©HeritageImages/Corbis
©HeritageImages/Corbis

10 little things you might not know about Mozart

Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg. This "young prodigy" was a gifted child and an outstanding composer: that much we know. But there are also many myths about the man. Here are 10 (true) little anecdotes about Mozart.

Who has never wondered what Mozart was like as a person? A child prodigy, frivolous and capricious, who died tragically young at the age of 35. Even today, this musical genius arouses the curiosity of both researchers and the public. Did you know that Mozart was a Freemason, that he detested the nobility and that he wasn't, in fact, Salieri's enemy?

At the age of six, you were learning to read: Mozart was composing minuets.

Mozart was the son of a composer and music teacher named Leopold Mozart, and was surrounded by music from infancy. His genius was spotted very early: at barely three years of age, young Wolfgang had perfect pitch and probably an eidetic memory, which enabled him to memorise a large number of sounds in a very short time. Before he had learnt to read, count or write, Mozart was able to sight-read a musical score and play it perfectly.

Unsurprisingly, the musical prodigy started composing at six. He looked for "notes that like each other" and wrote his first works:five minuets, a sonata and an allegro in 1762. Between the ages of seven and eight, Mozart composed over 50 works. At 11, he set to work on his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, which he finished on 13 May 1767.

He heard the Miserere by Allegri, thought it was nice, and transcribed it from memory.

His father took him to Italy when he was 14 years old. He went to Holy Week matins on Wednesday 11 April in the Sistine Chapel, his only opportunity to hear the Miserere by Allegri. The Vatican wanted to keep this piece of music for its own use. At the time, only the choristers had access to the score and any attempt to transcribe it would have been punishable by excommunication.

The impertinent Mozart, under the charm of the heavenly singing, wrote out the work that very evening and returned to the chapel on Good Friday to put the finishing touches to his transcription. The story was told in numerous letters and envious parties accused Mozart of having stolen the score.

He detested the nobility

In Salzburg, Mozart obtained the title of concertmaster at a very young age. The position entailed composing sacred works under the orders of the Prince-Archbishops Schrattenbach and then Colloredo, but left Mozart no creative freedom. At the age of 20, he left Salzburg in search of another position, without success. Obliged to return to Salzburg and resume his work, Mozart would take orders from no-one: he behaved childishly with the Prince-Archbishop Colloredo, who called him a lout and an idiot.

This difficult working relationship can be attributed to his contempt for the nobility. In a letter written in 1777, Mozart is scathing of high society's arranged marriages:"Nobles must marry not because they like it or out of love, but solely out of interest, and to pander to all sorts of ancillary considerations. Nor would it be at all seemly for these high-ranking people to also love their wife, once she had done her duty and given birth to a plump male heir".

The Magic Flute is a Masonic opera (yes, Mozart was a Freemason)

In 1773, Mozart discovered Freemasonry and, on 14 December 1784, was admitted as a member of the "Beneficence" lodge. When he composed The Magic Flute in 1791, Mozart had been attending Masonic gatherings for several years. He found Freemasonry a source of inspiration. The renowned opera is called a "masonic opera" because it represents the steps in Freemasons' initiation.

When he composed this work, Mozart created a dual level of meaning: one for the uninitiated, inspired by the German Singspiel model (a sort of comic opera), the other for people in the know, with Masonic symbols in the music, the characters and the plot.

Mozart was crippled with debt

While no-one has a clear explanation for his debts, Mozart was borrowing and spending recklessly and with no limits. He came dangerously close to a court sentence, which could have not only ruined him but broken his pride.

He owed money to his family and friends, and even his pupils, such as Prince Lichnowsky. This Chamberlain at the Imperial Austrian Court tried to take Mozart to court. In 1789, he sued the young composer to recover his money. There is no record of how this business ended for Mozart, but everyone apparently kept the unfortunate incident quiet and it was eventually forgotten.

We don't know for sure whether Mozart's skull is actually his

Le crâne prétendu de Mozart exposé à Salzbourg ©FranzNeumayr/Corbis
Le crâne prétendu de Mozart exposé à Salzbourg ©FranzNeumayr/Corbis

In 1801, Joseph Rothmayer (who claimed to have been present at Mozart's burial some 10 years earlier) went to the latter's tomb and removed a skull from it. However the location was uncertain. Mozart had been buried, along with 16 other corpses, in a mass grave (common practice at the time) in the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna.

The relic came into the possession of anatomist Joseph Hyrtl before being bequeathed to the Mozarteum Foundation. In the 19th century, scientists were at a quandary to establish whether or not the skull was indeed that of the composer. Even today, its authenticity has not been proved. Some specialists assert that the skull is Mozart's, while the DNA tests performed on other skeletons from the Mozart family prove the contrary.

He called Haydn "Papa Haydn"

In 1784, Mozart met Haydn. It was an instant meeting of artistic minds. The two men admired each other and developed a friendship that was as sincere as it was unique in the history of music, to the point that Mozart called Haydn "Papa Haydn". "He is the only one who can make me laugh and move me to the depths of my soul", said Mozart of this spiritual father.

At the end of a concert given by Mozart, Haydn went up to Leopold, the composer's father, and predicted:"I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition".

No, Mozart and Salieri were not enemies (they didn't much like each other, but that's different)

©PhotoPQR/LaMontagne
©PhotoPQR/LaMontagne

Mozart had made enemies. In the Masonic lodges, among the nobility or because of his debts, but Salieri was not one of them. The Italian musician was just a bit jealous. When the emperor commissioned Salieri to compose Cosi Fan Tutte, he was incapable of it. Mozart took over and wrote the work we know today.

Being "outdistanced" like this by a young composer who sometimes did as he liked can be unpleasant, but the two men never did battle. When Mozart was buried, only a handful of people attended the ceremony and one of them was Salieri.

He married Constanze without his father's consent

Mozart married Constanze Weber on 4 August 1782 in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. His father learnt of it by letter and did not accept the marriage. He was afraid that marriage would distract his son from music.

From that day on, Leopold grew more and more distant from Mozart. Geographically first of all, because he kept his position in Salzburg while his son settled permanently in Vienna, and emotionally, because he disapproved of the match. The father and son would see each other only twice more before Leopold's death in 1787.

Mozart was obese when he died

Mozart was not very tall (1.52m), but he was also stout. We can picture Mozart on his deathbed, struggling to write his Requiem, and the image is truthful. The composer had become obese towards the end of his life and was obliged to remain in bed.

Of the 140 possible causes of Mozart's death (established by specialists), the two most plausible causes are rheumatic fever or kidney failure. Far less sensational than death by poisoning, the theory put forward over the centuries.

You are listening to :