Mozart Biography

Salzburg: An engraving by Anton Amon, after Franz von Naumann, 1791.

The European stage

Mozart’s life and world events

Europe in the early 18th century was marking time, trying to catch its breath after the bloody excesses of the previous century. Religious conflicts had decimated the population of Germany and had fragmented it politically. While large nation-states were taking shape elsewhere, the central part of the continent remained a hodgepodge of independent kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities and cities loosely organized into something called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations.

Neither holy, Roman nor an empire (as numerous wags through the centuries have noted), this bizarre entity comprised most of the German-speaking countries from the North and Baltic seas to the Alps. Its emperor was the spiritual descendent of Caesar and Charlemagne but he, in fact, possessed little power. Astride the Empire’s southeastern reaches stood another political anomaly, the hereditary domains of the Habsburgs. This empire, sometimes called Austria, was a multinational patchwork stitched together over the centuries by intermarriage, inheritance, military conquest and pure luck.

The people of Europe had reason to be grateful to Austria and to its capital, Vienna, in particular. In 1683 a Turkish army, bent on invading the West, had been turned back after laying siege to the city. The erstwhile conquerors left behind sacks of coffee beans, a crescent-shaped pastry soon dubbed the croissant, and a persistent curiosity among the Viennese about all things oriental. This curiosity would eventually express itself in “Turkish” music and in dramatic presentations set in the exotic East, including an opera titled Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But we’re getting ahead of our story.

Sandwiched uncomfortably between Austria and neighboring Bavaria was a tiny, independent city-state called Salzburg.

The Romans had been there, long ago. They named it Iuvavum and prized it for its salt deposits. It also had strategic value: They constructed two roads through it, presumably to speed their legions northward to defend against barbarian incursions across the Danube frontier.

A great musical city

The Salzburg court orchestraSalzburg’s court was puny compared to that of Austria or even Bavaria. But the prince-archbishop was a player in imperial politics, so certain expensive amenities, such as a court orchestra, had to be provided.

The musicians of the orchestra had much the same social status as the prince’s other personal servants. They were led by a Kapellmeister and a vice-Kapellmeister, and in 1756 included a concertmaster, 20 violinists, three cellists, two double bassists, four bassonists, three French hornists, three oboists (doubling on flutes), two trumpeters and one kettledrummer.

Instrumentalists were expected to be composers as well; the three most accomplished of these were given the title “court composer.” One of these was Leopold Mozart; in 1763 he would be promoted to vice-Kapellmeister as well.

Salzburg was an “ecclesiastical principality,” administered by a prince-archbishop. The princes could be ruthless: Archbishop Leopold Anton von Firmian settled centuries of religious strife by expelling 22,000 Protestants from Salzburg. Occasionally, they were conscientious and enlightened: One such ruler was the last of Salzburg’s prince-archbishops, Count Hieronymous Colloredo. Mostly, however, they remained remarkably indifferent to their subjects. Their most significant contribution to European culture was their consistent support of the arts, especially music. Because of them, Salzburg “became a great musical city, cross-fertilized by the influences of such musical centers as Venice, Mantua, and Milan on the one hand, and Vienna and Prague on the other hand,” writes Mozart biographer Erich Schenk. “Here the Latin and Teutonic tempers met and mingled.”

In 1737, an 18-year-old Augsburg native named Leopold Mozart arrived in Salzburg to enroll at the university. After a promising start, he was abruptly expelled for neglecting his studies. Something had distracted him. That something may have been music; at any rate, that is where he now turned to make his way in the world. By 1743 he was accepted into the court orchestra. By 1763 he was promoted to vice-Kapellmeister, the highest post he was to achieve. In later years he eventually might have become Kapellmeister, but by then his court career didn’t really matter. He had given himself over to something much bigger, a task that he firmly believed he had been appointed to by God himself.

‘Joannes Crisostomos, Wolfgang, Gotlieb’

Leopold Mozart Anna Maria Mozart
Anna Maria

Once he had established himself, Leopold courted and, on November 21, 1747, married a young Salzburg woman named Anna Maria Pertl. If their correspondence in later years is any indication, it was a good match. No doubt, Anna Maria’s practical good humor provided a healthy counterpoint to her husband’s drive and ambition. There is no question that they were completely devoted to each other.

They had seven children; only two survived infancy. The first was Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, born on July 30, 1751. The second was a boy, born on January 27, 1756.

At the time, Leopold was arranging the publication of his treatise on musical instruction, Violinschule, with Johann Jakob Lotter, a friend and printer in his home town of Augsburg. He broke the good news to Lotter in a letter that February 9: “. . . I must inform [you] that on 27 January, at 8 p.m., my dear wife was happily delivered of a boy; but the placenta had to be removed. She was therefore astonishingly weak. Now, however (God be praised) both child and mother are well. She sends her regards to you both. The boy is called Joannes Chrisostomos, Wolfgang, Gotlieb.”

On the Roman Catholic calendar, January 27 belonged to St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and patron saint of orators. Gotlieb is “beloved of God”; in Latin, Amadeus. Wolfgang was in honor of his maternal grandfather, Wolfgang Nikolaus Pertl. As a grown man he would sign himself “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart,” or just “Mozart.” But for now he was Wolfgang, or more affectionately, “Wolfgangerl.”

Not much is known of Wolfgang’s very early life. Probably, his father concentrated on his court career and on teaching. Certainly he tutored Maria Anna, who the family called Nannerl. When she reached the age of seven, Leopold began to instruct her on the clavier — and soon discovered to his keen satisfaction that she had a gift for music. He continued the girl’s studies, challenging her with a series of exercises that he wrote out for her in a notebook that he titled Pour le clavecin, ce Livre appartient à Mademoiselle Marie-Anne Mozartin 1759.

The boy’s curiosity was piqued as well. As Nannerl later recalled, the three-year-old Wolfgang “often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was always striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good.”

Recognizing his childrens’ special abilities, Leopold began to devote extra effort to their educations — with an emphasis on musical instruction. He became a loving, but exacting, taskmaster. Some time later, he would somewhat ruefully describe to a correspondent how from a very early age Nannerl and Wolfgang had learned to wear the “iron shirt” of discipline. The children themselves probably never realized that life could be any different. Wolfgang, no doubt, enjoyed the extra attention and found great pleasure in learning — and in pleasing his father. It was the start of a relationship that he would never quite break free of, and the beginning of a career that would consume him altogether.