A Short History of Long-Haired Music: Amadeus, Part 2


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By the time he reached puberty, Mozart already had three oratorios, nine masses, twenty-three sonatas, and many shorter works under his belt (to say nothing of the partridge in his pear tree). But it wasn’t until he was twenty-five—the year before he married Constanze Weber—that he wrote his first opera, Idomeneo.

During the 18th century, operas were the equivalent of today’s movies, minus the overpriced bottled water and tubs of popcorn the size of hippopotami. Opera was popular and everybody came out to see the latest productions when they toured through town. This was in stark contrast to his concert pieces (the bulk of Mozart’s compositions until Idomeneo), which were only heard and appreciated by the fussy aristocracy.

Mozart only made money when said concert music was commissioned. Commissions were generally dolled out by kings, queens, counts, or empresses and were few and far between.

With opera, on the other hand, he not only made money on the commission, but also got a decent percentage of the house. The more popular the opera, the longer it ran, the more money he made. And with his fancy Viennese lifestyle and six children on the way, the more money the better. (Okay, four died in infancy, but still… you think midwives were cheap back then?)

Besides the already mentioned Idomeneo and The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart composed four other major operas: Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte ­– or The Magic Flute, a phantasmagoric masterpiece inspired by Masonic ideas, symbols, and rituals.

Yes, Mozart was a member of the Masonic Lodge—probably had to wear the silly little outfit sometimes, as well.

But it’s not his operas we’re going to explore here, rather his symphonies. Mozart came of age at the same time the symphony orchestra itself came of age. As we learned earlier, an orchestra in the baroque period consisted mostly of stringed instruments such as the violin and the cello, oftentimes joined by a harpsichord. By the time Mozart wrote his first symphony, woodwinds such as flutes and oboes started appearing in the orchestra. Gradually, the orchestra grew in size and volume. In addition to a dozen or more strings, his Symphony No. 32 in G Major, for instance, written when he was twenty-three years old, featured two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and timpani drums.

But it wasn’t just the addition of these instruments that gave Mozart’s orchestra a different sound; it was the way in which he used them. The bassoon, for example, previously used as an accompanying instrument to fill out the harmony, suddenly found its way to center stage, spotlighted by Mozart with an actual solo in his Symphony No. 41. Of course not as drastic a change as Bob Dylan going electric at The Newport Folk Festival in ’65, but for Mozart’s day, ambitious and inventive nevertheless.

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