Rethinking Mozart

Mozart has overtaken Beethoven, the favorite son of the 19th century, as the most admired composer in the history of Western music. He has the most recordings. Classical radio stations run a morning Mozart hour. Before the sophisticated audiences of Manhattan, he alone gets his own annual festival: Mostly Mozart. Many believe (despite meager scientific evidence) that if one plays Mozart's music to babies in the womb, they will grow up smarter and more musical--perhaps even a genius like Wolfgang.

In our minds, Mozart has become the archetypal genius, a divinely inspired wunderkind for whom composing came easily. He was talented and therefore--so the Hollywood script of "Amadeus" tells us--a counterculture rebel who wore crazy clothes, told racy jokes and slummed with the downtrodden. Eventually he suffered the inevitable martyrdom of being misunderstood. Lesser minds, led by imperial composer Antonio Salieri, plotted against him. In the end, his audience deserted him. He died penniless, and was cast into a pauper's grave.

Yet what we know of Mozart's life suggests that all these preconceptions are false. He was neither poor nor underappreciated. Composing did not always come easily to him. And he was not a scatological social misfit. But he was a genius.

Mozart was an astonishingly productive composer. In 35 short years, he wrote more than 600 works--enough music to fill nearly 200 CDs. Nearly every year, Mozart wrote more music than the Beatles recorded in their entire career. He excelled in every leading musical form of his era, composing 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos, 26 string quartets, 21 operas, 17 piano sonatas, 15 masses and a host of other pieces. And had he not died young, what we have would be known as mere "middle period" Mozart.

It is strikingly original music. Mozart invented the modern piano concerto, in part to show off his own virtuosity. His late symphonies, grand in scale and sonority, pointed the way to Beethoven. His string quartets won praise from his friend Joseph Haydn (who invented the genre) as "the greatest composer I know." At his best--above all in his mature operas--Mozart ranks with the likes of Shakespeare and Rembrandt as creator of some of humankind's most moving art. He was, the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians concludes, "the most universal composer in the history of Western music."

Mozart was a piano virtuoso at 6; a great composer at 18. He was legendary, above all, for his ability to improvise. His memory was extraordinary, and included the ability to sit down after hearing a piece for the first time and write it down. He could compose while doing other things: he wrote one piece while playing pool, another while bowling.

Yet while most great musicians were prodigies, only a small percentage of prodigies become mature musicians, let alone transcendent composers. Mozart beat the odds because he had everything else going for him.

His father, Leopold Mozart, was a professional composer and one of Europe's leading music teachers. Surely he ranks among history's pushiest stage dads, giving up nearly all his outside activities to manage his son's extraordinary talent. Leopold promoted the young prodigy by spreading myths about Wolfgang's ability to play piano and violin without any lessons, but behind the scenes he made his young son practice hard. The same goes for composing. Of Wolfgang's early minuets, Princeton musicologist Scott Burnham quips: "It's pretty clear Papa was helping him with his homework."

Mozart was also in the right place. His birthplace of Salzburg was small, but it lay in the musical epicenter of Europe. Young Wolfgang spent most of his youth traveling to the top cultural spots--Italy, Germany, Austria, France, England--where he learned all the current musical styles.

Even in his maturity, and despite a gift for melodic invention, Mozart often struggled for musical breakthroughs. His greatest string quartets--the six he dedicated to Haydn--required three years of work. Before producing his first great German opera, "The Abduction From the Seraglio," he started three successive operas and left them incomplete--though he already had 12 others under his belt.

In his prime, living in Vienna, Mozart was no starving recluse, but an 18th-century Yuppie who spent money compulsively. He remained practical about his livelihood, never writing a piece unless he expected to earn some cash. He spent his income--$100,000 a year or more in current dollars--on fancy apartments, fine food, servants, a comfortable carriage, fancy clothes and his family. His favorite possession was a flashy red silk coat. Far from feeling contempt for aristocrats, Mozart wanted to fit in with them.

In his last years, war and recession interrupted Viennese concert life and medical problems plagued his wife, Konstanze. He was forced to borrow from friends, giving rise to the myth of his poverty. Had he lived just a few more years, however, he almost certainly would have followed his friend Haydn to lucrative London. His music was already popular across Europe, and Mozart might well have emerged as its pre-eminent composer. When he died, he was cast into a common grave not because he was poor, but because every commoner, by imperial decree, got the same treatment.

Yet the story of the maligned and misunderstood artist persists. In the modern world, we cling to the romantic notion that geniuses must live this way--thanks in part to the image that Beethoven, a generation after Mozart, cultivated. But Mozart was a creature of the 18th-century Enlightenment. He knew his music was better than most, and he said so. But he did not adopt--and would not have understood--the role of the distant romantic hero possessed of extraordinary genius. In his greatest works, "The Magic Flute" or "The Marriage of Figaro," Mozart appeals to both the most popular and the most sophisticated musical awareness within us. And he renders in music the subtlest shadings of human emotions--love, jealousy, duty and wit--with a naturalness and human sympathy that has never been equaled in opera. It is music, so pianist Robert Levin puts it, that "holds up a mirror and lets us see ourselves." No wonder our love affair with Mozart goes on.