Mozart's biography: duels and his first son (1779 - 1783)

Wedded bliss soon turns to tragedy for the Mozart family, all while Wolfgang celebrates an early operatic triumph.

mozart and constanze weber

1779: Mozart in Salzburg


Twenty-three was probably not Mozart’s favourite age. He’d arrived back in Salzburg in mid-January with pretty much nothing to keep him away — and nothing on the horizon, either. As of 25 February he was now not only Konzertmeister, but also court organist. His salary was a pretty useful 450 gulden a year, but for this, on top of all his old duties, he now had to play in the chapel and create a huge amount of church music, too.

Today, we consider ourselves lucky that Mozart was compelled to write so much music. Being the perfectionist he was, he never composed anything lightly or cheaply, even though he knew he could very easily have done so. As a result, Mozart produced a massive body of works of all varieties: concertos, symphonies, divertimenti and, now, small-scale religious works.

When Mozart’s story is told, Colloredo, a little like Leopold, gets a bad press. He is sometimes viewed as being the obnoxious, idly rich, landed gent who treated Mozart with contempt, paid him too little and never appreciated him. But Colloredo, if anything, was more musical than his predecessor, Schrattenbach, and did his best to raise the standards of musicianship at Salzburg. He was a violin player himself, who appears to have tried to redirect the Salzburg wealth to benefit as many folk as possible. Admittedly, he was not best liked by his subjects, or even his colleagues. The vote to elect him had had to be taken nearly 50 times until he was finally chosen. He was certainly not loved by the Mozarts, but it does appear that his intentions were good.

But did Colloredo know what a gem he had in Mozart? Well, probably to some extent, but nobody at the time could have foreseen Mozart’s future standing in the music world. Colloredo probably did, however, realize that Mozart was exceptionally able and it could well be that this was why he was so indulgent of him for so long. There was a real value to him in having Mozart tied to Salzburg. Mozart found his position in society in Salzburg one of the hardest things to deal with. In Salzburg, he was merely one of the staff and, as we will see, it was this longing for social status that proved to be the turning point in his story.

1780: Mozart completes Idomeneo

The only thing that had brightened up 1779 for Mozart had been a commission from Munich for a new opera. He was now 24. Apart from the opera Zaide written a year earlier (for which some of the music no longer exists) the last time Mozart had ventured into opera was around 5 years earlier, when he was still only 19. So, on 5 November 1780, when he left for Munich, he must have felt a burst of excitement. Not only was he was getting away from Salzburg and heading for the bright lights, but he must also have suspected that in his new, so far half-finished opera, Idomeneo, he had a hit on his hands.

Idomeneo had come as a commission from the elector of Bavaria, who was now resident in Munich. Mozart had probably completed the recitatives before leaving home. He would then have moved to Munich to complete the arias, only after having met and practised with the singers. Mozart was always keen to hear how a person could sing before he would write an aria for them. All went well with Idomeneo and Mozart took the cast through the first rehearsals in December.

1781: Mozart duels Clementi

The first dress rehearsal of Idomeneo coincided with Mozart’s 25th birthday. Sometime between then and the premiere, his father Leopold arrived in Munich with Nannerl. The first night — the only night, to be fair — went very well. Mozart had achieved the success that he had hoped for, although the opera would not be performed again for another 5 years.

Unsurprisingly, the Mozarts took the opportunity to stay in Munich until sometime in March. They travelled back home at a leisurely pace, stopping off to see relatives in Augsburg. Colloredo had in the meantime travelled to Vienna and ordered Mozart to join him there. Even though he was fast realising that it was Colloredo he disliked more than the parochial Salzburg, Mozart did not need to be asked twice and he bade his family farewell. This decision to move to Vienna was a seismic moment in Mozart’s life. He would never call Salzburg home again.

On the morning of 16 March 1781, Mozart duly arrived in Vienna. His first official duty was to play at a concert for Colloredo that afternoon. At lunchtime, Mozart was dismayed to find himself seated with the servants. He regarded this as a great insult. In the court pecking order, he was below the valets, who were placed at the head of his table. He wrote acidly:

"I guess I at least sat above the cooks!"

To add insult to injury, Colloredo would not allow him to perform at the big concert of the week at the Countess Thun’s residence, which was attended by the emperor. It clashed with Mozart’s duties to play for Colloredo, in honour of the archbishop’s father. He requested time to see Colloredo, but was instead granted a meeting with his deputy; Arco. In this infamous meeting, by all accounts a slanging match, it appeared that Mozart suddenly realised that he had gone too far with his complaints.

His relationship with his boss had completely broken down and, sensing that he was about to be sacked, he jumped before he could be pushed, resigning on the spot. Arco was incensed — probably because he had not had the satisfaction of sacking Mozart — and he literally booted him up the backside and out the door. It was 8 June 1781. Mozart was on his own.

Thus wrote Mozart to his father in 1781, noting that, in the salons of Vienna, the piano was king. Indeed, it is no accident that in all 25 years of his life so far, he had composed a respectable ten piano concertos but that, in the next ten, up to his death in 1791, he would compose a further 17. Bearing in mind that Mozart didn’t compose on a whim, it’s clear that he realized not only the dominance of the piano in Vienna at the time, but how this dominance could be made to work in his favour.

His profile was already rising even though he had only been in Vienna for a few months. By December, he was famous enough to be invited to a duel. Another pianist had arrived in town, as Mozart wrote to Leopold:

"Yesterday, on the 24th, I played piano at court. Another piano player, an Italian called Clementi, is in Vienna. He was there too. I got 50 ducats for my troubles, and, right now, I need them."

Mozart is being a little economical with the truth. The encounter with Clementi wasn’t quite so innocuous. Clementi was himself a supremely regarded pianist, and, on this occasion, had been invited to court as part of the general merrymaking surrounding the presence of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia. Mozart and Clementi were asked to become musical gladiators for the court’s entertainment, and engaged in a contest of piano virtuosity, reading of music at first sight and general musical improvisation. Mozart came off best and this undoubtedly did his reputation the power of good, as his opponent was a very well-respected composer and performer at the time.

1782: Mozart marries Constanze Weber

Mozart’s mind continued to be occupied with two things: composing his new opera and romancing Miss Constanze Weber. He also found himself having to fend off his increasingly curmudgeonly dad in his letters. It would be easy to read Leopold’s letters and gain the impression that his son was a disappointing dropout rather than an increasingly famous composer. Leopold didn’t let up the pressure on Mozart in these years and it was to Mozart’s credit that he never completely lost his temper with his father.

Eventually, after a few months of pussyfooting around the general subject of Constanze, Mozart came right out with the news that he was going to get married, in a letter to Leopold:

"I’ve decided to, first, make sure I’ve got some money coming in — it’s not too hard to survive here with the odd Godsend — and then, to get married… But who’s the girl I love? Well, don’t blow your top. 'Surely not one of the Webers?' Yes, actually, one of the Webers. Not Josepha, not Sophie… Constanze!"

It must have hit Leopold for six. Having already managed to keep Mozart from getting too attached to one member of the Weber family, he ended up marrying another.

By 16 July 1782, the new opera, The Abduction from the Harem, was ready and it was premiered at the Burgtheater, in the presence of the emperor, netting Mozart a much-needed 100 ducats. Lovers of the film Amadeus might remember the much-quoted moment in the movie where the emperor approached Mozart after this very premiere and semi-praised him:

"Too beautiful for our ears, Herr Mozart, my dear Mozart, and far too many notes!"

To which Mozart quickly replied:

"Just as many as are necessary, your Majesty!"

The exchange did happen, apparently. The remainder of July and August saw Mozart taken up with his imminent nuptials and new commissions. A friend of the Mozart family, Siegmund Haffner, was being given a gong by the goodly people of Vienna. When Leopold asked Mozart to write him a symphony, Mozart was only too happy to fulfil the commission, partly for Haffner, but probably more to keep his father happy.

Mozart’s wedding day was on 4 August 1782. He and Constanze were married at the impressive St Stephen’s Cathedral, a very grand building, which was effectively their local church. Just a few weeks into his marriage, although blissfully happy with Constanze, he was already having trouble with the mother-in-law. When explaining his domestic situation in a letter to his father, he wrote:

"You say that I never mentioned on which floor I’m living?. . . I live on the second floor. I don’t know how you got the impression we lived with my mother-in-law. I didn’t marry Constanze in order to live a life of arguments and squabbles. There’s only one way to do that — move away from the family. We’ve been to see her twice since the wedding and, the second time, the rebukes and arguments began — Constanze started crying. I told her it was time to leave."

For the rest of the year, Mozart concentrated on more musical matters. He himself conducted another performance of The Abduction from the Harem at the Burgtheater in October, again in honour of the Russian grand duke. In November, there was a concert at which he played, along with his pupil, Josepha Auernhammer, at Vienna’s Kärtnerthortheater. Sadly, though, Mozart put off a visit to Salzburg to celebrate his father’s nameday. For so long Leopold had lived his life vicariously through his son, but with his wife now long gone, he must have felt that his own life had changed completely.

1783: Mozart's first son, Raimund Leopold Mozart, is born

No longer newlyweds, and now living in a new flat, Mozart continued to devote himself to his new life as, more or less, one of the world’s first freelance composers. Always keen to mix business with pleasure, he performed a Masquerade, with the help of friends, in the interval of a masked ball at the Vienna’s famous Redoutensaal ballroom. This proved to be a precursor to a full concert of his music on 11 March. Even taking into account the likelihood that Mozart would wish to talk it up to his father, it does appear to have been a huge success:


"I guess I don’t need to tell you about how well the concert went, as you’ve probably heard already. The theatre couldn’t have been more packed and all the boxes were taken. Best of all, though — his Majesty the Emperor loved it and applauded me wildly!"

Mozart was beginning to be talked about in Vienna. All he had to do now was sustain this level of interest. This would not have been easy for Mozart, as he was effectively his own concert promoter as well as the star of the show. As such, he had a choice to make. He could sit and wait for commissions to come his way or, alternatively, he could push himself forward into the limelight and force the issue. His choice of the latter pathway appeared to be paying early dividends.

At home, at the time of his concert in front of the emperor, Constanze would have been 6 months pregnant, and, on 17 June 1783, she gave birth to a baby boy, whom they named Raimund Leopold:

"Mon très cher Père,
Congratulations, you’re a grandad. Early yesterday at halfpast six in the morning, my darling wfl’ gave birth to a fine, big, strapping, plump boy!"

It seems odd to us now, but the Mozarts took a trip to Salzburg to see Leopold, leaving Raimund Leopold behind in Vienna while he was still a young baby. While they were away, their son died and the Mozarts headed back to Vienna. On the way, their coach called in at Linz, where Mozart quickly realised that if he could write a symphony there and then, there would be an opportunity to have it performed in a concert in the Linz theatre. And so that is exactly what he did. Within days, it was completed and was then played at a concert on 4 November.

Eventually, the couple returned to Vienna, sad and exhausted. In fact, Mozart himself was quite ill, possibly with a viral infection. The year that had begun so well with carnivals and balls ended with bereavement and illness.

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