Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. Died 1791
Classical school(s).

Essential Listening


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Apart from the fact that he was a true genius, Mozart was a completely normal chap in every other way: in addition to writing music, his main preoccupations in life were wine, women and song! He liked nothing better then to be out socialising, having a few beers with his friends, and he positively delighted in writing and performing the popular music of the day; in fact Mozart was the eighteenth-century equivalent of the pop stars of today.

He wrote music for the people, and it is only the social stigmas that have been built up over the last few hundred years that have placed such music in the hands of the upper middle classes and alienated it from everyday folk.

Good examples of his down-to-earth approach to life are to be found in the drinking songs that he wrote while out with his friends: these were recently unearthed by scholars at Harvard University and have to some extent been hushed up in an attempt to avoid shattering people's illusions about this most hallowed of composers.

The first in a set of three songs, apparently written while actually in a bar, graphically depicts Mozart's vulgar sense of humour.

The title is 'Lick my Backside, Quickly, Quickly!' and it is followed in the same set by other songs with lines too obscene to mention.

So forget the vision of this handsome, beautifully dressed court musician, earnestly at work over the score of an opera or mass, and remember that here we have a man of exceptional talent who, underneath it all, was at his most comfortable socially with his drinking partners, singing their equivalent of today's rugby songs.

Mozart was born into a very musical family in Salzburg on 27 January 1756, the son of a highly talented violinist-composer, Leopold, who was in the service of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg.

Being a professional musician himself, Leopold quickly spotted the precocious talent of his son, and many of the standard textbooks on classical music contain romantic stories of the three-year-old Mozart practising the piano and starting to compose his first pieces.

From the age of six, Mozart was travelling around Europe giving concerts in palaces and the courts of the aristocracy, as well as a series of public concerts, all of which were very well received.

For some reason all this fame and adulation never made Mozart anything like a rich man.

He was constantly in financial trouble, and had to beg for money from friends and write music very much 'to order' just to make a living.

Mozart married – against the wishes of his father – a girl called Constanze.

They had a baby nine months later which did not survive for very long.

A troublesome period in Mozart's life then followed wherein he began to be desperately short of money.

It was at about this time, when he was living in Vienna, that he joined the Freemasons, an association that was later to be something of a lifeline for him.

Although he'd fallen out with his father at the time of his marriage, the young Mozart was deeply affected by his death.

This was in the year that Wolfgang had composed one of his most successful operas, The Marriage of Figaro; but, even though things were, on the face of it, going very well musically, Mozart still was not making very much money and any he did make never lasted long.

He was depressed at having to make ends meet by teaching, and even that was proving to be more and more difficult, so he had to start borrowing money from friends and from the wealthier Masons at his lodge.

This situation continued right up until Mozart's death at the tragically young age of thirty-five.

Things got worse in the last few years of his life, when his wife became very ill and doctors' fees were added to his financial and emotional burdens.

One of the last pieces that Mozart was to write was, coincidentally, his Requiem, and sadly this was never completed.

His funeral was definitely not that of a celebrated composer.

He was buried in an unmarked grave; none of the mourners from the service went from the cathedral to the churchyard where he was buried and the location of his grave is still unknown to this day.

The film 'Amadeus' did a fantastic job in bringing the music of probably the most celebrated composer of all time to the attention of millions of people the world over.

The story of Mozart's life made great viewing and, even if it was a little over the top in places, it depicted the character and antics of this unquestioned genius in a very down-to-earth way.

For those who are keen to know the historical accuracy of the film, it is probably true to say that the strong emphasis given to the feud and rivalry between Mozart and the composer Salieri was rather exaggerated.

Whilst there was a definite sense of competition between the two of them, the film did overplay this angle for dramatic effect.

The sound-track, however, is an excellent introduction to Mozart's music.

There are extracts from several of the symphonies, the Requiem, the piano concertos and some memorable bits from the operas.

If you haven't seen 'Amadeus', make the effort to rent the video.

You won't be disappointed.


Cassation in B Flat, K 99: Allegro

1769, Orchestral

Though Mozart is famed for his symphonies, concerti and operas, there exists a vast catalogue of miscellaneous orchestral music that often goes unnoticed, eclipsed by his greater achievements. These works include serenades, divertimenti, marches and cassations.

No musician has ever been able to clearly define exactly what a cassation is, only that it is closely related to a suite and a sonata in terms of its movement structure.

Some take a definition from the French verb 'casser' meaning 'to break', as a cassation was often played over an entire evening with the movements being broken up. Others point to the Italian word 'cassa' meaning 'drum', connecting this with the opening 'march' movement.

However, it may derive from the old Austrian dialect expression 'gassatim gehen', which means to roam about at night courting and serenading girls at their windows; in a letter to a friend, Mozart's wife speaks of 'gassationen' and describes it as ' . . . an ugly, incomprehensible provincial expression!'

If one considers what is known of Mozart's character and life style, it is quite likely that the last explanation of the word was the one he intended, and indeed the light and frivolous nature of the Cassation in B Flat Major is certainly testimony to the roguish personality of the man himself.

Written in 1769, this is a delightful, throw-away piece for orchestra that is pure entertainment.

Divertimento in D

Divertimento in D, K 136

1772, Chamber Music

Though famous for his symphonies, concerti and other classical genres, Mozart also produced a large volume of miscellaneous orchestral work that came under the headings of cassations, divertimenti and general symphonic pieces.

This Divertimento in D (literal translation: 'an amusement') is typical of Mozart's style in as much as it is light-hearted and written purely as entertainment music.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K 525: First Movement

1772, Chamber Music

This is perhaps one of Mozart's best-known works and falls easily into the category of 'entertainment music', keeping in line with his personal nature and character. All composers of the time produced such pieces, but certain divertimentos written in Salzburg in 1772, when Mozart was only sixteen, show this type of music raised to a high level, not least in terms of craftsmanship.

Intended for a quintet of solo strings, there is no reason why it could not be performed by a tiny chamber orchestra. Originally it had five movements, including two minuets, though one of them seems to have been lost sometime before the year 1800.

The piece opens with a simple, yet now instantly recognisable theme, and the listener is somehow drawn along by the impetus and travels eagerly with the exposition into its delightful, 'chuckling' development section. The second movement (Andante) is slow and lyrical, managing to be delicately sentimental with no hint of sadness, and so keeps the audience in the right frame of mind for the remaining movements (Allegretto and Allegro), which seem to romp along with charm and simplicity.

This is a perfect work of its kind and deservedly one of Mozart's best-known pieces.

Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto, K 216: Allegro

1775, Concerti, Orchestral

This is one of five violin concerti that Mozart wrote in 1775, and critics have often said that it is the most strikingly 'French' of the set.

It is scored for 2 oboes, 2 horns and a standard string ensemble, which, in Mozart's day, would probably have been supplemented by a harpsichord or piano.

Flute Concerto in D Major

Flute Concerto in D Major, K 314: Allegro

1777, Concerti, Orchestral

Mozart probably wrote this flute concerto, set in three movements, just before he went to Paris in the autumn of 1777. What is certain, however, is that he originally wrote it when he was twenty-one for an Italian oboist, Guiseppe Ferlandi, and transposed it for the flute when he was offered a lucrative commission from the amateur flautist De Jean.


Serenade for Wind in E Flat Major, K 375: Allegro maestoso

1782, Chamber Music

Written in 1782, this Serenade for Wind Instruments in E Flat Major helped Mozart get his first engagement at the court of Joseph the II.

Mozart had been at the house of the Baroness Waldstein overviewing a performance of this particular chamber work. The same evening he met Joseph von Strack, who was a chamberlain to the Emperor, and they struck up a formal acquaintance which led to Mozart's being involved in a rather bizarre evening at the Viennese Palace.

For the sole purpose of entertaining some Russian guests, Emperor Joseph had organised a piano competition between the Austrian Mozart and the Italian Clementi, who happened to be on a concert tour at the time, and the two virtuosos performed a large range of known pieces as well as some improvisations on themes suggested by the Grand Duchess. The audience took part by betting on their favourite pianist, and the final decision was made at the end of the evening by the Emperor, who proclaimed Mozart the winner – to which Clementi readily agreed.

Unfortunately, Mozart never received a full royal appointment as he had hoped, for the Emperor was a great fan of the then court-composer Salieri, and saw no reason to change.

To understand the music of the Serenade a little better, one must consider that, according to his diaries, Mozart had known that the Chamberlain would be present at the Baroness's house and had 'knocked up' the piece with the sole intention of impressing him so as to win an invitation to the palace. But whatever his motives, the Serenade is a real crowd-pleaser, royal or otherwise.

Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro, K 492

1782, Opera

In 1782, the French playwright Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro, which was considered to be rather daring and risqué for its time. During a private reading for the French King Louis XVI, the monarch flew into a rage, shouting, 'This is detestable . . . this will never be played!'

But it was played, first in private, with Louis's queen, Marie Antoinette, as Susanna, and finally in public, to sensational acclaim. Today, the play is a classic, but Mozart's overture is still as fresh as the day it was written.

It starts in a breathless whisper. The whisper becomes a wisp of a theme, so swift that it is gone before you know it. But suddenly, the full force of the complete orchestra hits the listener with festive trumpets and drums, and the quick contrast is continued with giggling violins, rippling flutes and oboes that seem to reflect the subtitle of the play: 'The Madcap Day'.

Halfway through, at the climax, Mozart composed a slow middle section with a sentimental tune for a solo oboe. But after the score was finished he thought better of it, ripped out the sheet with the slow movement, and substituted a cut which now leads us from the brief climax of the overture straight into the opening whisper, so that the madcap mood continues, its swirling humour uninterrupted from start to finish.

It all ends with rushing scales and a brilliant fanfare for the full orchestra.

Horn Concerto No. 3

Horn Concerto No. 3 in E Flat Major, K 447: Allegro

Concerti, Orchestral

This Horn Concerto is one of four concerti Mozart wrote for the E flat horn, probably for a player called Ignaz Leutgab, a Salzburg musician for whom a great deal of horn music was written at the time.

Horn Concerto No. 4

Horn Concerto No. 4 in E Flat Major, K 495: Rondo

Concerti, Orchestral

This Horn Concerto is one of four concerti Mozart wrote for the E flat horn, probably for a player called Ignaz Leutgab, a Salzburg musician for whom a great deal of horn music was written at the time.

Turkish March

Turkish March from Piano Sonata in A Major, K 331

Keyboard Works

The Turkish March, or 'Rondo', as it is sometimes known, makes up the final movement of one Mozart's more unusual piano sonatas. The Sonata for Piano in A Major (K331) was one of Mozart's tentative steps towards introducing more 'exotic' themes to a polite Western audience. The March has a light and bouncy feel and follows on neatly from the previous frivolous movements; it is far better heard in the context of the whole work, which was written in Mozart's favourite key.

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K 466

1785, Concerti, Orchestral

Though Mozart was strictly a Classical composer, this is often seen as one of his most romantic works. Written in 1785, this concerto was first performed exactly a day after its completion by Mozart himself; there was no time for a rehearsal, yet the work was well received by the audience, which included Mozart's father Leopold. It is in three movements (Allegro – Romance – Allegro assai), and the music swings between plaintive figures for the solo piano to fiery displays for the entire orchestra.

Mozart wrote only two piano concerti in the minor mode.

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K 497

1785, Concerti, Orchestral

On the crest of his greatest triumphs as a composer and performer and at the peak of his most prosperous season in Vienna, Mozart composed this concerto with the sole purpose of showing off his own enthusiastic virtuosity at the piano. Essentially an assertive work, it could hardly be described as serene, except perhaps in the slow second movement.

The first movement (Allegro) opens with a clever dramatic use of repressed excitement as the strings introduce the principal theme in a restrained whisper. This builds to a full orchestral sound, which drops suddenly to gentle woodwind phrases that seem to invite the soloist to join in the music; this he does, using a theme of his own rather than the original, first aired by the orchestra.

The second movement (Andante) is a slow lament played principally by the strings. It contrasts sharply with the third and final movement (Allegro vivace assai), which serves as a bubbling and humorous platform upon which the soloist can give an impressive display. The concerto closes with brilliant sweeping scales for the pianist.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K 488: Adagio

1786, Concerti, Orchestral

This piano concerto was written in 1786 and is in A Major, which was Mozart's favourite key for the piano; he produced some of his happiest sounding pieces in this key.

The first movement (Allegro) is a sunny beginning to this work, though the Adagio of the second movement is a stark contrast, being slow and solemn. It is designed to alter the atmosphere to one of sobriety before the work leaps back, racing through the last spritely movement (Allegro assai), to a typically Mozartian conclusion.

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, K 527: Overture

1787, Opera

'Don Giovanni' was the Italian equivalent of Don Juan, and Mozart wonderfully reproduced this story as semi-tragic opera.

The title character does exactly what he pleases, seducing whoever takes his fancy, without a care for anyone but himself. Eventually this tragic rogue is dragged down to hell by a stone statue, yet even as he is being taken away he emits a defiant laugh.

Jupiter Symphony

Symphony No. 41 in C Major ('Jupiter'), K 551

1788, Symphonies, Orchestral

Mozart composed this symphony (together with symphonies nos. 39 and 40), one of his most famous, in a period of only two months. At the same time he had just written some begging letters to a well-to-do merchant friend that show him sinking deeper and deeper into debt and depression.

Like Symphony No. 39, the 'Jupiter', thought by many to be Mozart's greatest, is so radiant and alive that one would imagine that, at the time he wrote it, he was the happiest, most successful man in the world.

The very opening bars establish the two basic moods of the symphony: a heroic theme for full orchestra alternated with a serene, reflective phrase for strings alone. The first movement closes with a quote from a comic aria that Mozart had composed some time earlier for inclusion in somebody else's opera.

In contrast, the second movement (Andante) is full of suppressed agitation, while the muted violins create a special mood of intimacy.

All this drops by the wayside, however, in comparison with the final movement, which is a full orchestral work-out that shows off the composer's undoubted natural talent and flair for putting together a joyful play of musical forces.

Symphony No. 39

Symphony No. 39 in E Flat Major, K543: 4th Movement

1788, Symphonies, Orchestral

Mozart wrote this symphony (together with symphonies nos. 40 and 41), one of his most famous, in a period of only two months. At the same time he had just written some begging letters to a well-to-do merchant friend that show him sinking deeper and deeper into debt and depression.

Yet, even in that soul-destroying environment, he was able to produce a composition such as Symphony No. 39, which is a flood of golden melody and one of the most cheerful and heartwarming symphonies ever written.

Opening with a simple theme, it soon develops into a full orchestral sound that grows and spreads spontaneously, with no apparent goading from the composer.

The second movement, however, is a slower Andante that seems thoughtful and restrained. It has a richly coloured middle section, which contributes to the passionate feel created by a move to essentially minor keys.

The third and final movements provide a return to the lively feel of the opening movement. At times, the full orchestra creates a festive joyousness that is rife with energetic humour and high spirits.

Symphony No. 40

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K 550

1788, Symphonies, Orchestral

Mozart wrote this symphony (together with symphonies nos. 39 and 41), one of his most famous, in a period of only two months. At the same time he had just written some begging letters to a well-to-do merchant friend that show him sinking deeper and deeper into debt and depression.

At this period the use of a minor key was a rare occurrence, and Mozart particularly drew on G Minor as a key through which to express intense suffering and tragic emotions.

With its famous principal theme introduced by the violins, the symphony moves through excitement to poignancy. Even the last two movements which, though fast and alive (Allegretto and Allegro assai), seem to convey a grim hectic humour that, according to some, is next door to tragedy.

Cosi Fan Tutti

Cosi Fan Tutti, K 588

1790, Opera

Written in 1790 and produced in Vienna, this opera mocks women's vows and is a comedy based on their fickleness. The title means 'So Do All Women', and the opera is sometimes subtitled 'School for Lovers'.

Clarinet Concerto

Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K 622

1791, Concerti, Orchestral

Mozart had always been fascinated by the clarinet ever since, at the age of seven, he had heard the clarinets of the famous Mannheim orchestra. He was most captivated by the dynamic range of the instrument, with its rainbow span of tone colour and tonal range.

During the last years of his life he developed a close friendship with the virtuoso clarinettist Anton Stadler, who was a member of the Imperial Court orchestra, and this ensured that Mozart became quite a master of the instrument by the time he died.

This Clarinet Concerto was his penultimate composition, shortly before his death in 1791.

What makes the work more interesting, however, is that it was written for Stadler's own special clarinet, which could play four semi-tones lower than the standard instrument.

Unfortunately, the earliest printed editions have been revised to cater for a normal clarinet, in some cases the music being pushed an octave higher. Consequently, the music has lost much of its original feel, and it is only recently that a clarinet based on Stadler's has been produced so as to allow the concerto to be performed as it was intended.

The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute, K 620

1791, Opera

The Magic Flute revolves around the adventures of the bird-catcher Papageno, and is a mixture of comedy and unearthly, fairy-tale events, involving a magic battle between light and darkness.


Requiem, K 626

1791, Choral

Mozart's Requiem Mass could be described as his most infamous work due to the fact that he died before its completion.

The link between this work and his death is shrouded in mystery and well explored in Peter Shaffer's film 'Amadeus', where a faceless figure dressed in black hires Mozart to write a Requiem without ever explaining for whom it was to be performed.