Mozart's biography: tragedy strikes (1774 - 1778)

Mozart's compositions become ever more incredible, his character becomes more exuberant and we learn a little more about the family dog...

A portrait definitely identified as Mozart

1774 - symphonies, concertos and operas

Today, they say that moving house is the one of the most stressful things a person can experience, second only to divorce. For the close-knit Mozart family, experience number one would never happen, but experience number two took place in the March of 1773.
To be fair, they weren’t moving far — from the Getreidegasse, close to the south bank of the River Saizer, just across the bridge to Hannibal-Platz on the north bank.

The new pad was not enough to keep the Mozarts home for long and by July, Mozart and his father were on the road again to Vienna. As usual, Mozart was seeking gainful employment. At first, things looked good when he was granted an audience with the empress and they gave concerts at society houses, including Dr Mesmer’s again. They were invited to a special feast day dinner, where Mozart once more wowed his audience, this time with his virtuosity on the violin. But it was the same old story; everything seemed to come to nothing and on 27 September, they resurfaced in Salzburg with no job offer to consider.

Amazingly enough, the Mozart family resisted the urge to travel for almost the whole of 1774. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising considering that for the first 21 months of Colloredo’s reign, Mozart was only at home for around 11 of them. So, Mozart spent the year busying himself with a variety of compositions, including masses for the archbishop, which were written specifically to his particular tastes.

All this time, though, Mozart’s musical voice was maturing. With every piece, it was not only easier to identify the hand of the composer, but also each work grew in accomplishment. Milestones such as his Symphony No. 29, which was finished on 6 April this year, show his music truly coming of age. Also in 1774, he wrote the Bassoon Concerto. In this work, Mozart gave his bassoon soloist a real run out on the instrument, with fast, florid passages that are still something of a trial today, never mind on the considerably more unwieldy instrument of the 1770s.
With his operas, too, he was moving on in leaps and bounds, sounding ever more profound notes. When a commission came that year from Munich, the resulting work, Lafinta giardiniera (an opera buffa) is yards more accomplished than his previous comic work, Lafinta semplice. Of course, it also provided Mozart with a reason to leave Salzburg. He and his father arrived in Munich on 6 December that year to attend rehearsals of the new opera.

While he was there, Mozart acquired a bad case of toothache, as he told his sister, Nannerl, in a postscript to Leopold’s letter home on 16 December. On 30 December, he wrote to Nannerl again, with instructions for what she must do when she journeyed out to be with them. He signed himself:

"Jam, as always, your Munich."

This is just one of the many fun signoffs which Mozart used. In his next letter, he signed off:

"Farewell! A thousand kisses to Bimberl."

Bimberl was Mozart’s dog.

1775 - back to Salzburg

Nannerl eventually joined them early in 1775, in time to witness a successful premiere of Lafinta giardiniera on 13 January. Mozart received shouts of “Viva, Maestro!” and the blessings of the elector and electoress, while the local bishop sent round his congratulations the following morning.

Salzburg beckoned — or, should we say, there were no more reasons to be away — and the trio of Mozarts arrived home on 7 March. Besides, there was important work to do back home. Archduke Maximilian was about to visit Colloredo and Mozart was instructed to provide the music for his entertainment, which he did. In fact, for the whole of 1775, Mozart concentrated on his proper job in Salzburg. His increasing mastery of his art meant that this was a creative purple patch, particularly with the five Violin Concertos, composed between April and December this year. The most well- known — Nos. 3, 4 and 5 (the Thrkish) — show his composing powers developing still further. They would have been written for him to perform himself and he would have led the Salzburg court orchestra from the violin.

1776 - composing for friends

Once again, the Mozarts managed to keep themselves at home for the whole year. Much like the previous 12 months, Mozart spent 1776 writing at his now familiar frantic rate of composition. Chief among the works that year, though, was something that was not even composed to be seriously heard. It was Mozart muzak.

Despite his state workload, Mozart often took on personal commissions. When a family friend, Siegmund Haffner, approached them with a request for music for his sister’s wedding, Mozart happily obliged. Hard as it might be for us to imagine today, the resulting Haffner Serenade was designed to be played to the chatting, eating, drinking guests at Marie Elisabeth Haffner’s wedding, on 21 July 1776. Despite this fact, which you might think at least mildly annoying for a composer, the Haffner Serenade is, again, one of Mozart’s early successes — a great work, full of depth and invention, despite only receiving scant attention from the audience at its first performance.

1777 - Mozart discovers women

The year 1777 saw the start of a very long departure from life in Salzburg. Mozart was increasingly frustrated with his home town and, once again, requested leave of absence. Colloredo, one might think fairly, considering the amount of time off he has already given Mozart over the years, refused. He was so annoyed at yet another petition for leave of absence that he sacked both Mozart and Leopold, albeit in a pointedly laconic way: 

"Father and son are granted permission to find their fortune elsewhere — in accordance with the gospel."

This line, their dismissal, referred to the Mozarts’ petition for leave, which had cited the gospel’s teaching that you should seek to make use of your talents. Leopold, ever thoughtful about his long-term security, must have been beside himself. He resigned himself immediately to staying at home and more or less begged for his job back. Mozart, by the same token, decided to leave anyway. As a result, a carriage was hired and, on 23 September, he set out — minus his father but this time with his mother — and headed first for Munich and then Augsburg.

Leopold was born in Augsburg and he still had family there. While he was in the area, Mozart reacquainted himself with his distant cousin, Maria Anna Thekia, whom he affectionately called “Bäsle”. She seems to have shared Mozart’s sense of humour and they quickly become good friends, possibly even lovers. His letters to her show an awakening in him that suggests he was much like any other 21-year-old in that respect:

"I’m kissing your hands, your face, your knees, even your —, in a nutshell, anything you let me kiss!"

Eventually, he tore himself away from Basle and he and his mother moved on to Mannheim, arriving on 30 October. Almost immediately, he fell in love with another girl. Aloysia Weber was one of three daughters of a musician and music copyist, Fridolin Weber.
(Eventually, Fridolin’s brother, Franz, would marry, twice, and his second wife, Genoveva, would give birth to a son, Carl Maria von Weber, the composer. But that was a long way off at this point.) The Webers were a little down on their luck when Mozart met them and it says much for his character — and little for Leopold’s — that he took an immediate shine to the family, despite their standing. Leopold, on the other hand, filled his letters of the time with calls for his son to leave them alone — especially Aloysia — and to get on to Paris, to become a celebrity and to make some money.

Leopold’s letters have led some people to conclude that he was solely in it for the money — that his son, the child prodigy, was his meal ticket and that he was living the life his own abilities would not otherwise grant him. But this does seem unfair to us. Although he knew the value of his son’s talent, Leopold also clearly loved the boy and many of his jottings prove it. For example, he sent this touching letter at this time, while holed up on his own, in Salzburg:

"It makes me sad now and again because I can’t hear you play the piano, or violin.. . Each time I get back to the house, a slight feeling of melancholy hits me, because, as I approach, I still half expect to hear the sound of your violin."

Despite moments like these, the prevailing tone of Leopold’s letters, though, was one of impatience. Also, he was aware that his wife was not particularly well, and he was keen for Mozart to move on to Paris, on the basis that the sooner they went, the sooner they would return. In the end, Mozart ended up staying some 5 months in Mannheim, supposedly trying to get himself a job. This is almost certainly partly true, but his attraction to Aloysia was no doubt a big pull, too.

1778 - tragedy strikes

Mozart eventually dragged himself away from Mannheim in the spring of 1778, arriving in Paris at the beginning of April. Little did he know, at this point, how unhappy a memory his stay in Paris would become. As ever, he busied himself with a stream of networking social functions, always with the eye on the next commission and, even better, the mythical “musical post”. For a composer to break through in Paris at the time he would have to have done so by the medium of opera. The opera world in Paris, though, had far too much on its mind to bother with the young man from Salzburg.
Today, classical music lovers are often asked: “Do you prefer Mozart or Beethoven?” Back then, a similar battle being played out in Paris was “Are you for Gluck or Piccinni?” (Piccinni was a fairly well-known Italian composer based in Paris at the time. He is not to be confused with the successful Italian operatic composer, Puccini.) German music was not particularly sought after, although Mozart did receive a commission from the Paris Opéra for some incidental ballet music. Throughout the month of May, he worked on Les petits riens and he saw it performed on 11 June. During this period, he was particularly badly treated by the Duchess of Chabot, who seemed to regard him as nothing more than a hired hand, playing for her art class while she and her guests ignored his performances. On 12 June, his Symphony No. 31 in D — eventually nicknamed “The Paris Symphony” — freshly written that month, was performed at the home of another local bigwig, Count Sickingen.

Then came the biggest upset of his life so far. His mother died. She had been unwell since Mannheim, complaining of a bad throat and ear problems and, though keen for them to get a move on, Leopold refused to countenance her returning home on her own, to recover there. In Paris, things quickly got worse. She began to suffer from chills and a fever, alongside frequent headaches, and she died on 3 July. Mozart decided that he would hide the truth from his father, painting a grim picture, but not giving him all the facts straight away:

"They say I should hope, but not much. All day and night, I’ve switched between hope and fear — although now I’ve surrendered completely to God’s will… I’m not saying she will die, or that I’ve lost all hope — she might recover her health, by God’s will."

At the time of writing this, Mozart’s mother was already dead.

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