All this month, our colleagues at WQXR have been celebrating Mozart. That makes perfect sense for a classical music radio station broadcasting to classical music fans. But fans of rock and hip-hop, jazz and world music -- basically, like 95% of the population -- might be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Well, back in the 1990's, the now-defunct record label Imaginary Road asked me to write liner notes for an album they did of various artists re-interpreting Mozart. The album was called A Different Mozart, and since it was aimed at a general audience, I thought it might be fun to approach Mozart from a slightly different angle. What follows are the notes I wrote for that CD booklet. The album itself is long out of print.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart spent several tempestuous years in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, a small-minded person who seems to have been the only person in Europe who didn’t understand the talent he had in his retinue. Mozart’s place in the archbishop’s court was well-defined: at the table, he sat above the cooks but below the valets. Fortunately, his place in history is a bit more secure: prodigiously, one might say freakishly gifted, Mozart wrote music that is one of the enduring legacies of Western culture.
All you really need to know about Mozart is in that music. But his life was utterly fascinating. He was born in 1756 and died in 1791; in between, there were enough stories, legends, and eccentricities to fill a book. Or at least an alphabet…
A - Amadeus.
This was not Mozart’s middle name. He was baptized Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart. But Mozart disliked the Greek name Theophilus (Lover of God), so he tried the Italian Amadeo, the Latin Amadeus, even the German Gottlieb. Would you have paid money to see a movie called Gottlieb? Fortunately, Amadeus is the version that stuck.
B - Billiards.
Mozart was an enthusiastic billiards player. Legend has it that he even used the play of the balls to determine the chord progression in some of his pieces.
C - Closet.
One of the earliest tall tales about Mozart goes like this: when Mozart was 11 he had already amassed such a lofty reputation as a composer that the Archbishop of Salzburg, who employed his father at the time, locked Mozart in a large closet (or small room -- the important thing is that it had a small table and chair), with the command that he compose something on the spot. The Archbishop suspected that Mozart was passing off his father’s works as his own, a notion that Wolfgang Amadeus quickly and emphatically disproved.
D - Don Giovanni.
Don Giovanni is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest operas of all. With his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who would later move to New York, Mozart created a masterful blend of wicked humor and high drama. The opera was enormously successful, and has spawned two centuries of literature, including a play within a play by George Bernard Shaw and a polysyllabic exegesis by Soren Kierkegaard.
E - Empress.
Empress Maria Theresa was the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another Mozart legend tells of the five-year-old Wolfgang performing at her court as part of a tour of European capitals with his father -- and when he was done, climbing onto her lap and kissing her. The story continues with the Empress bestowing a beautiful suit upon him. But, when later Mozart applied for a coveted position with the Archduke of Milan, the Archduke’s mother – none other than the Empress herself – advised him not to take on a young man of so little social stature. Especially one who made his living by traveling from town to town with his father like beggars. How did Mozart feel about her? Read on…
F - Freemason.
Mozart was supposedly Catholic, but he became a freemason in 1784. Apparently Mozart found no conflict between his religion and the intellectual humanism of Freemasonry. But some authorities think that Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is an allegory about the oppression of the masons by Empress Maria Theresa. While that might be a stretch, Mozart did write music for the rituals and meetings of various Masonic lodges, in addition to pieces for specific brother masons.
G - Glass Harmonica.
This instrument is sometimes credited to Benjamin Franklin, although the American diplomat and polymath didn’t actually invent the glass harmonica. He did, though, produce a standardized version that was reasonably well suited to performance. Mozart wrote his Adagio for Armonica, as it was known, for Franklin’s instrument. This was not his only foray into the world of unusual instruments: there are three works for mechanical organ as well.
H - Haydn.
Franz Josef Haydn was the towering figure in classical music in the generation immediately preceding Mozart. The two maintained a cordial relationship, beginning with Haydn’s famous statement to Leopold Mozart that “before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.” Mozart drew heavily on Haydn’s innovations in the development of the string quartet and the symphony -- a debt he acknowledged in his celebrated Six String Quartets of 1785, published with a profuse and flowery dedication to Haydn.
I - Italy.
A boot-shaped, pasta-based country in southern Europe; the home to opera and a country whose music was notably more florid than its northern counterparts. Mozart traveled frequently to Italy, was fluent in Italian, and is considered the first composer to successfully synthesize elements of the German and Italian styles – especially in his operas, where he moved freely between the two languages.
J - Jupiter.
The nickname given to Mozart’s last symphony, officially the Symphony #41 in C Major, K. 551. Mozart often used the key of C for music of a grand, celebratory nature. That’s how we tend to view it today, but in Mozart’s time, the critics who heard it thought he’d finally gone mad.
K - Köchel.
The K. 551 in the preceding paragraph means that the “Jupiter Symphony” is piece number 551 in the catalog of Mozart compositions put together in the 19th century by Ludwig von Köchel. Köchel’s catalog attempted to bring some order to Mozart’s chaotic output: all of Mozart’s works are listed in chronological order, from K.1 (a short piano piece) to K. 626, the Requiem. Why use a catalog? Mozart wrote numerous works with similar titles; there are several Divertimenti in the key of D, for example. The Köchel numbers help differentiate one from the other.
L - Leopold.
Mozart’s father - famed violinist, theorist, and stage mother. Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) recognized his son’s extraordinary musical genius almost immediately and put aside his own career to further young Wolfgang’s. Ambitious and uncertain what kind of genius he had spawned, Leopold dragged his son throughout the courts and musical capitols of Europe, and provided virtually all the schooling Wolfgang had.
M - 'The Mozart Effect.'
The name applied to several studies from the 1990's reporting that children who listen to classical music, but especially to Mozart, score higher on standard intelligence tests. Far from being consigned to one of those tabloids you pretend not to read on the supermarket checkout line, this work was reported in the mainstream press and taken seriously in the music business. It still has adherents, despite later studies claiming to have debunked this idea.
N - Nachtmusik.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or A Little Night Music, remains one of the world’s most popular pieces of classical music. It is actually a serenade in G major for strings, and was originally in five parts. The second part was lost, and the work has become famous as a 4-part piece.
O – Order of the Golden Spur.
An exclusive order conferred by the Pope, and modeled on the medieval Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and so forth. Two of the most renowned composers of Mozart’s time, Gluck and Dittersdorf, received the Order. Mozart, at the age of 14, was not only awarded the honor, but given the higher rank of Knight.
P – Pop Star.
In his hit song “Rock Me Amadeus,” Austrian rapper Falco repeatedly uses the word “superstar.” Well, in his day, Mozart’s popularity was unrivaled. As a child prodigy, his name spread throughout Europe. Unlike most prodigies, though, his fame continued throughout his life. He reported hearing people whistling his tunes on the streets during a visit to Prague. Audiences in Vienna, he wrote, would refuse to allow the opera house to close until favorite excerpts had been performed again.
Q - Queen of the Night.
No, it’s not a nickname given to Mozart by a jealous colleague. The Queen of the Night is a small role in the opera The Magic Flute; but her two songs are written in an extremely high register, and to this day the statement “she can sing the Queen of the Night” will get most opera fans in a lather.
R - Requiem.
Perhaps the most bizarre of all the stories associated with Mozart is the tale of his final piece, the Requiem. It sounds like a Hollywood script: a late-night visit to the dying Mozart by a scheming count; the secret request for a requiem mass; the count’s plan to pass it off as his own work -- only to be foiled by the death of the composer before the score could be delivered. In a sense, Mozart wrote his own requiem. Legend has it that as Mozart feverishly tried to complete it, he was beset with premonitions of his own imminent death. The day before he died, he rallied long enough to sing through parts of the piece with friends. That evening, his condition worsened and he died.
S - Salieri.
The story of Mozart’s death was the subject of much conjecture in the 19th century, and even the subject of the opera Mozart and Salieri – to say nothing of the late 20th-century film Amadeus. The story claimed that Mozart’s early demise was the result of poisoning by Antonio Salieri, a talented but overly serious and intense rival composer, who was insanely jealous of the younger, more popular, and more flamboyant composer’s success. In fact, Salieri was a fan of Mozart’s music and a friend as well. He also taught Mozart’s son Xaver. The legend that Mozart was buried without mourners is probably false; it seems that Salieri and perhaps two of Mozart’s other friends were there to bid farewell.
T - Thief.
The composer of the Jupiter Symphony and Don Juan knew a good tune when he heard one -- even if he didn’t write it himself. As a child, Mozart published a number of “compositions” that might charitably be called homework. His Symphony in E Flat, K. 18 is in fact a collection of shorter works by contemporary composers like Carl Friedrich Abel and Michael (Joseph’s brother) Haydn. And the first four keyboard concertos were simply arrangements of music from such otherwise forgotten composers as H. F. Raupach, L. Honauer, and J. G. Eckard.
U - Unknown.
Obviously someone wrote the Symphony in B flat, K. 17; the Kyrie in D Minor, K. 90; and the Missa Brevis in F, K. 140. But that someone wasn’t Mozart, although for many years these pieces were published under his name. Also unknown are the whereabouts of such works as the Stabat Mater, K.33c, the vocal piece Viviano Felici, K. 615, and the Symphony in C, K. 19b, among others. These definitely were written by Mozart, but have been lost. One of his pieces is known to exist simply because two pages of it were included in a portrait of Mozart at a piano.
V – Vous, as in “Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.”
This French folk song was popular in Mozart’s day. It is now even better known in the English-speaking world, where we know it as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and the melody we learn the alphabet to. (And in Germany, it’s a popular Christmas carol.) Mozart wrote a series of variations on this theme for piano; the Variations in C Major, “Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.” Sure, the work has a certain novelty value, but it’s actually quite a virtuoso showpiece.
W – Weber, Constanze.
Mrs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even here, there’s a strange story. Mozart was in love with a young soprano named Aloysia Weber. But her eye roved elsewhere, and Mozart, who took this rather hard, settled on her sister Constanze. Not that he had a choice, apparently. Constanze’s mother contrived a situation wherein Mozart was forced to either marry her (Constanze, that is) or compensate her for the damage to her reputation caused by their alleged intimacy. Mozart, never the most responsible person with money, was unable to choose the second option. At least the marriage seems to have been a happy one, despite constant financial woes, health concerns, and Mozart’s traveling.
X - Xaver.
Only two of Mozart’s six children survived infancy; one was Xaver. Born Franz Xaver Mozart in 1791, he was a pianist and composer; Salieri predicted for him a career “not inferior to his celebrated father.” Salieri’s predictive skills were appalling: Xaver Mozart eked out a modest career, mostly in the musical hinterlands of Eastern Europe.
Y - Young.
Mozart died young. The question of what he might have gone on to do had he lived longer has haunted music lovers for two hundred years. His health was almost certainly compromised while he was very young; as a child touring through Europe, he was seriously ill on at least three occasions.
Z – Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute.
Die Zauberflöte -- known in English as The Magic Flute -- is one of Mozart’s more curious creations; full of magic, intrigue, and alleged masonic imagery. Its initial reception in Vienna in 1791 was somewhat guarded, but it quickly became popular. Legend says that Mozart cracked up the audience at one performance in October 1791 by playing a deliberately out-of-synch glockenspiel part offstage. This may in fact have been his last public performance. Despite his popularity, he was (as usual) in dire financial straits, and already suffering from the typhus that would kill him in a few weeks. He spent those last weeks attempting to fulfill commissions for a Clarinet Concerto, a Masonic cantata, and the Requiem. On the fifth of December, with the first two works complete and the third nearly so, Mozart died. He was 35.