A Short History of Long-Haired Music: Amadeus, Part 1


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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was what some scholars[1] have called “the fillet of the Classical epoch…easily the most impressive composer of his time.” In fact, it could be argued that Mozart was not only the most impressive composer of his time, but also the greatest composer who ever lived. At least that’s what I once overheard at a performance of his most successful opera, The Marriage of Figaro, in the men’s room during intermission as I washed my hands.

Man in snazzy bowtie at urinal on the left: I’m telling you, it’s just like Haydn said; Mozart is the greatest composer who ever lived.

Bespectacled fellow at urinal to his right: Come on. What about Beethoven? What about Brahms? What of Bach?

Snazzy bowtie: Elevator music compared to Mozart.

Bespectacled: I beg to differ.

Snazzy bowtie: Oh please. Who was the most prolific composer? Mozart. Who was the most economical? Mozart. Who was the most precocious, and indubitably[2] the most inspired?[3]

The argument carried on, but Bespectacled flushed his urinal at that moment so it was difficult to make out the rest. Suffice it to say, while many of Snazzy Bowtie’s declarations could be debated, the bit about Mozart being the most prolific composer, is, indeed, accurate. In his extremely short lifetime, Mozart wrote close to 630 pieces. That’s over 15 compositions a year if one starts counting from his second trimester in the womb. And while you might think it silly to start counting when the young Mozart’s umbilical cord wasn’t even severed yet, it seems Snazzy Bowtie was also correct in stating that Mozart was the most precocious of composers. In fact, he wrote his first piece (“Andante in C for Keyboard”) while still a mere toddler! Can you imagine? What’s more, can you imagine life in the Mozart household during these early, formative years?

Mozart’s Mom: Wolfgang! Did you pooh-pooh in your diaper?

Mozart: What? Ma, leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m writing my first symphony?

Mozart’s Mom: Symphony schmphony. Get over here and let me smell your diaper!

In all actuality, Mozart was probably potty trained by the time he wrote the “Andante in C for Keyboard,” but not by more than a few years. He was only five years old when he scribbled his first notes, seven when he published his official Opus[4] 1, and—get this—a mere EIGHT years old when he wrote his first complete symphony! (Symphony in E flat) At an age when most of us were busy making the difficult switch from script to cursive, practicing our new, curly alphabet over and over in large-lined notebooks, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was developing expositional themes, experimenting with counterpoint[5], exploring sonata and rondo forms, learning how to arrange for the entire orchestra—all while enduring his parents affectionate nickname: Wolfgangerl.

During these early years, the young Mozart, er, Wolfgangerl, toured Europe with his father, Leopold, and older sister, Nannerl (rhymes with Wolfgangerl). From Salzburg to Munich, from Paris to London, Leopold introduced the child prodigy—the wunderkind[6]—to any nobility who had 100 ducats to spare.

In Versailles, where the Traveling Mozarts were guests of Louis XV, Wolfgangerl wrote two harpsichord sonatas and dedicated them to the King’s daughter, Louise-Marie-Thérèse de Bourbon (not to be confused with Louise-Marie-Thérèse d'Orléans [1812-1850], or Louise-Marie-Thérèse d'Artois [1819-1864], or Louise-Weezy-Jefferson de Manhattan [1975-1985]).

But these early tours through the courts of Europe weren’t easy. As always, there was a price to pay for early childhood fame and stardom[7]. In Wolfgangerl’s case, it was illness. From 1756-1760, he suffered through serious bouts of rheumatoid arthritis, tonsillitis, severe congestions, typhoid fever and something called rheumatic nodular eruption associated with tuberculosis, which was believed to be scarlet fever, but in all actuality was probably nothing more than bad gas from the liver pâté he consumed in abundance while a guest at Buckingham Palace.

If it wasn’t the young Mozart who was sick, it was either his father or his sister. Leopold’s diaries and accounts of life on the road for the Traveling Mozarts during these years are filled with lengthy descriptions of any one of the three of them trading off symptoms of everything from the common cold to severe angina. Of the four weeks Wolfgangerl battled typhoid fever, his father wrote, “[The boy is] not only absolutely unrecognizable, but has nothing left but his tender skin and his little bones… You would like to know what was wrong with him? God knows! I am tired of describing illnesses to you."[8] Then adding, “I only wish somebody would hurry up and invent Penicillin already!”



And by “some scholars,” I of course mean me

[2] Highfalutin word for “unquestionably.”

[3] Highfalutin = pretentious: a word not used in day to day conversation, a word in need of a footnote, etc.

[4] See a future post for more on what the heck an “Opus” is and why he became such a legendary comic strip hero.

[5] See a future post for more on counterpoint – it’s really not as thorny as it sounds. Honestly.

[6] Literally: “A child with so much talent, he’s destined to suffer the rest of his life.”

[7] Setting the stage for VH-1’s Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story for years to come.

[8] Source: The Letters of Mozart and his Family, W.W. Norton & Co., 1985

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