(born Salzburg 27 January 1756; died Vienna 5 December 1791)
The son of a minor composer who held a position at the episcopal court of Salzburg, Mozart is the first composer in musical history whose operas have never been out of the repertory. He displayed complete mastery of the three operatic genres of his day: opera seria (serious opera, usually based on classical or mythological subject matter); opera buffa (comic opera), and Singspiel (a German form of theatre, akin to a musical, i.e. with sung set numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue).
Mozart's Musical Style
Mozart’s musical forms in his mature operas was always determined by dramatic requirements, ensuring that the musical items come from the character’s inner psychological drama or from the outer drama of the action. He was the complete master of ensembles and act finales, examples of which can be found in any of the Da Ponte operas. At the same time, he could always explore a character’s psychological mood through the solo aria, even in the fastest-moving comedy.
Mozart remains the dramatic composer closest to Shakespeare in achievement, whose reputation like that of Shakespeare continues to grow. Whereas in the eighteenth century his music was regarded as over-complicated and even erudite, in the nineteenth he was considered too simple, even obvious for the prevailing romantic mood (Shaw described Mozart as ‘a vapidly tuneful infant phenomenon’). It is only in the last century that the depth of his emotional world has been fully recognised and appreciated. Mozart, like Shakespeare, is everywhere: he has featured in fiction, drama and film (not least Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus), on television and even in video games.
The young Mozart, accompanied by his sister and under the watchful eye of their father Leopold, spent much of his childhood touring Europe (including London) as a keyboard prodigy and composer of instrumental music. Although his earliest experiences of opera were in his native Salzburg, it was during his travels that he became more fully acquainted with the contemporary operatic scene. For example, he saw Alceste, one of Gluck’s so-called ‘reform’ operas, in Vienna in 1767: its impact can be detected in two of his earliest opera seria, Mitridate (1770) and Lucio Silla (1772), as well as his earliest acknowledged operatic masterpiece Idomeneo and even Don Giovanni.
Whereas many of his contemporaries concentrated on opera, Mozart’s mature output is one in which operatic composition is punctuated by orchestral and chamber music, and concertos. His golden decade in Vienna (1781–91) was marked by his three-opera collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte represent the peak of his achievement in opera and, indeed, are the highpoint of eighteenth-century comic opera. Mozart’s final months in 1791 were dominated by two equally rich operatic works: The Magic Flute, a German Singspiel, an allegory of his own commitment to Freemasonry, in which the popular and the serious sit comfortably side by side; and La clemenza di Tito, a concise opera seria composed for the coronation of the new emperor.
Mozart's Music: Where to Start
- Figaro’s ‘No more, you amorous butterfly’ (‘Non più andrai, farfallone amorosa’ from The Marriage of Figaro
- Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ aria from Don Giovanni, ‘Little lady, here’s a list of his conquests’ (‘Madamina! Il catalogo e questo)’
- The duet for Don Giovanni and Zerlina ‘There with our hands entwining’ (‘La ci darem la mano’)
- The trio ‘May the wind be gentle’ (‘Soave sia il vento’) from Così fan tutte, one of the most popular classical tracks on Desert Island Discs
- Papageno’s folksong-like ‘Yes, I’m the Birdcatcher’ (‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’) from The Magic Flute