A certain Austrian pianist, composer and conductor was born on this day in 1756, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That name suffices, though he was really baptised Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. We tend to slap a few other labels on him, too.
Child Prodigy. True Genius. The very first Pop Star the world ever knew.
That’s all very romantic, and perhaps inevitably mental images of nimble fingers dancing over ivory keys, an audience of well-bred powdered ladies in courtly silks and gilt halls hung with rippling damask and shimmering chandeliers float to mind when pondering what one of his concerts must have been like.
There’s indeed truth, and also a deal of what some might call alternative facts, to those labels. “Child Prodigy” pales in comparison to Mozart’s musically-inclined father’s description of his son — The Miracle God Let Be Born in Salzburg. That’s a lot of pressure for a sensitive fella said to fear the blast of a trumpet. The little miracle banged out chords on the harpsichord at three and was composing concertos by five. He was compensated for his prowess with a childhood of being hauled around like a performing circus animal.
Before turning six he played before the nobility of Bavaria, shortly after for the imperial family and the brawny Empress Maria-Theresa at Schönbrunn Palace. It was there he truly dazzled his sovereign and her brood of archduchess daughters, was dawdled on Her Imperial Highness’ rotund Habsburg knee, and declared his love for an equally-young Marie-Antoinette, still a carefree Maria-Antonia at the time.
Then it was on to loop the European Circuit, sort of ad infinitum. Travelling from capital to capital with his father and sister Anna Maria (nicknamed Nannerl, talented, too, but massively overshadowed), forever seeking boons and steady patronage at the hands of never quite generous enough princes. It was a youth spent in eighteenth-century stardom, though one spent isolated in a bumpily rolling carriage with a loving but pushy and protective father, and far from a dearly-missed mother when her health ultimately failed.
Mozart was known to have been something of a pig-minded rogue, maybe blame it on his high-stakes, stringent, nomadic upbringing.
Today, monikers like True Genius and Pop Star come attached with visions of techie compounds in Silicon Valley, of platinum records, sold-out arenas, yacht parties and heaps of hangers-on and illicit drugs in Ibiza. Personally, there’s little doubting the never surpassed charm and complexity of such a mind capable of secretly hearing, then pouring out in inky notes something as glorious sounding (and feeling) as Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. And how many other works did he compose? Soul-grasping works of a refined spirit, melodies that have remained catchy for centuries.
Nearly six hundred thirty works is the answer, over the course of all too short life of thirty-five years. The guy really was a genius, and I say so knowing what a loaded, patrio-hetero term “genius” can be. But sadly, that’s not the point. It lies more in the fact that brilliance can’t buy everything, and that history has a tendency of glossing over grisly bits.
Mozart’s adult life didn’t exactly go according to plan. Like the child stars of many a network television sitcom, he was gobbled up, dribbled out and made to fend for himself in the fickle trappings of fame. Fending wasn’t so easy without a permanent position as court composer in the purse of some petty ruler or cultured duke, something Mozart never managed to acquire for good.
Ever on the move, he racked up insurmountable debts, begged favours, penned what music he could for disgraceful sustenance and shrouded himself in sickly misery despite his acclaim, listening in his head to the fatal echoes of his own requiem mass as an assured end closed in. He was buried without ceremony in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
That’s pretty darn sad, and we ought to remember the ditches societies have tended to throw its exceptional though exceptionally troubled talents into. But you can do your part to undo the tragedy a bit; listen to his symphonies, operas, arias and sonatas, encourage others to do the same when you’re aurally smacked by his melodies’ superiority. Maybe spent and evening with your local orchestra, you can hear just fine from the cheapest seats. Render Mozart homage by disregarding what you’ve heard about classical music being nerdy and spread the word to get him trending among new demographics fluent in hashtags. Cultural immortality is all the more satisfying when the hip kids dig your sound. #MarriageofFigaro?
Sources: Stanley Sadie, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”, The Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, last updated 6 January 2017
Piero Melograni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007