Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756–1791

Classical

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart oozed talent. He didn’t have an easy life, but he was a musical genius. Most people agree that he was one of the greatest composers of all time. He lived in Austria during the Classical era, and although he died young (aged 35) the music he wrote is listened to and loved every day, everywhere.

By the time he was five, Mozart played the piano and violin, and was composing his own music. His father, Leopold, was delighted by the talent of his son and also of his daughter, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl). He was determined to show off his child prodigies! So brother and sister spent much of their childhood performing for wealthy and important people throughout Europe.

The problem for Mozart when he grew up was that he had plenty of talent but usually not enough money. If he had it, he spent it; if he didn’t have it, he struggled. He was first employed at the court of Salzburg but he didn’t like it there. He eventually managed to leave (at which point a steward was ordered to give him a kick on his behind! Not very dignified…) and went to Vienna, where he married Constanze Weber in the great St Stephen’s Cathedral. Mozart did well in Vienna: he studied the brilliant music of Bach and Handel, which helped his own writing; he met Haydn and they became friends; he presented his new piano concertos, playing the piano part himself; and his greatest operas emerged, such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart helped to establish the symphony as an important musical form; he made the Classical piano concerto popular; and he not only wrote in every major genre – producing symphonies, concertos, quartets, quintets, sonatas, operas, choral works, dance music, and more – but he did it with flair and individuality. His music is clear and perfectly formed, as well as magnificent and powerful.

Apparently Mozart was small, thin and pale, but he did have bursts of extraordinary energy when something excited him. In the final year of his life, before he got really ill, he wrote some of his finest music, including the Clarinet Concerto, The Magic Flute, and his unfinished Requiem – one of the most miraculous pieces of music ever created.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Choose music by Mozart below…

The Marriage of Figaro: Overture

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro is full of sparkling music and hilarious mix-ups. An overture is for just the orchestra – no singers – and it happens right at the start, when the curtain is still down. It sets the scene. There’s plenty of energy here!

Performers: Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554172

Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495: III. Rondo: Allegro vivace

Mozart knew a fantastic horn player, so he wrote four concertos for him. The French horn is a brass instrument, with tubing curled round like a piece of spaghetti and a big bell at the end. It’s a grand instrument, although here it sounds playful!

Performers: Jacek Muzyk, horn; Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio; Agnieszka Duczmal

Taken from Naxos 8.570419

Serenade No. 13 in G major, K. 525, ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik ‘ (‘A Little Serenade’): IV. Rondo: Allegro

Mozart’s Serenade called ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ is a piece that a lot of people would recognize even if they couldn’t name it. It’s famous! Written in 1787 for string instruments, it is delicate, joyful, fresh and lively. This is the final movement.

Performers: Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Petter Sundkvist

Taken from Naxos 8.557023

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What was the nickname of Mozart’s sister?

a. Ninny
b. Nannerl
c. Nonet

 Mozart made friends with another composer and dedicated six string quartets to him. Who was it?

a. Wagner
b. Handel
c. Haydn

 Which great work of Mozart’s was unfinished when he died?

a. Don Giovanni
b. Clarinet Quintet
c. Requiem

 After which planet is Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 named?

a. Jupiter
b. Saturn
c. Uranus

 Which of Mozart’s operas features a character called the Queen of the Night, who sings very high?

a. The Marriage of Figaro
b. Don Giovanni
c. The Magic Flute


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Amadeus is the Latin version of the Greek word Theophilus, which was one of Mozart’s middle names, and means ‘love of God’.
  2. Mozart’s party trick on tour as a child was to cover the piano keys with a cloth and play extremely difficult pieces without being able to see the keys.
  3. Mozart was a Freemason and wrote a lot of music for masonic events. His opera, The Magic Flute, is a masonic ‘allegory’ (a story with a hidden meaning).
  4. Mozart loved the soprano voice and wrote many of his best songs and arias for this high sound.
  5. The Austrian town, Salzburg, is where Mozart was born and there are wonderful chocolates you can buy there called Mozartkugeln (‘Mozart balls’)!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Concertos


Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

In 1785 Mozart sat at the piano and gave the first performance of this concerto himself. It has been long admired by everybody, including the other famous composers Beethoven, Brahms and Busoni – they all wrote their own cadenzas (long, showy endings) for it.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Concentus Hungaricus; András Ligeti

Taken from Naxos 8.553265


Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, ‘Turkish’

Mozart wrote all his violin concertos early in his life. They’re full of wit and charm. In this one (nicknamed ‘Turkish’ because of a sudden foot-stamping section in the third movement that is a bit like a Turkish band, e.g. at 3:30), the solo violin comes in at 1:06 in the first movement, after an introduction by the orchestra – can you hear it singing its melody? Then at 1:59 it suddenly takes off at speed!

Performers: Henning Kraggerud, violin; Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.573513


Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622

This was one of Mozart’s final works and it is a masterpiece. The clarinet stands out without being flashy or showy. Listen to the second, slow, movement: there is something kind about the music, with the clarinet’s long melody growing in way that seems completely perfect and comforting. The magical thing is that although it seems simple, it is special – and only Mozart could have written it.

Performers: Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Vienna Mozart Academy; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550345

Symphonies


Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

This symphony is in a minor key: often when music is in a minor key, it sounds darker, sadder, more serious. This is a long work, with four movements, so the music isn’t always in a minor key – but it keeps coming back home to it. So if you listen to the beginning, it sounds quite dramatic and urgent… but soon, in a very Mozart way, the clouds clear and the sun shines: at c. 0.25 the theme changes to a major key! It’s a clever and gripping symphony.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.550164


Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, ‘Jupiter’

This is the last symphony Mozart ever wrote – and the longest. The second movement is especially lovely, and the film director Woody Allen once said that in his opinion it is one of the things that makes ‘life worth living’.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.550299

Chamber Music


String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K. 515

Mozart wrote six string quintets – each with two violins, two violas and a cello – and this one inspired Schubert to write a string quintet of his own.

Performers: János Fehérvári, viola; Éder Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.553254


Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581

Composed in 1789, Mozart’s only clarinet quintet has become one of his most popular works. Many people think it is an unusually beautiful work. The clarinet seems to blend smoothly with the four string instruments (two violins, viola and cello), and the music has a remarkable sense of peace.

Performers: József Balogh, clarinet; Danubius Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.553254


Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor, K. 304

Mozart wrote this sonata in 1778, around the time his mother died. It doesn’t have the sense of joy that we often find in somewhere in Mozart’s writing. Listen to the minor-key minuet (track 2): the piano begins calmly with music of sadness and regret. The violin takes over the piano’s theme and, underneath it, the piano writing is quite bare – there are no big chords, but instead single notes or octaves (the same note at different pitches).

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553110

Piano Music


Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545

Mozart described this simple sonata as ‘for beginners’. That is a bit of an exaggeration: it’s a great piece to try learning, but it isn’t that easy! These days it’s very popular, especially with students. Easy or not, it’s satisfying to listen to, with its running fast notes, playful phrases and bouncing chords.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550446

Sacred Music


Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (excerpts)

Mozart left his final masterpiece unfinished, and full of mystery. There is a story that a ‘grey messenger’ had asked him to write it: this ghostly apparition apparently convinced the poor, sick composer that he was writing a piece to mark his own imminent death! We may never know exactly what happened, but this Requiem (a choral work with text that asks for the dead to rest peacefully) is a powerful, wonderful and unforgettable work. Can you hear in the ‘Kyrie’ (the second track here) how different sections of the choir keep entering with ‘Kyrie’ at different pitches?

Performers: Miriam Allen, soprano; Gewandhaus Chamber Choir; Leipzig Chamber Orchestra; Morten Schuldt-Jensen

Taken from Naxos 8.557728


Ave verum corpus in D major, K. 618

Not all church music has to be formal and complicated! This famous piece is wonderfully simple, and represents a more popular type of church music.

Performers: Košice Teachers’ Choir; Camerata Cassovia; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550495


Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165

Mozart was only 16 when he wrote this lovely piece. It’s cheerful, but difficult to sing – the soprano voice certainly has a lot to do!

Performers: Priti Coles, soprano; Camerata Cassovia; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550495


Mass No. 16 in C major, K. 317, ‘Coronation Mass’ (excerpt)

Mozart wrote 17 settings of the Roman Catholic Mass text, but this one is one of his best known. As the title suggests, it became very popular for coronations (a ceremony for a king or queen to be crowned).

Performers: Priti Coles, soprano; John Dickie, tenor; Košice Teachers’ Choir; Camerata Cassovia; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550495

Opera


The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492 (excerpt)

The Marriage of Figaro might be Mozart’s most popular opera, and this aria (in which the main character secretly declares war on his boss) is classic comic Mozart – mocking, clever and mischievous!

Performers: Natale De Carolis, baritone; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554172


The Magic Flute, K. 620 (excerpts)

Here are two tracks from The Magic Flute. The soprano in track 1 – the Queen of the Night – is singing about her determination to get her revenge – and she does sound pretty terrifying! This type of tricky, decorative singing, known as coloratura, is unbelievably high, reaching a top F. The opera is also full of funny moments, especially featuring Papageno – a bird-catcher who first appears on stage dressed up as a bird. This unusual aria (song) – track 2 – happens when he is reunited with his wife, Papagena. The two make bird-like sounds to each other!

Performers: Hellen Kwon, soprano (Queen of the Night); Lotte Leitner, soprano (Papagena); Georg Tichy, baritone (Papageno); Budapest Failoni Chamber Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553438


Don Giovanni, K. 527 (excerpt)

A statue comes to life and tries to scare Don Giovanni into repenting all the bad things he’s done throughout the opera. But Don Giovanni isn’t afraid. He defies the statue – and so he pays with his soul, disappearing into flames.

Performers: Bo Skovhus, baritone (Don Giovanni); Janusz Monarcha, bass (Il Commendatore); Renato Girolami, baritone (Leporello); Hungarian Radio Chorus; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.660080-82