The little Wonderboy, Mozart
Right: Detail from a portrait of Mozart wearing the insignia of the Knight of the Golden Spur, conferred on him in 1770. He looks pretty stressed-out already. Image courtesy of Joe Moreno's The Mozart Experience.
Born in Salzburg (today part of Austria), the boy Mozart was instantly recognized as a wunderkind. A musical child prodigy, he began learning the piano at the age of four and played it brilliantly by six. He was brought by his musician-teacher-father Leopold on a grand tour of Europe’s musical capitals and had been to Vienna, Paris, London and Italy by the age of 13. He was shown off (or exhibited, if you prefer) to important dignitaries such as the Pope and Empress Maria Theresa. Naturally gifted, he could read and play musical scores on sight and was capable of writing down the entire score of a complicated work after just hearing it a few times. He also had an exceptional knack at improvisation and was composing original work from the age of six. He wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, his first opera at twelve and conducted twenty performances of that opera at 14.
IN 1771, at the age of 15, Mozart entered an unfortunate phase of his life. He became a court musician and composer for the archbishop of Salzburg. His pay was meagre and his talents were woefully unappreciated by his employer. Failed attempts at finding better work at Munich and Paris led him back to Salzburg, where his conservative and unsupportive father encouraged him to remain. The archbishop did not permit him to give public concerts or to play at the homes of the nobility, effectively preventing him from finding a better-paying and more open-minded patron. Frustrated at the restrictions placed on him, Mozart resigned from the service of the archbishop rather acrimoniously, and headed for the bright lights of Vienna at the age of 25. Initially, Mozart had a good time in Vienna, moving with the jet set, and was highly popular as a pianist and composer. He worked as a free-lancer, while trying to attract the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I. He became the chamber-music composer of the Emperor in 1787, which was prestigious-sounding but paid little and was in reality a minor appointment. For those who had seen the movie AMADEUS, his alleged killer Antonio Salieri was held in higher esteem by Emperor Joseph than the upstart Mozart, but there never really was a plot to kill the playful composer. Despite composing his finest work in the final years of his life, his fortunes waned as the fickle Viennese crowd moved on to other fads. Mozart died a pauper at the age of 35, from a combination of overwork, kidney failure and typhus.
IT IS undeniable that Mozart had great natural talent. It is also undeniable that he had a huge dose of bad luck. Today, his music is hugely popular among both the critics and the public. It has been said that it is impossible to hate Mozart’s music. All of his works have a luminous quality to them, and the words elegance and poise come automatically to mind when hearing his music. The output during the Vienna years is both large and astonishingly high in quality. It includes his last three symphonies (Nos. 39 to 41), the famous Clarinet Quintet (K. 581), the popular serenade “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (K. 525), the three Prussian String Quartets (Nos. 21 to 23), his last opera “The Magic Flute” (K. 620), and the unfinished Requiem (K. 626). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mozart’s favourite instrument was the piano, and he is arguably the master of piano concertos. The most famous of them all is No. 21, also known as the “Elvira Madigan”, from the title of the film in which it was used in. He wrote 27 altogether, most of which are considered masterpieces. The piano concertos are a good place to get acquainted with Mozart’s music, although the symphonies are just as adequate.
Right: Mozart’s fortepiano.
Image courtesy of Joe Moreno’s The Mozart Experience.
There are countless versions of Piano
Concerto No. 21 to choose from, but the version that is generally considered to be special is by Geza Anda and Camerata Academica on DG Originals, coupled with Nos. 6 and 17 (447 436-2). At mid-price, this disc is a fabulous buy. For those who want even more piano concertos, the Alfred Brendel two-disc set on Philips Duo (442 269-2) comes with Nos. 19, 20, 21, 23, 24 and two concert rondos. The playing is superb and the sound satisfying, and with each disc at budget-price, it is an even better buy than the Anda disc. A good digital version to consider is the one by Andras Schiff and comes with Nos. 20 and 21 (Decca 430 510-2, although it is at full-price. Those who desire a general introduction to the wonder of Mozart can do no better than acquiring a copy of “Basic Mozart”, a two-disc collection comprising of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Symphony No. 41, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, Violin Concerto No. 5, Horn Concerto No. 4, and Anda’s version of Piano Concerto No. 21 (DG 447 178-2).