The Way of Beauty Lessons from the Mozart Playbook

Mozart Denkmal in Salzburg 1580

From the end of July and for four weeks thereafter, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center dominates other musical offerings in New York City.  This essay will take us for a quick tour behind the scenes of Mozart's life.  Can you size up the man behind his music and gather up a few lessons for your own life?

A Quick Overview of Mozart's Early Life  

What do you make of a child who at four begins to compose at the keyboard and notate music before he can read and write?  What of a child who at twelve has mastered the violin, viola, and organ in addition to the clavichord?  And composing an opera?  He had a photographic mind, a gift that time and again was tested in public.  This is the Wunderkind, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world's greatest musical prodigy.

When Mozart's father Leopold realized the extent of his son's talent, publicizing his son's name became his sole purpose in life. Then Wolfgang would be offered a fine court appointment commensurate with his musical gifts. A court appointment gave the recipient room and board plus a stipend that depended on his talents.

The boy received a systematic classical education from his erudite father who had been educated by the Augustinians and Jesuits.  Leopold played the role not only as a consummate pedagogue but also as his son's publicity agent.  The boy concertized throughout Europe and England and became the darling of court nobility.  No court appointment was forthcoming however.  Only applause, pieces of fruit, trinkets, and hugs from the women.

His father protected him from all outside influences that could interfere with his concentration on music.  

Mozart at 20

As a person, Mozart never matured to adulthood but remained stuck in adolescence all his life. Letters to a cousin written in his early twenties are punctuated with vulgarisms and silly word play.  But at twenty, Mozart had matured as the most highly skilled and versatile European composer, at home in every genre of composition. His gifts exceeded those of seasoned and far older composers except Joseph Haydn who respected Mozart's talents. Still, at twenty, it was time for him to secure a steady position.

The Patronage System and the Downward Spiral

Like Bach, like Haydn, like all composers before him, Mozart worked under the patronage system which considered the composer merely as a court servant. Mozart, who knew his worth, bristled at this indignity.

He worked for a time under Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, the Ordinary of Salzburg. He complained that the music Mozart composed for Masses was too long and delayed the liturgical action; he ordered him to shorten the music.  Out of spite, Mozart would compose a very, very short Mass, known as the Missa Brevis.  The archbishop was furious and had him kicked out though Mozart protested that he had resigned. He wrote to his father: "I hate the archbishop to madness."  Leopold too was furious at his hot-headed son.

Mozart worked at the imperial court of Joseph II where Antonio Salieri was also employed. Mozart once sarcastically remarked: "The two valets sit at the head of the table; I at least have the honor of sitting above the cooks."

Because of his inflexible temperament, Mozart could not hold down a job.  In the patronage system, musicians and composers were easily replaced. Working under Emperor Joseph II, Mozart remarks with bitterness about his stipend:  "Too much for what I do, too little for what I could do."  

His operatic music lampooned characters in the opera and linked their foibles with men and women in real life-and all at the court.  His patrons were horrified to see themselves ridiculed in the characters through Mozart's vivid music, especially in "The Marriage of Figaro," an opera that had the lower class emerge victors against the aristocracy.  Understandably, France had banned the play as subversive. This meant fewer concerts, fewer subscriptions, less money, less work.  Mozart wanted the freedom to compose as he liked but paid a high price for it.  He was kicked out in to music history as its first freelance composer.


Despite Mozart's fame as a child prodigy, despite the promising and lucrative future that might have been but never was, Mozart died a pauper in 1791.  Leopold died a bitterly disappointed father a few years before his son.  The writing on the wall was all too clear for the man who had staked his entire lifeblood on the success of his son.

Mozart was buried like other indigents, unceremoniously in an unmarked common grave.  The cause of death was given as overwork brought on by tension. He was not yet 36 years old.   He left a wife and two sons. At the time of his death, he had composed 626 works, symphonies, concertos, full-scale operas, sonatas, and chamber music.

More in The Way of Beauty

Lessons Out of the Mozart Playbook

Mozart was mediocre in all things except his music.    In all things except his music, he was clumsy, inept, careless, and even indolent.  Nothing or no one came before his music. He was never not composing.  Here he is in his own words:

"When I am composing, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on these occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.  Those ideas that please me, I retain in memory, and am accustomed to hum them to myself.  If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account, so as to make a good dish of it, that is to say, agreeably to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of the various instruments, etc."

"All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.  Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once, what a delight this is I cannot tell!  All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream.  Still the actual hearing of the tout ensemble is after all the best.  What has been thus produced I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for."    

Recording his ideas was a purely mechanical task, one which he postponed to the last minute.  His calligraphy was neat and beautiful.  There was no struggle in composing, and his music is a continuous, logical and mysterious flow of effortless perfection. He never tried to imitate other composers.  He is always the aristocrat.  

In his play "Amadeus," Peter Shaffer poses a metaphysical question: 'How can a just God bestow the gift of genius to a foulmouthed buffoon like Mozart while giving a devout man like Antonio Salieri only enough talent to recognize his mediocrity?  Salieri is the patron saint of mediocrity. He speaks for all mediocrity in the world, and he is their champion.'

Salieri and Mozart worked at the imperial court at the same time.   Though Salieri could never match Mozart's gift, he tried his best even though his best efforts may have resulted in mediocre music.  The lesson?  Mediocrity in effort?  Never.  Mediocrity in effect? It can and does happen.

(Column continues below)


Mozart's growth as a creator is like that of a precious and rare plant whose inner secret remains a mystery, observes the musicologist, Alfred Einstein.        
If Bach's music is a proof of God's existence, as William J. Buckley, Jr. once remarked, then according to George Bernard Shaw, Mozart's music is "the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God."

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