November 1991 – January 1992

“O Mozart, immortal Mozart, what countless images of a brighter and better world thou hast stamped upon our souls!”

These words, translated from Franz Schubert’s diary entry of June 13, 1816, and penned only twenty-five years after the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), remain valid as the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s death is commemorated. The exhibition Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 200 Years After attempts to reflect the breadth and scope of Mozart’s musical genius.

Mozart’s father Leopold (1719-1787) was a composer, violinist, and theorist active in Salzburg; his Versuch einer grundlichen Violinschule is a didactic work of outstanding importance. Of the seven children born to Leopold and his wife Anna Maria, only two, Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna, known as Nannerl (1751-1829) survived.

Mozart’s musical gifts were apparent early in life. By the age of four he had begun to learn pieces from his sister’s music book, and his earliest known compositions date from the following year. Both children were prodigies, and in 1762 Leopold took them on the first of a series of tours, ranging from a few weeks to three-and-a-half years in length. Wolfgang “toured” from the age of six until he was in his early twenties. These travels enabled the young Mozart to meet the outstanding composers of the day; he readily absorbed the variety of important musical influences and the different composing styles. Gradually he began to receive commissions for various types of compositions, especially opera.

Mozart eventually returned to Salzburg as court organist, but in 1781, at the age of twenty-five, was dismissed. Rejoicing in his independence, he moved permanently to Vienna, depending on the possibilities of court employment, commissions, subscription concerts, and pupils, an independence unusual in an age of patronage. In 1782 he married Constanze Weber; of their six children only two survived. Contrary to legend, Mozart did in fact make a decent living during the Vienna years, and was celebrated as both performer and composer. However, his last four years were severely affected by financial difficulties. Mozart was, in Vienna, a middle-class artist in what was essentially a court society, and whether through intrigues at court or an unwillingness to relate subserviently to his aristocratic superiors, his hoped-for level of court employment was not forthcoming.

Much speculation has centered around the cause of Mozart’s death. Various authorities have attributed his death to any of a number of illnesses, to accidental poisoning resulting from the medical treatments of the day, or to deliberate poisoning (by Salieri, by the wife of one of Mozart’s piano students, by the Masons, or others). Having read of Mozart’s medical history, one reviewer commented that “one wonders not at Mozart’s early end but, rather, how he survived for so long.”

The over 600 compositions of Mozart were listed and numbered in the thematic catalog compiled by L. von Kochel in 1862; the Kochel or “K.” numbers are universally used to identify specific compositions. During his formative years, he became familiar with every kind of music that was written or heard in contemporary western Europe. He absorbed, he imitated, and he assimilated these models, producing a synthesis of national styles, illuminated by his own transcendent genius.

It is often stated that his compositions were worked out in his mind to the extent that writing them down consisted only of transferring to music paper a fully developed structure, hence his ability to laugh, joke, and carry on conversations while “composing.” In fact the compositional process was somewhat more laborious, with the musical ideas being worked out at the keyboard. After his death, Mozart’s wife and friends discarded sketches for all the works that had been completed, keeping only those for incomplete compositions.

This exhibition was prepared by Sandy Ballasch, Christine Bellomy, and Grace Fitzgerald.