The music of Mozart fascinates. Often, his name is synonymous with musical genius, and he is perhaps the most popular classical composer ever. His musical output and extraordinary life, including musical precocity, have been the subject of many studies, books, documentaries and films. While genius children do not lack in classical music, actually they are quite numerous, — Beethoven, Brahms, Saint-Saëns are three other well-known children prodigies —, Mozart’s particularly young and short life has been as rock’n’roll as the one of Michael Jackson; who, in quite a very different musical world, bears many similarities with the Austrian composer. Mozart was already touring at the age when most children still learn how to read and write, and it is well-known that before the age of ten, he had composed more works than many composers would in their own life, including his first symphonies.
All that makes him of course an admiration for all, particularly for non-musicians, to whom his talent remains a mystery, almost divine. For musicians though — the ones who understand the language of music — he is quite a fascination, but less of a divinity. So, what is it that makes Mozart so fascinating, three centuries after his death and more than many other successful composers?
Many aspects of Mozart’s life have participated in shaping the legend around his persona. First of all, there is his name: Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, aka Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Theophilus, Amadeus, the friend of God, the one who loves God.
Secondly, there is the child prodigy aspect of his life; his father, a composer, musician and teacher himself, recognised the musical talents of both Mozart and his sister early in their childhood, and very quickly turned the two of them into spectacular musicians, enduring a young life of hard musical practice, touring and composing. It is said that Mozart’s first composition was at the age of four. By the age of eight, he had written his first symphony.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 1 in E-Flat Major, K. 16 – I. Molto allegro (Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra; Roger Norrington, cond.)
Altogether, Mozart composed over six hundred works in a life of thirty-five years.
His death too, has often been mythologised, particularly within the context of his last work; a requiem — a mass for the dead —, unfinished and commissioned secretly.
Then of course, there is also Mozart’s eccentric personality; his — what could be called a Peter Pan syndrome — childish and almost scoundrel behaviour — brilliantly portrayed in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, contrasting with his divine music.
Finally, Mozart’s popularity was emphasised by his successor; Beethoven’s — himself, another genius — admiration and support of the composer’s music. The German composer, fifteen years younger than Mozart, followed directly in his footsteps…
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 – Sequence No. 6: Lacrimosa dies illa (Chorus) (Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Bruno Walter, cond.)
Yet, when one pays close attention to Mozart’s music; the impressions are quite different. Yes it is excellent music, fantastically composed, balanced, elegant, a reflection of the composer’s own personality, as well as a reflection of the times he lived in. But, compared to some of the other geniuses of academic music — Beethoven again, for instance — it is (deceptively) quite simple, almost repetitive, structurally similar, and many ideas and devices are often inter-used between pieces.
The conclusion is simple, yet a genius, Mozart cannot be seen as a rule maker — such as Bach — or a revolutionary — such as Beethoven. In simple words, Mozart did not invent or reinvent the wheel; rather he processed and operated it; and he has done it inarguably quite brilliantly. If there is an example of a composer who used the rules and traditions of his time to the point, then it is him.
One who wishes to understand what classical music is – and by classical, it is the period — then one needs to listen to Mozart and Mozart only.
Mozart wrote to patrons, out of necessity one would say, and therefore his work would follow instructions, and common structures and directions. It was more about satisfying rather than surprising — which perhaps explains the smaller room for improvement and development in his music.
Having written these last paragraphs, it is quite impossible not to acknowledge Mozart’s role in developing the genre of opera — bringing its subjects and themes to the common mortals and societies, and away from mythology and the uber-Man — or the concerto — through finding the perfect equilibrium between soloists and orchestras, within the sonata form.
So, why is Mozart’s music so popular? Well, for the same reason that Bob Dylan’s music is so popular; it is simple, understandable, accessible, familiar and deals with concepts that are accessible to all — e.g. his operas. It does not aim at musical progress and innovation, at bringing the listener out of his comfort zone; it is melodic — and melody is key to popularity. It is diverse and appeals to all tastes — from opera, to chamber and symphonic music. Finally, it has musical interest — behind this apparent simplicity, Mozart would sprinkle his music with interesting musical surprises and twists — he is well-known for using chromaticism at a time where it was still considered a strong dissonance, and two centuries before Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie used it as the foundation of bebop!
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