Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
b. Salzburg, 27 January 1756; d. Vienna, 5 December 1791
The only major composer to produce as many great symphonies as stage works, Mozart is widely regarded as not only the greatest of all opera composers but the greatest composer of all time.
A frighteningly precocious child, touted around the courts and salons of Europe as an infant prodigy by his violinist father Leopold, Mozart composed his first three operas before he was 12 and wrote the four-hour Mitridate, re di Ponto for Milan when he was just 14. There followed three more operas for Milan and another two for aristocratic German patrons, but it was the successful 1781 Munich premiere of his first mature masterpiece, Idomeneo, that finally spurred the composer to abandon the parochial court of his home-town, Salzburg, for a freelance career as a composer-pianist in the imperial capital, Vienna.
So began not just the most productive period of his short life, but one of the greatest unbroken periods of composition in the history of music. Virtually all of Mozart's well-known concertos, quartets, symphonies and operas were created in this final decade. The German comic opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, commissioned by the Emperor Joseph II and premiered in 1782 soon after Mozart's marriage to Constanze Weber, resoundingly proved that his genius had not evaporated with his youth.
The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in 1786, is thought by many to be Mozart's operatic masterpiece (indeed some think it the most perfect of all operas). The first of three collaborations with the Italian poet Lorenzo da Ponte, it was followed by Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790). Together, this miraculous trio of music-theatre works would have been sufficient to secure Mozart's reputation as the century's supreme opera composer but in 1791 he completed two further immortal masterpieces, Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito. That December, however, his weak health worsened by the pressures of his workload, Mozart died at the age of only 35, leaving unfinished his magnificent Requiem. He was buried in a communal grave, the location of which has never been identified.
Later opera composers, most notably Wagner, have plumbed psychological states that were unknown to Mozart, but none has ever shown a more profound comprehension of the emotional entanglements of human society, and none has matched Mozart's uncanny gift for capturing a many-shaded mood in just a few notes of music. Reinventing the perennial themes of love, hatred, loyalty and revenge, Mozart's operas had the universality, and have demonstrated the durability, of Shakespeare's plays.
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