Does January’s birthday boy deserve his place in history? We present solid video and audio evidence.
He’s sold more albums than Beyoncé, he’s one of the top three most-performed composers of all time (potentially No.1 in 2015!), and he’s been dead 225 years. His music is beloved by listeners and performers new and old, but every Mozart fan has had to endure shouts of “Boring!” and “Sounds the same!” from across the aisle. So why are we still enamored after more than two centuries? Here are ten reasons why Mozart is one of the greatest of all time.
1. He composed masterfully in every musical format.
Operas, choral works, concertos, symphonies, chamber music, solo songs, sonatas… Mozart was one of the few composers in history to compose masterworks in every conceivable musical genre. Though his output is highly varied, each piece exudes a bold, self-assured confidence and that is instantly recognizable. He wrote solo works (sonatas and concertos) for nearly every instrument of his time (sorry, trumpets). All are considered cornerstones of each instrument’s repertoire – and when he features two solo instruments with orchestra at once, the magic increases exponentially. Just listen to the bold opening of his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for violin and viola, and revel in the elegance and combined passion of the two solo instruments:
2. He was a master of dramatic timing.
Mozart’s operas are timeless works, featuring perfect dramatic pacing, lifelike characters, and humanistic themes that make them seem fresh and relevant even in the modern era. A sense of drama is present not just in Mozart’s great operatic works, but in all his music, from the piano sonatas and string quartets to his symphonies. Listen to how Mozart paces the action in the climactic scene from Don Giovanni, where the Don is confronted by the ghost of the Commendatore who he murdered in Act I (one of the greatest opera entrances of all time). In the midst of the darkness and terror of this scene, Mozart masterfully incorporates the comedy of the sidekick Leporello’s blurting interjections. Spoiler alert: the ghost demands Don Giovanni repent and relinquish his lascivious ways, and when Giovanni refuses, we hear the trombones and a ghoulish chorus literally dragging him down to hell:
3. He was a melodic genius.
Mozart had a knack for churning out memorable melodies nonstop. Check out the performance of the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat above – how many sing-able melodies do you hear in the space of just the first five minutes? Some of these have gone down as some of the most beautiful of all time, such as the breathtaking Adagio from his Clarinet Concerto. Many of his contemporaries wrote wonderful tunes as well, but one of the secrets to the uniqueness of Mozart’s music is how he was able to vary his melodies, transforming them in fascinating ways. Listen to pianist, composer, and conductor Rob Kapilow break down how Mozart is able to take a melody built from one simple element (from his String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516) and vary it to powerful effect:
4. He was writing symphonies when you were playing with stuffed animals.
Mozart’s first compositions were short keyboard works produced at the tender age of five years old. His first symphony came just three years later. Even in its simplicity, it’s packed with action: proud fanfares, surprisingly soft and intimate (and occasionally dissonant!) moments in the midst of fast music, Sturm und Drang… you name it. The innocence, cheekiness, and innate romance of this music can be heard throughout Mozart’s works, even his most mature later pieces.
5. His total musical output is staggering, and he only lived to 35.
How many pieces did Mozart write in his short lifetime? We don’t know for sure, but it’s at least 626. Part of the explanation for this massive output was his ability to compose incredibly quickly – his celebrated Symphony No. 36 “Linz” and No. 38 “Prague” were each written over the course of a few days. Not only that, he composed without error or need for revision: while the manuscripts of other great composers are full of scratched-out passages and nearly unintelligible scribble (cough, Beethoven), Mozart’s are strangely pristine, as if the entire work was laid out in divine perfection in his head and he just copied it down. He could compose anytime, anywhere; he penned his 12 Horn Duets, K. 487, one evening in a bowling alley. On the first page of the manuscript he scribbled: “Vienna, 27 July 1786 while playing skittles” (an early form of duckpin bowling).
6. He was a rock star on keyboard and stringed instruments.
From about the age of six to seventeen, Mozart and his sister were taken by his father on tour throughout Europe, performing on piano and violin. He came to be well-known as one of the greatest child prodigies of his time, capable of playing nearly anything on keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and organ and more or less equally capable on violin and viola and with his voice. He transfixed audiences far and wide, performing concertos he had written himself, like the immortal C minor Piano Concerto:
7. He excelled at combining musical styles foreign and local, old and new, sacred and secular.
The well-traveled Mozart was rumored to speak about 15 languages and was highly aware of musical styles from all over Europe. Like Bach before him, he masterfully incorporated these foreign fashions into his own body of work. In Italy, he experienced the comedic mastery of opera buffa; in Mannheim, Germany, he discovered exciting new orchestral effects such as the “Mannheim rocket”; and in Paris, he experienced the loud, boisterous style of large French court orchestras. He was a devout Freemason, and used sacred chorale melodies in surprising settings, like his opera The Magic Flute. Listen to this overture from his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, set in a Turkish harem – featuring the pounding of military percussion like a Janissary army, it would have sounded fashionably exotic to Viennese audiences in 1782.
8. His sense of humor was…unique…
Mozart’s famously lewd humor is well documented not just in his letters (he wrote to his sister in 1770, “I am happy from the bottom of my arse… I kiss Mama’s hand as well as my sister’s face, her nose, her mouth, her neck, my poor pen and the arse if it is clean”) but also in his music. The following piece is one of a couple that would have been sung by Mozart and his friends in the bar:
9.…but he also composed works of great seriousness and emotional depth.
Mozart’s family life was wracked with financial hardship and tragedy – he lost his mother at a young age, and only two of his eight children survived infancy. His music portrays all the highs and lows of life experience, and shows a character that is fascinatingly complex. It’s impossible to argue which of Mozart’s pieces is the most soulful. Is it the balance of comedy and death-defying drama in his uncategorizable opera Don Giovanni? The supreme elegance and chromaticism of his Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor? The majesty of his final symphony “Jupiter” with its massive fugal finale? For many, it’s hard to top the emotional depth of Mozart’s immortal Requiem, which lay unfinished at his death in 1791. The Requiem represents the height of the composer’s mature style and undoubtedly stands as one of the greatest monuments to human creativity. Listen as an opening plaintive melody winds its way to massive pillars of sound, heralding a chorus that seems to put Mozart face-to-face with his creator:
10. He was revered by the composers of his time and was inspirational to many others throughout history.
As Wagner said, “the most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.” Haydn wrote, “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” Beethoven, who had traveled to Vienna in 1787 seeking composition lessons with Mozart (they may never have actually met), paid homage to Wolfgang with the 18th Century version of a remix. Beethoven’s adulation of Mozart was shared by many others, but perhaps none more prominently than Tchaikovsky. The Russian composer references Mozart in a few of his works, but most directly in the Suite No. 4 “Mozartiana,” which makes use of Mozart’s famous Ave verum corpus in its third movement:
In 2016 and beyond, Mozart may be decomposing (sorry) but he shows no sign of slowing down. His indomitable character has been woven into our popular culture, from a major Academy Award-winning motion picture to a Golden Globe-winning series. His music remains a core part of the repertoire of every major opera house, symphony orchestra, string quartet, and solo performer. It’s easy to get your Mozart fix: join us as we celebrate this great composer with 31 Days of Mozart, all through January on Classical KING FM, and check out our exclusive Mozart Channel.