Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart © Getty  /  DEA

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the hidden face of a genius

Behind the myth of the genius and talented composer hides a different face of the most famous of composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Who has not heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composer of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [A little serenade], the Marriage of Figaro, and the Magic Flute? A composer so legendary and famous that the man behind the name is often forgotten, a mere caricature.

We imagine Mozart a young genius highly sought after by the Viennese public of the 18th century, and notably an expressive and excentric character, as portrayed by Tom Hulce in the film Amadeus by Miloš Forman.

Though these ideas are not false, quite the contrary, they nonetheless represent only a fragment of the composer's personality which, beyond all appearances and literary accounts, has proven to be very complex and nuanced, much like his music. 

Mozart, the hard worker

Mozart's entire body of work is immense: 41 symphonies, 22 operas, 18 masses... and everything in only 35 years. One must not forget that he began early, composing his first minuet at the age of 6! Five years later, aged 11, he completed his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. Having outgrown the notion of child prodigy, Mozart was now considered alongside other contemporary composers, a musician (almost) like any other, though he was far from surpassing his fellow composer Joseph Haydn in success and popularity. 

Mozart studied with dedication and passion the various composition techniques of his predecessors and contemporaries, such as the art of German counterpoint and Italian vocal ornamentation. Though he displayed an undeniable ease at composition and an innate understanding of melodic invention and orchestration, he was nonetheless a hard worker, never hesitating to change and even re-orchestrate entirely his scores.

This compositional activity did not suffice in allowing Mozart to provide for his family. With a wife and several children to feed, not to mention his frivolous spending habits, Mozart was obligated to give music lessons, something he resented greatly, and to accept commissions for works which rarely inspired him, motivated only by the financial aspects. 

Mozart, a precarious musician

Mozart was undeniably a celebrated and widely-recognised composer, but his work experienced a real success only after his death. Even his greatest operas, highly acclaimed today, were victims of the tastes and traditions of his time: "Too many notes" in Die Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio] according to Joseph II, the nefarious subject of The Mariage of Figaro for the Viennese aristocracy, and the success of Cosi Fan Tutte quickly overshadowed by the death of the emperor... 

Mozart's fate was never wholly ensured, given that he never chose the easy path. Whereas many of his contemporaries decided to join the courts of great lords and other noblemen, subservient to their desires and fancies, Mozart abandoned the comfortable lifestyle under the patronage of Salzburg Prince-Bishop Colloredo, choosing instead to work independently. A unique and hitherto unseen situation for an 18th-century musician, one whose precariousness Mozart would have to deal with his entire life. 

In fact, the day Mozart gave up his role as court composer for the Prince-Bishop Colloredo is today known by many as the "14 July of musicians" [in reference to the French "Bastille Day"]: 9 May 1781, Mozart was liberated from all court responsibilities, free to pursue his career independently. "If I had to beg my bread I would never serve such a lord again", he wrote to his father.  

Anxious Mozart

"I am a vulgar man", says Mozart in Miloš Forman's Amadeus. Indeed, the choice of words is apt, when discovering the composer's correspondance, revealing to the reader his childish side. 

"I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not"...the entire sentence is required in order to understand the director's choice of portraying only one aspect of the complex composer, for narrative reasons. 

L'acteur Tom Hulce dans le film 'Amadeus', réalisé par Miloš Forman et sorti en 1984.
L'acteur Tom Hulce dans le film 'Amadeus', réalisé par Miloš Forman et sorti en 1984. © AFP  /  ARCHIVES DU 7EME ART / PHOTO12

Mozart's works were as from being vulgar as Mozart was from being a simple man. Never complacent, the composer felt an incessent burning desire to fill a void within himself, to accomplish something before his inevitable demise. In 1791, for example, he wrote to his wife Constance:

"It’s impossible to explain, it’s a certain emptiness — painful — a certain longing which can’t be satisfied and, consequently, doesn’t stop. It just keeps on and on, getting bigger each day..."

In order to calm his anxiety and share his many questions, Mozart grew interested in freemasonry. He joined a Masonic lodge on 14 December 1784 , later becoming a fully-fledged and wholly invested Freemason. Within the walls of the Mason lodges, Mozart would find support and encouragement, "brothers" with whom he could share his vision for the future and contribute to the evolution of Austrian society.

Not so classical Mozart

Alongside Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart is today considered one of the main pillars of Viennese classicism. Musicologically, he is well and truly a Classical composer: his works follow clear and traditional structures, such as the sonata in three movements (with an exposition, development and a recapitulation of the main theme). 

Though the structures may have been clear and traditional, Mozart's music is no less full of subtleties. Similarly, his operatic characters were spared the stereotypical and almost caricatural traits: a comic Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio] without the buffoonery, a betrayed Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni yet still enamoured, Despina the devoted yet playful servant in Cosi Fan Tutte... The psychology of Mozart's characters is a reflection of the composer himself: well-drawn and full of nuances.

"I cannot write poetically, for I am no poet. I cannot make fine artistic phrases that cast light and shadow, for I am no painter. [...] but I can by tones, for I am a musician."*

*Letter from Mozart to his father on 8 November 1777.