27. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [365 Composers for 2013]


27th January – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Mozart (27th January 1756 – 5th December 1791) is our composer for 27th January, to celebrate the day of his birth
Nationality: Austrian
Lifespan: 35 years
Genre: Classical
Education: with his father, Leopold Mozart
Fame Ranking: 1

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not only one of the most famous composers ever to have lived, but is also one of the most famous people in the history of the world. It’s not easy to sum up his life and works in two or three paragraphs! Most people know that he was a child genius composing symphonies from the age of eight, that he could perform any piece from memory after hearing it just once, that he toured around Europe with an over-bearing father and that he died young and in poverty, leaving a prolific volume of work behind him.

What is so special about Mozart? It’s clear that Mozart had an exceptional musical ear from birth, but a combination of other factors are also likely to have contributed to his enduring success. (On the other hand, his lack of know-how regarding financial matters no doubt had a hand in his ending up bankrupt!) Mozart was born at a time when, in all forms of art, the emphasis was on structure and symmetry. This is what sums up the Classical era, whether you are talking about music, architecture or painting. Ideas of beauty change with fashion, and in those days it was all about balance, restraint and form. Passion and emotional freedom were notably absent.

In musical terms, this is reflected in the rules of harmony and form, which in previous times (during the Medieval and Renaissance, for example) had been much freer and more flexible. The rules were formalised during the Baroque era and perfected by the Classical era. The more you confine something to a bunch of rules, the more formulaic that thing becomes. Philip Ball in his excellent book “The Music Instinct”  comments on Mozart’s famous ability to memorise pieces with “what is being remembered here is not an arbitrary series of notes, but a logical, hierarchical system of patterns” and that, concerning music of that era, “once you have the tune it is not so hard to deduce what the harmonies should be”. (1)

Mozart’s own compositions follow the rules and formulae prevailing in his day. This applies to aspects such as which chords can follow each other, how the individual notes of each chord should be distributed between voices/instruments, how sections in a musical piece should be connected with or related to each other (sonata form, symphonic form) and even to which notes can or can’t follow each other in a melody. Mozart had an exceptional skill in following these rules – and that meant it was incredibly easy for him to produce a solid framework for a composition which would stand the test of time. Think of it as being exceedingly good and fast at building a wooden structure for a house – if you can build the skeleton quickly, expertly and finely, then you have a strong structure which you can decorate however you like and it won’t fall down. Mozart was also exceptionally gifted at the decoration part of course, so his structures were perfect but his choice of paint was awesome too.

These rules allowed Mozart to work fast, and undoubtedly contributed to the speed at which he composed. He also grew up in a very musical family, which helps both in terms of nature and nurture. To sum up, he was gifted, encouraged and lived at a time when music was written to formulas much more than at any other other point in history – a recipe for success.

Here is the first part of Mozart’s Requiem – a piece which he had been commissioned to write but was left unfinished due to his own death. In the end it (i.e. the first part) was first performed at his own memorial service five days after his death. The piece was later finished using notes and scraps left by Mozart.

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(1) The Music Instinct, Philip Ball, 2010, page 127.


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