And Famous Catholic Fridays are officially back on line with our first foray into the musical world.
Catholic Credentials: Cradle Catholic; wrote a lot of sacred music that makes you realize just how lame the songs in your hymnal are.
Nerd Credentials: An insanely gifted child prodigy.
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born on January 27th, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. It was a time of transition; the ancient Holy Roman Empire had disintegrated into loosely independent states and city-states, the Archduchy of Austria was one of the many regions ruled by the formidable Empress Maria Theresa (might do a piece on her sometime; she makes Queen Elizabeth I look like Betty Crocker), and the Seven Years War was only on year two. In short, Mozart was born and grew up in what we call ‘interesting times.’
He was the only surviving son of Leopold and Maria Pertl Mozart. Leopold was a successful composer and violinist in his own right at the Salzburg court, and Wolfgang, together with his beloved sister, Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), began to study music very early. When Maria was seven, their father began teaching her the keyboard. Three-year-old Mozart watched in fascination and, by mimicking her playing, quickly picked up the art himself. Leopold, realizing this, started instructing the precocious little dickens as well. Under his father’s tutorship, Wolfgang produced his first composition at age five.
When Wolfgang was six and Nannerl eleven, their father took them on a whirlwind tour of Europe, from Munich to Paris to London to Zurich, where they performed and mixed with established musicians, including Johann Christian Bach (the son of Johann Sebastian Bach), who was especially influential to the no-doubt awed Wolfgang and helped him compose some of his first symphonies.
By the time he was thirteen, Mozart was not only fluent in the musical language, but he could even imitate the different ‘dialects’ of the various regions of Europe. That is, he could give his music an Austrian tone, or a Bavarian note, or a Parisian flavor as he saw fit. Also by this time poor Nannerl’s musical career ended due to her approaching marital age. Nevertheless, the siblings remained very close friends and correspondents for the rest of their lives.
It was about this time that Leopold took Wolfgang down to Italy to show him off some more. While in Rome, Wolfgang listened to Gregorio Allegri’s soaring Miserere performed in the Sistine Chapel. After hearing it performed once, he wrote down the entire score from memory; something that caused a bit of a stir, since only the Sistine Choir was permitted to know or perform the piece. So, to summarize; when he was still a teenager, Mozart memorized and copied the most exclusive musical composition in the world after a single hearing.
Mozart made a number of other Italian journeys during his teenage years to study, compose, and perform his music. When he returned from his final trip in 1773, it was to find that his father’s benefactor, Archbishop von Schrattenbach, had died and been succeeded by Hieronymous von Colleredo (who was probably already bitter over his ridiculous name). Archbishop von Colleredo hired the young Mozart as his assistant concertmaster for a small salary. While working under the Archbishop, Mozart composed his only five violin concertos in a three-year obsession. Once he had gotten his wild violin concerto phase out of his system, he turned to piano concertos, producing his exquisite Piano Concerto Number 9 in E flat major in 1777, just after his 21st birthday.
While all this was going on, Mozart and the Archbishop were growing increasingly impatient with one another. Mozart was restless and dissatisfied with his low-paid, unglamorous position. He wanted to get out, to shine, to excel outside of the crummy little town™ of Salzburg. The Archbishop, for his part, was sick of his constant whining and bad attitude. Finally, not long after completing his piano concerto, Wolfgang resigned his post and set out to seek his fortune, accompanied by his mother (after an earlier trip nearly got him into trouble with a young lady). They traveled from Munich to Paris to Mannheim, but each time it looked as though he was about to find work, the deal fell through. Mozart started running low on cash and had to pawn his possessions to make ends meet. Then he hit absolute rock-bottom when his mother fell ill and died in Paris. Depressed and grief-stricken, he turned down the job offer he had finally managed to receive in Paris and returned to Salzburg, where his father managed to snag him a position as court organist.
In this capacity, he composed a number of Church pieces, including his famous Coronation Mass. He also crafted another opera: Idomeneus, King of Crete, which he performed in Munich to great acclaim.
While he was in Munich, the Empress Maria Therese died and Mozart was summoned by the Archbishop to be part of his retinue to the coronation of her successor, Joseph II, in Vienna. The Archbishop’s opinion of the young man hadn’t improved at all in the intervening years, and he treated him as a servant. Mozart, who had just produced a successful opera and was used to mixing freely with noblemen, was furious. He resigned. The Archbishop initially refused, then abruptly accepted and had the composer literally thrown out of his room.
Having pretty neatly burned his bridges in Salzburg, Mozart determined to remain in Vienna, where he lodged with old friends he had made during his job-hunting tour. He had success in the capital; taking on students, writing music, and playing in private concerts (concerts in those days were often given in nobleman’s homes).
Yet, even as his career began to rise, he ran into a problem. It seems the family he was staying with – the Webers – had a very attractive daughter named Constanze. Not only was Mozart drawn to her himself, but her mother very much liked the idea of the girl marrying a brilliant musician.
So what was the problem? Marriage would mean more burdens on the still-struggling artist and possibly considerable damage to his career. This made Mozart wary. It made his father flatly forbid him to get married. When Mozart finally wrote to ask for his blessing, Leopold refused. Despite this, the couple became engaged, and after a long, angry correspondence between father and son, Leopold finally consented in time for their wedding on August 4, 1782. The couple had six children, only two of whom survived infancy.
As his star rose and his personal life settled, Mozart began to live lavishly on his musical prowess. He lived in a magnificent apartment, sent his son to the finest boarding school, and, of course, kept up an active social life among the elite of Vienna. To pay for all this, he redoubled his musical output, producing operas such as Die Entfuhrung and Le Mariage de Figaro, as well as numerous concertos, sonatas, and Masses. In 1784 he joined the Freemasons (which was not yet forbidden by the Church). That year was the most prolific of his life; in one five-week period, he appeared in twenty-two concerts, a number of which were essentially one-man shows that he had produced and performed himself.
Even so, his spending habits, coupled with the fickle Viennese public, soon put him in dire financial straits, a situation made worse by the fact that, popular as he was, he couldn’t win a court appointment. The Emperor’s taste in music ran more towards the Italian style, particularly that of a composer named Antonio Salieri, with whom Mozart had an intense, though entirely professional rivalry (the idea that they hated each other personally is a myth; each respected the other’s talents and admired the other’s work).
Finally, the Emperor deigned to recognize Mozart’s skill by appointing him “chamber composer.” It was only a part-time position, but it came not a moment too soon, as Mozart was now swamped with debt. To make matters worse, the Austro-Turkish War was now in full swing, meaning there was little money to be spared for musicians. Mozart was now borrowing money to make ends meet, though he was always prompt at paying it back when he managed to snag a concert or sell a piece of music. He began to travel, seeking ways to improve his fortune. But neither Leipzig nor Dresden nor Berlin held any opportunities for him.
With his troubles surmounting, Mozart slipped into dark depression. He would alternate between periods of moody, reflective idleness and frenzied activity.
Then, all of a sudden, he rallied. He began churning out piece after piece all throughout the first half of 1791; concertos, string quintets, the opera The Magic Flute and, finally, his great unfinished Requiem Mass. The success of this massive outpouring of effort began to restore his family’s fortune at last.
These pieces tended to show a more marked spiritual nature than his previous works. It seems that, during his long “dark night” he had experienced a spiritual revival. His faith, which had always been sincere, appears to have rallied in that final, tremendous year of his life.
And it was the end. On September 6th, 1791, while in Prague for the premiere of his opera La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart fell ill. He rallied and managed to keep working, including conducting the premier of The Magic Flute, but his health steadily diminished. His wife nursed him as he struggled to complete his Requiem, foiling her efforts to maintain his health in the process. He died, his final masterpiece still incomplete, on December 5th, 1791. He was thirty-five years old.
Mozart was a genius of the kind that only appears once in a hundred years. As his contemporary Johann Woflgang von Goethe put it, “A phenomenon like Mozart remains an inexplicable thing.” The soaring beauty that poured from his mind and fingers from the very earliest age reminds us of the reality beyond the mere world of sight and sound. Mozart could channel heart-rending beauty through his person and lay it down complete with the power to move us centuries hence. This talent was so complete, so inexplicable that it can only point us beyond itself to the Reality that it so often praised and celebrated.
Vive Christus Rex!