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Mozart is perhaps the greatest composer in history. In a creative lifetime spanning only 30 years but featuring more than 600 works, he redefined the symphony, composed some of the greatest operas ever written and lifted chamber music to new heights of artistic achievement.
For many music lovers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart achieved a level of musical perfection unmatched by any other composer. He combined an exemplariness of taste and discipline in his music with an eccentric personality that delighted, among other things, in scatological humour – he once memorably reflected that, “I write as a sow piddles.”
Mozart’s sparkling textures, unfailing structural clarity, and above all his unstoppable flow of indelible melody thrillingly combine to produce the very epitome of a “classical” composer. Mozart can be serious without ever seeming ponderous; he can laugh with the best of them, although even his most happy creations are often tinged with a strange sense of melancholy. He expresses the most profound emotions with a sleight-of-hand that carries with it the secret of eternal youth. And all this was achieved during a creative lifetime that spanned a mere 30 years.
Yet once the hullabaloo surrounding his touring prodigy circus act had died down, Mozart’s miraculous genius was largely misunderstood and unappreciated. His stunningly indifferent masters in Salzburg literally booted him out when they’d finally had enough of his constant whingeing and absenteeism.
Indeed, one of Mozart’s greatest problems was his sense of artistic isolation. He constantly ranted and raved in his letters to his father about the general state of contemporary music. By 1782 he had virtually given up: “The golden meaning of truth in all things is no longer known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a fiacre [a type of horse-drawn carriage] could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.”
But no sooner had Mozart been buried in an unmarked grave at the tragically early age of 35 than there occurred a critical volte-face unparalleled until the re-evaluation of Mahler and Rachmaninov in our own time. Gioachino Rossini, Mozart’s great successor in the world of Italian opera, couldn’t get enough of him: “I take Beethoven twice a week, Haydn four times, but Mozart every day... Mozart is always adorable!”
The succeeding generation of Romantic composers looked up to Mozart as the ultimate in musical purity. The rabble-rousing Berlioz studied his exquisitely balanced art with a sense of disbelief: “The wonderful beauty of Mozart’s quartets and quintets and of some of his sonatas first converted me to the worship of this angelic genius.” Chopin’s very last words were reported to have been “play Mozart in memory of me”, and even as the last embers of Romanticism died down, Richard Strauss referred to Mozart as “the most sublime of tonal masters”. Indeed, no composer in history has been so universally and consistently admired by subsequent generations.
“Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows,” the composer Aaron Copland proclaimed, “expressing himself with a spontaneity, refinement and breath-taking rightness that has never since been duplicated.” Few would seriously disagree.