Mozart in Salzburg — Oct 2012
Being born a prodigy may be more common than we think, though being recognized and nurtured as such is certainly rare. In Mozart’s time, performing and composing music were vocations that ran in families, like any other trade. If you were born into a family like Mozart’s (or, even more legendarily, the Bach family), you were destined to earn your keep as a musician. Many did so, as hard-working artisans who learned and practiced their trade day after day, year after year, and taught it to their sons (if not generally to their daughters). Talented though many were, only a tiny proportion of all those musical tradesmen rose above the level of skilled artisan.
Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus (1756–91)—“Wolfgangerl” to his family—and his sister Maria Anna, or “Nannerl,” were both extremely gifted child prodigies. It was critical that Mozart was born into a family that included another talented musician, his father Leopold (1719–87), a violinist at the court of Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg and a composer in his own right, who was able to recognize and nurture Wolfgang’s musical genius and was ready to provide the stimulus he needed. Little Wolfgang surprised everyone when, barely out of diapers, he started composing—having first invented his own musical notation (according to Leopold’s friend, the court trumpeter Schachtner), since he hadn’t yet learned to read or write music. He was given lessons at age 3 or 4, after incessantly plunking at the keyboard while his sister was practicing or receiving instruction. But, though Nannerl was taught music, excelled as a pianist, and toured the courts of Europe with her brother as a child, her eventual destiny of marriage and motherhood did not include a career in music.
Leopold, realizing the talent of his children, essentially gave up his own career to foster and promote theirs. Once he determined his children were expert enough—for them, very early—Leopold took them on tours to the courts of Europe with two goals in mind. He wanted to introduce them, and particularly Wolfgang, to the European nobility with a view to possible future employment. And he wanted them to experience firsthand the breadth of European musical style, as the only way to get to know music of other traditions and countries was either to get your hands on a “traveling” score or to go abroad yourself. Given the opportunity, Wolfgang absorbed everything with prodigious facility. His stunt at the Vatican at the age of 14 (1770) is well known: he happened to be present at a Holy Week service in the Papal Chapel where he heard one of the choir’s secret pieces, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a long piece in Latin alternating chant with 4-part, 5-part and 9-part choruses. Mozart returned to listen to it again two days later and upon returning to his lodgings was able to write it all down from memory.
In the course of his travels and demonstrations—and “scientific” examinations of his brilliance and precocity—Wolfgang not only absorbed and assimilated the musical styles of all the lands he visited, but also tried his own hand at them, in an astonishing succession of early compositions. From these emerges a skilled musician, mature soul, and multifaceted artist. Even the young Mozart was not just an artisan who knew his job: he was already well on his way to creating a unique personal musical language. Later in life he would have a chance to acquaint himself with Johann Sebastian Bach’s contrapuntal style, through compositions by Bach that had lain dormant for decades, and, true to his early experience, he immediately incorporated Bach’s style into his own works. Among the results, his last symphony, the so-called “Jupiter” Symphony, No. 41, K. 551, is widely regarded as a paradigm of the musical sublime.
Today’s program features examples of Mozart’s “early style,” if ”early” can be said of the work of someone who was a fully mature artist by his early teens. There are pieces Mozart composed as a child, such as the Kyrie in F, K. 33, and the amazing “Scande coeli limina,” K. 34, written when he was 10, and “God is our Refuge,” K. 20, composed during a trip to London when he was 9. And there are more complex pieces dating from his teenage years, such as the beautiful “Misericordias Domini” K. 222, composed in Munich in early 1775, when he was 18. Whether we respond to this music with surprise, wonder, admiration, or awe, we must admit that it deserves a place in the canon of Western Art Music as the work of a most unusually talented musician of whom the world was deprived far too early.
—© 2012 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.
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