Burney confirmed this opinion by writing that the young child possessed “premature and almost supernatural talents.” But, since Wolfgang’s letter to his father of 8 November 1777 couldn’t make it any clearer that, as a young adolescent, he knew exactly who he was, let’s let this artistic genius introduce himself to us in his own words:
I cannot write Poetically; I am not a Poet. I cannot arrange my words so artfully that they reflect shadow and light; I am not a painter; I cannot even express my feelings and thoughts through gestures and Pantomimes: I am not a dancer. But I can do it with the sounds of music; I am a Musikus [musician] (Quoted in Robert Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life: Selected Letters. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 91).
As quick as he was to realize little Wolfgang’s genius, Leopold also understood how lucrative it might prove. So even before his son’s sixth birthday, he took both his children to Munich, where they played for the Elector of Bavaria. This tour was successful enough that Leopold planned a lengthy visit to Vienna the very next fall, from October 6 to 31 December 1762. Although Nannerl played the harpsichord brilliantly, it was Wolfgang who stole the show. Indeed, Leopold wrote to a friend: “Everyone is amazed, especially at the boy, and everyone whom I have heard says that his genius is incomprehensible.”
Mozart first visited Vienna, shown here in a 17th century cityscape, when he was six. (Courtesy of the University of Leiden Library.)
Mozart’s first biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, also recalled that, when the six-year-old Mozart played Empress Maria Theresa at Schönbrunn, “people could hardly believe their ears and eyes at the performance” and called him a “magician.” The Empress rewarded the Mozart family with 100 ducats and gala outfits for the two children. Other nobles also presented the family with lavish gifts and, Leopold was able to bank more than two full years of his court salary before returning to Salzburg.
Still a child, Mozart quickly became his family’s primary provider. With success in Vienna still a vivid memory, the Mozart family set out on a longer journey through Europe in 1763, by which time Wolfgang had also learned to play the organ and violin. The trip took them to all the leading musical and political centers — Munich, Augsburg, Mainz, Frankfurt, Brussels, Paris (where Mozart’s first published compositions appeared), and London (where Mozart read at site anything the amazed King placed before him). The family returned to Salzburg via Ghent, the Hague, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, and Zurich. During this grand tour, which lasted three years, five months and twenty days, Mozart’s compositions were growing increasingly ambitious.
‘Miss Mozart of eleven and Master Mozart of seven Years of Age’
The announcement for a London concert shows how Leopold marketed his talented children:
Miss Mozart of eleven and Master Mozart of seven Years of Age, Prodigies of Nature; taking the opportunity of representing to the Public the greatest Prodigy that Europe or that Human Nature has to boast of. Every Body will be astonished to hear a Child of such tender Age playing the Harpsichord in such a Perfection — it surmounts all Fantastic and Imagination, and it is hard to express which is more astonishing, his Execution upon the Harpsichord playing at Sight, or his own Composition. (Solomon, Mozart, p. 47).
For decades those who had heard Wolfgang Mozart could never forget his astonishing feats of virtuosity. As late as 1830 no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe recalled having heard “the little man with his wig and his sword” in 1763 in Frankfurt.
Leopold’s Role: Promoter and Father
Mozart was on tour for more than two-thirds of the time between the ages of six and seventeen. Leopold was amazingly successful as Mozart’s manager/agent/promoter/teacher; in every city and at every court where Mozart performed, the prodigy played for the most important people in the musical establishment. During those years, he received several opera commissions and the Order of the Golden Spur, which was conferred by Pope Clement XIV.
But whether Leopold was as successful as a father is open to question. In fact, it is this issue that underlies our text’s theme. A few things to consider:
- Was Leopold a “stage father”? Did he manage young Mozart’s career as a substitute for his own more modest achievements?
- Did Leopold’s close management of the young Mozart in some way prevent Mozart from developing his own ability to promote himself, accounting for the relative lack of success of his trips after 1780?
As you continue reading Solomon’s Mozart, be sure to share your thoughts regarding this topic on the Message Board.
In spite of Mozart’s artistic and financial successes on these European grand tours, the trips ultimately failed, since neither Leopold nor his son secured a lucrative and prestigious appointment as court musician. In 1773 the family reluctantly returned to Salzburg, where Mozart entered into the employment of the somewhat hostile Archbishop Colloredo, who had recently ascended the throne.
Leopold decided to bring his remarkable son to Italy on three different occasions between December 1769 and March 1773. These tours were indispensable if Mozart was to be considered among the elite musicians of his day. Italy was then Europe’s leading exporter of music; to succeed it was necessary to win this country’s accolades. The boy’s appearances at Milan, Verona, and Florence were triumphs. In Italy he proved himself to be a serious composer, worthy of the position of music director (Kapellmeister) at a major court.
Mozart’s trips in Italy had an especially heavy influences on his work. (From W. & A.K. Johnston’s “The World an Atlas” 1882.)
Mozart spent more than 10 years (a total of 3,720 days), nearly a third of his short life, away from home. To gain a sense of his demanding schedule, let’s look at a timeline of his life and travels (adapted from Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).
- 1756: Mozart was born in Salzburg.
- 1762: At the age of six, the Mozart family traveled to Munich.
- 1762-63: The family journeyed to Vienna and Bratislava (then known as Pressburg).
- 1763-66: During these years, from when Mozart was seven up to ten years of age, he embarked on the “grand tour” through Frankfurt to Paris, The Hague, London, and the Low Countries.
- 1767-69: Mozart spent the ages of 11 to 13 traveling to and in Vienna. His time here included the performance of Bastien and Bastienne, an early opera that we’ll be discussing in Lesson 5.
- 1769-71: Mozart was 13 years old when his father brought him to Italy, including Milan (where he studied with Padre Martini and wrote the opera Mitradate, Rè di Ponto), Bologna, Rome, and Naples. He returned to Salzburg at the age of 15.
- 1771: At 15, Mozart went to Milan before once again returning to Salzburg.
- 1772-73: Mozart again took a trip to Milan.
- 1773: Mozart performed in Vienna.
- 1774-75: He returned to Munich.
- 1777-79: When he was 21, Mozart traveled to Munich, Augsburg, Mannheim, and Paris in search of commissions or a court position with his mother, who died in Paris. A defeated Mozart (23) returned to Salzburg yet again.
- 1780-81: While still in the employ of the Salzburg court, Mozart traveled to Munich for the premiere of Idomeneo.
- 1781: At the age of 25, Mozart left the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg for good. He moved to Vienna, where he initially found a certain amount of artistic freedom.
- 1783: At the age of 27 he visited Salzburg before returning to Vienna.
- 1787: Mozart made two trips to Prague for the premiere and additional performances of Don Giovanni.
- 1789: During this year, Mozart (33) journeyed to Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, and Potsdam in search of commissions, especially from the King of Prussia.
- 1790: Mozart performed in Frankfurt.
- 1791: In the last year of his life, Mozart, who was 35, went to Prague for the premiere of La Clemenza di Tito and the coronation of Leopold II.
Mozart and the Archbishop
For several years Mozart wanted to leave Salzburg, where there was no opera company and only a small orchestra. He also despised the Archbishop’s frugality. Why didn’t he just leave? We don’t know for certain, but we can assume that the Archbishop held some sort of leverage over the composer. Mozart didn’t mince words when referring to his employer in letters, referring to him as “arch-oaf,” as rendered by Spaethling’s translation.
Fame and Dissatisfaction
In Salzburg, shown here in a 1572 map by Braun and Hogenberg, Mozart continued his growth as an artist, while he chafed at his social position and the town’s provincialism. (Courtesy the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
In Salzburg Mozart continued producing new works at a brisk pace: instrumental music for the court and choral music for the church, keyboard and violin concertos for himself as soloist, six or seven symphonies, and some chamber music. Among his important compositions during the Salzburg years were 13 piano sonatas (influenced by contemporary Italian works), and several sonatas for piano and violin.
However, once he stopped traveling, Mozart became increasingly dissatisfied with his station in life. The success of his Italian tours, on which he had become accustomed to praise from the most important personages and leading musicians of the age, quickly made Mozart discontent with the artistic life of provincial Salzburg. After visiting Munich to enjoy the opening of his opera La finta giardiniera, Mozart wrote to his mother (14 January 1775), discussing how much he enjoyed the trip, and how little he looked forward to returning home:
Praise the Lord! My opera was performed yesterday, the 13th, and it was received so well that I can’t possibly describe to Mama all the applause. First of all, the whole theater was so crammed full that many people had to be turned away. Then, after each Aria, there was a tumultuous storm of applause and shouts of “Viva Maestro” . . . As for our travel home, well, we’re not in a hurry to come back, and Mama should not be impatient, for Mama surely knows how good it feels to breathe. . . . (Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life: Selected Letters, p. 51)
Artistic Bonds and Personal Loss
Noting his son’s dissatisfaction at home, Leopold requested a leave of absence to accompany him on a tour to Paris, but the Archbishop refused his request. However, in 1777, Mozart once again left Salzburg to seek his fortune — this time traveling with his mother.
Before proceeding to Paris, they went first to Munich, Augsburg, and Mannheim. The trip was artistically and financially a flop. Mozart once again failed to receive a court appointment. And, even more tragically, his mother died in Paris, cold and shivering in unfriendly circumstances. Eighteen months later, Mozart, who had been too poor to ship her body back to Salzburg for burial, returned home alone and dejected.
Breaking with the Past
At his father’s insistence Mozart reluctantly took the position of court organist for the Archbishop and continued chafing under the restrictive life there. Mozart despised his servant-position in court life (17 March 1781):
We take our meals at 12 o’clock noon — unfortunately too early for me — seated at the table are the two gentlemanly valets . . . the 2 cooks, . . .and — little me; . . .I at least have the honor of sitting above the cooks . . . (Spaethling, p. 234).
Finally in 1781 Mozart, who could stand it no longer, had a stormy confrontation with his domineering master, the Archbishop, which he describes in a letter of May 9:
At that moment he burst into one unstoppable tirade: I was the most worthless fellow he knew, no one has served him as poorly as I have — he would advise me to leave today or else he will write to Salzburg to stop my pay — I couldn’t get a word in, his words came out like a blaze of fire. I listened to it all patiently — although he lied into my face that I was drawing 500 gulden –called me a scoundrel, a lousy rogue, a cretin! — oh, I don’t want to write all the things he said. . . . (Spaethling, p. 247).
Insulted beyond endurance, Mozart sent in his resignation against his father’s wishes. Breaking from the Salzburg court’s service, he moved to Vienna, which he described as “a Magnificent place — and for my Métier the best place in the world.” He was 25.
On 2 June 1781, right after his break with the Archbishop, Mozart wrote to his father: “My kind of music is far too popular for me not to be able to make a living. This here is a true Clavier [keyboard] land!” (Spaethling, pg. 260)
Mozart knew, of course, that as the capital of Europe’s largest empire, the political center was also the artistic center, giving him hope for endless opportunity. In Vienna, he was adored as a composer and performer. He would have all the students he could take. Undoubtedly he would be able to pursue life as an artist and a freelancer. He expected the world to open before him.
Next lesson we’ll take a look at Mozart’s Vienna, and the historical, political and cultural context in which Mozart lived and worked.
Assignment : Developing Mozart’s Talents
From the text of Solomon’s Mozart, read Chapters 3 and 6, especially concentrating on the early life of the prodigy and his childhood journeys. After these readings, what is your opinion of Leopold now? Do you find him domineering or a sympathetic, loving father? Or maybe some combination of both? Do you think such a rigorous performance schedule hindered the development of Mozart the human being?