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The Death of Wolfgang Mozart

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 05 Dec

December 5th 1791  -  When Mozart died he had composed over 600 pieces of music. This includes 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, 5 violin concerti, 27 concert arias, 23 string quartets, 18 masses and 22 operas. Listening to all his music, that has been recorded, would take 8.33 days of 24 hour-a-day playing. When the authenticated works were released by Philips in 1990/1 the complete set occupied over six and a half feet of shelving He died at the age of 36. The first 30 of his symphonies were composed by the age of 18. His first, written in London, was done aged 8. When he died he was nearly penniless. 


He was born in Salzburg to Leopold, a concertmaster and violinist at the Salzburg Court, and Anna Maria. He was one of 6 children but only two of them survived, Wolfgang and his older sister Nannerl. It quickly became clear that he was a very accomplished violinist and clarinettist. His father taught him in a very strict, but devoted, way. Leopold had a very strong work ethic and insisted on absolute perfection. Both Wolfgang and his sister were taken on European tours from a very early age and shown off as child prodigies. These trips included London, Paris, The Hague and Zurich. It was while he was on one of these tours that he met Johann Christian Bach, Johann Sebastian’s youngest son. This meeting was to have a profound effect on the young Mozart.


In December 1769 he went on a tour to Italy with his father. His sister’s career however was over. She was of marriageable age and custom did not permit her to show off her talents in public. It was while in Rome that he heard Gregori Allegri’s Miserere performed in the Sistine Chapel. This piece had been performed since 1514 and it had been forbidden to transcribe the music or perform it anywhere else. The punishment for doing so was excommunication. Young Mozart was said to have been transfixed and went home and wrote down the music entirely from memory. He returned later on that week and made some small corrections. When the Pope heard of this, instead of excommunicating the boy, he showered him with honours for showing such a feat of musical genius.


In 1777 Mozart was fed up with Salzburg where opportunities were limited and his pay was low. He wanted to widen his repertoire, especially in the field of opera. Once again he went on tour, this time with his mother, as his father’s sponsor would not permit him more time off. The tour was not a great success as they lacked funds and had to pawn items to pay their way. The low point of the trip came when his mother became ill and died on July 3rd 1778. His father negotiated a better contract for his son back in Salzburg and he returned.


In 1781 the Archbishop of Vienna summoned Mozart and it was while staying there that he lived with the Weber family. Their father, Fridolin, had died and they were taking in lodgers to make ends meet. He met and fell for the daughter, Constanze. They were married on August 4th 1782 much to his father’s annoyance. They went on to have six children of which just two, Karl and Franz, survived. In 1783 he met Joseph Haydn and the two became firm friends, collaborating at times on various pieces. Another influence on both him and his music came when he became a Freemason in 1784. Many of his friends were freemasons and he often attended their meetings.


By this time the spending of Mozart and his wife became very extravagant. They were moving in the same circles as aristocrats and nobility and wanted to live the same lifestyle. He wished to have a court appointment but Italians usually took these jobs. It was at this time that Mozart met the composer Antonio Salieri. They became rivals and applied for the same jobs but also collaborated on pieces such as a cantata. The 1979 play by Peter Shaffer and subsequent film Amadeus focused very much on this relationship and after Mozart’s death rumours went around that the Italian had poisoned him. There is no basis for these rumours however.


In 1785 Mozart met the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and they completed some of the most famed operas – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti and the Magic Flute. On the death of Gluck he was also appointed chamber composer by Emperor Joseph II. This helped, to some extent, with his growing financial concerns but by the end of the 1780s the Mozart family had to move out of central Vienna to the suburbs and Wolfgang started to borrow more and more money. He became depressed; some say he had a form of bipolar disorder. However the year 1790/1 saw him become productive again as he wrote The Magic Flute, the clarinet concerto in A major and the start of his requiem. With the proceeds of this he began to pay off some of his debts.


In 1791 his health deteriorated when he was in Prague for the premier of his opera La Clemenza di Tito. This became worse in November when he was confined to bed and in severe pain. He was determined to finish his Requiem and was still dictating this to his student Franz Süssmayr when he died on 5th December after having been nursed by his wife and her sister. Süssmayr was to go on to complete this work although it is not known exactly which parts he contributed. The official cause of death was severe miliary fever due to a rash on his skin. There is uncertainty about this due to the limitations of the post-mortem. Rheumatic fever, flu, mercury poisoning and a kidney ailment have all been put forward as alternatives.


Mozart was buried in an unmarked grave and few mourners attended the funeral. This was the custom for the time in Vienna. Only aristocrats and nobility enjoyed marked graves. The various memorial services that were held were much better attended. Constanze sold some unpublished manuscripts and received a pension from the Emperor. With the money from these she was able to pay off many of the family debts.


In 1801 a gravedigger Joseph Rothmayer claimed to have found the skull of the composer. Tests have proved inconclusive but the skull remains in the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg. Mozart himself was small in stature with intense eyes. He had facial scars from smallpox that he had contracted as a child. He was thin and pale with very fine, fair hair and he loved elegant clothes. He kept a number of animals including a dog, canary and a horse.


Mozart’s name has become associated with a number of effects. A 1993 study said that listening to Mozart could raise your IQ and also that of an unborn baby. As well as this his music has been credited with raising the milk yield in cows. A Swiss sewage treatment firm claim that his music helps the microbes break down waste – with The Magic Flute showing the best results!


In a radio balloon debate on who was the best composer of all time  Mozart was not allowed to take part as the producers claimed it would be too obvious who would win. He once said that, “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.” It is a wonder that one man wrote so much beautiful music. The word genius is horribly overused today but no other word could better sum up this great composer.

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