13 Facts About Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.
Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.

A genius composer turned pop culture icon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 musical works and influenced other maestros like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He continues to inspire everyone from film directors to computer scientists today. Here are some things you might not know about the famous child prodigy.

1. MOZART'S FATHER THRUST HIM INTO THE MUSIC BUSINESS.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756, to his mother Anna Maria and his father Leopold Mozart, who was a composer and music teacher at Salzburg Cathedral. Little Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna were taught to play the clavier (a stringed keyboard instrument) from a young age. Both children showed immense musical talent. By the time he was 4 years old, Mozart could learn a song on the clavier in just 30 minutes.

2. MOZART HUNG OUT WITH A YOUNG MARIE ANTOINETTE.

When he was 6, Mozart's family was performing at royal courts, and he began to perform concerts himself. At the Habsburg summer residence outside Vienna, Mozart met Archduchess Marie Antoinette, who was two months his senior. It’s said that she helped Mozart when he slipped on a polished floor. In return, he proposed marriage to the future queen of France. The experience in Vienna would lead to the beginning of a wildly successful tour across Europe that stopped at dozens of cities and royal courts between 1763 and 1766.

3. HE WROTE HIS FIRST OPERA AT 11.

Mozart took in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Versailles, and more as he traveled with his family. At one concert in Munich, Mozart and his sister played together for three straight hours, and they wowed audiences everywhere they went. While playing a series of concerts in Paris, Mozart published his first piece of music: a violin sonata in five parts. He was 8.

At age 11, he wrote his first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. A series of tours of Italian cities beginning in December 1769 confirmed Mozart's preternatural talent. He was commissioned to write operas for Milan's carnival, was admitted to Bologna's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica, and directed the first three performances of his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto. At 15, he wrote that he was hearing whole operas “at home in my head.” Mozart later admitted to feeling “as proud as a peacock” about his fame.

4. HIS EARLY TRIUMPHS DIDN'T LAST—AND THEN HIS FATHER BLAMED HIM FOR HIS MOTHER'S DEATH.

After the Italian tours, Mozart returned to Salzburg and began composing for the court of its new ruler, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, but the work was unchallenging. In 1778, Mozart's ever-ambitious father sent him to Paris with an order to “put yourself in the company of the great.” But now, Mozart was 22 and no longer the boy wonder who hung out with Marie Antoinette on his three-year European tour. He was an adult musician with “a plain, pockmarked face” who could barely speak French.

Left out of high society and running out of money, Mozart and his mother, who was chaperoning him, holed up in a cold and dilapidated hotel in the 2nd arrondissement. His mother fell ill with a fever, and she died on July 3, 1778 at the age of 57. Mozart was all alone, and too scared to tell his father what had happened to his mother. Instead, he got his friend, Abbé Bullinger, to tell him the news. Leopold Mozart ended up blaming his son for her death, believing that if his mother hadn't accompanied him to Paris, things would have turned out differently.

5. HE KIND OF HATED WORKING IN SALZBURG.

Following the Paris stay, Mozart went back to Salzburg to live with his father and sister via Strasbourg (where he played three poorly attended concerts), Mannheim, Munich, and Augsburg. At home, he found a job as a court organist, but wasn't happy. He wanted more for himself, once writing, “to waste one’s life in inactivity in such a beggarly place is really very sad.” The worst part of staying in Salzburg was dealing with the stinginess of his patron, von Colloredo, who wanted him to compose only music meant for the local church. Despite his difficulties during this period, Mozart nevertheless wrote two important compositions, Symphony No. 32 in G Major (K318) and Symphony No. 33 in B Flat Major (K319).

6. HE MOVED TO VIENNA IN 1781, AND HIS LIFE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY.

In Vienna, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. Nights in the capital belonged to the wealthy, who attended the finest masked balls and operas. Starting off as a freelance musician with just one student, Mozart worked his way into the heart of Viennese social life, propelled by the popular appeal of his piano concertos and symphonies. One biographer noted that audiences for his piano concertos had the experience of “witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.”

Soon, Mozart could be seen going about town in gold-trimmed hats and red coats with mother-of-pearl buttons. A year after moving to Vienna, he married the soprano Constanze Weber. They had their first child in 1783—a boy named Raimund Leopold.

7. HE INSISTED HIS CHILDREN SHOULDN'T BE BREAST-FED.

He wrote, “I was quite determined that even if she were able to do so, my wife was never to nurse her child. Yet I was equally determined that my child was never to take the milk of a stranger. I wanted the child to be brought up on water, like my sister and myself.”

Feeding infants on barley water instead of milk was common practice among the middle classes at the time. Mozart did eventually give in to his midwife's and mother-in-law's pleas to have a wet nurse breastfeed the child, but unfortunately, Raimund died two months after he was born. Only two of Mozart’s six children survived infancy.

8. MOZART HAD A PET STARLING.

Starlings are amazing mimics, and the one Mozart brought home from a Vienna pet shop on May 27, 1784 had been singing a movement from one of the composer’s pure, bright songs—the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major (K453).

Mozart’s starling was his constant companion. It was there for the composer’s move to a ritzy Vienna apartment in the Domgasse, just steps from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was there for the birth of two more sons, Karl Thomas Mozart and Johann Thomas Leopold, and the subsequent death of Johann a month after he was born. It witnessed Mozart achieving real fame for his symphonies and arias.

9. HE DIDN'T ATTEND HIS FATHER'S FUNERAL.

Around a week after Mozart’s father died on May 28, 1787, his pet starling passed away. Mozart didn’t go back to Salzburg for his father’s funeral, but he did bury his starling in the grandest way. Mourners in heavy veils marched in procession, sang hymns, and listened to Mozart recite a poem he’d written for the occasion. By a tiny graveside, the world’s greatest composer spoke with love of his starling “gay and bright” who was “not naughty, quite” [PDF].

10. HIS MUSIC SPANNED EVERY FORM AND STYLE OF HIS TIME.

From chamber music like Serenade No. 13 in G Major (K525), a.k.a. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to beloved operas such as The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte, Mozart's compositions redefined many forms of music: symphonies and concertos, harmonie-music for wind instruments, chamber music for string quartets, sonatas for the piano, masses, and choral and church music. All were parts of his oeuvre.

What makes Mozart’s work so revolutionary? Romantic composer Johannes Brahms noted the exceptional “purity” of his music. To the American composer Leonard Bernstein, Mozart’s works were “bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness, and enlightenment … over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s—the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering—a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”

Or, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, “Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined.”

11. MOZART'S LAST COMPOSITION REMAINED UNFINISHED.

His final commissioned piece was Requiem Mass In D Minor (K626). Mozart died before it was finished, but his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the work and delivered it to Austria’s Count Franz von Walsegg, who had commissioned the piece to memorialize his deceased wife. It’s believed that von Walsegg intended to pass the mass off as his own. That plan was scuppered by Constanze, who let it be known that it was, in fact, Mozart who had received the commission and that she was due a fee for the work.

12. THE REASON FOR HIS EARLY DEATH PROBABLY WASN'T POISON.

Mozart died when was 35 years old, on December 5, 1791. The coroner reported the cause as “severe miliary fever,” but a rumor suggested he had been poisoned by Antonio Salieri—an influential opera composer and an exceptional musician who taught Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. The rumor became entrenched in pop culture largely due to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1984 film adaptation. But the gossip was seen as baseless back in the 18th century, having stemmed from a false report of poisoning in a Berlin newspaper a week after the composer passed away. The real cause behind Mozart’s early death is likely much less nefarious. It was probably a fatal strep infection.

13. HIS MUSIC AND LIFE ARE STILL WIDELY CELEBRATED.

Named one of the “Greatest People of the Millennium” by TIME, Mozart’s fame has only grown since his death 226 years ago. New York City hosts the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center for a month every summer; Salzburg celebrates with an 11-day birthday party for the composer every January. In fact, an impressive percentage of Salzburg’s economy is built on Mozart tourism, with everything from Mozart keychains to t-shirts to chocolate-marzipan Mozart balls for sale in the city’s historic Old Town.

If You’ve Always Wanted to Learn to Play the Guitar or Ukulele, Fender Is Offering Free Online Lessons

"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Self-isolation might be the perfect opportunity for you to finally become the guitar-shredding rock star you’ve always dreamed of being. To help you get there, Fender is offering three months of free online lessons.

People reports that the deal is open to the first 100,000 users who create a new account on Fender Play, the online learning platform available to use on phones, tablets, and computers. You’ll get to choose from lessons for acoustic, electric, or bass guitars—or even the ukulele—but it does depend on what you already have (or are able to buy), since all users must provide their own instruments.

The lessons are organized into bite-sized, high-quality videos featuring instructors who have graduated from world-class music programs at places like Berklee College of Music. Not only will you learn from the best, you’ll also get to practice some of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. If you put in a little time each day, you’ll probably be able to strum an impressive rendition of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” before long (which you can—and should—show off to all your friends during your next video chat).

The three-month deal is a big step up from Fender Play’s customary 14-day free trial for new users, and it might even be enough to convince you to stick with your subscription even after your free lessons are finished; the monthly subscription costs $10, or you can buy a full year for $90 (which will save you $30).

Set up an account and claim your free lessons here.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

[h/t People]

The Stories Behind 6 Classic Stephen Sondheim Songs

Composer Stephen Sondheim speaks at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars annual gala hosted by The Dramatists Guild Fund on October 21, 2013 in New York City.
Composer Stephen Sondheim speaks at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars annual gala hosted by The Dramatists Guild Fund on October 21, 2013 in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Dramatists Guild Fund

Composer, lyricist, and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930. Celebrate with a look back at a few of the many iconic songs he has written in his career.

1. “Maria” // West Side Story (1957)

Though Sondheim enjoys composing music much more than writing lyrics, he came on board Arthur Laurents’ Romeo and Juliet update to write lyrics for music composed by Leonard Bernstein. The song “Maria” happens when Maria and Tony— sister of the leader of a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks and a former member of a rival gang called the Jets, respectively—meet at a school dance. There, they exchange a few words, dance, and fall in love.

“The problem here,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “was how to write a love song for two people who have just met. They have exchanged exactly 10 lines, but they have encountered each other in a surreal, dreamlike dance sequence, so that the audience believes that they have an intimate, even mystical, connection. Nevertheless, when the gymnasium set dissolves into the street outside Maria’s house and Tony is back in reality, he has to sing something real.” The only things Tony knows about Maria at this point are her name, and that she’s Puerto Rican—so, says Sondheim, the only thing he could think to make him sing rapturously about was her name.

There was another reason for “Maria,” too: Originally, Tony had been “a blond Polish Catholic, in order to contrast him as much as possible with the Puerto Ricans,” Sondheim writes. “This gave the name ‘Maria’ a religious resonance, which I pushed with the line ‘Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.’” The Polish-Catholic thing was eventually dropped, though, and Sondheim laments that now, the line “makes little sense and merely contributed a kind of overall wetness to the lyric—a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show, but which appealed to my collaborators and which may very well have contributed to the score’s popularity.”

2. “Rose’s Turn” // Gypsy (1959)

Though he was worried that writing lyrics would pigeonhole him as a lyricist, Sondheim picked up his pen again to write the lyrics for the Ethel Merman vehicle Gypsy, with a book by Laurents and music by Jule Styne. Sondheim called the musical, which was loosely based on the memoirs of famous burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Louise) and focusing on her domineering stage mother, Rose, “the show where I came of age—lyrically, at any rate.”

Originally, the scene featuring Rose’s breakdown wasn’t going to be a song at all, but “a surreal ballet, in which Rose would be confronted by all the people in her life,” according to Sondheim. But a week into the rehearsals, choreographer Jerome Robbins said he wouldn’t have time to teach Merman a ballet. So it would have to be a song. Styne had a prior engagement that night, so Sondheim sat down with Robbins to discuss what the number should be. “I suggested to Jerry that since he wanted all the people in the story to collide in a ballet, perhaps if Rose’s breakdown were to be sung rather than danced it could comprise fragments of all the songs associated with her and the people in her life; the songs we’d heard all evening, colliding in an extended surreal medley consisting of fragments of the score.” As Sondheim improvised on the piano, Robbins danced across the stage, “like a stripper, but a clumsy one: like Rose doing a strip,” Sondheim writes. “That was the beginning of three exhilarating hours of musical and choreographic improvisation, as we shaped and constructed the number to be a summary of the score. I even improvised lyrics, something which was anathema to me.”

The next day, Sondheim and Styne filled out the number, then played it for Merman at rehearsal. She was unsure: “It’s sorta more an aria than a song,” she said, but Sondheim was able to assure her that “it was merely a collage of songs that she had either sung or heard during the course of the show. That seemed to calm her.”

During previews, “Rose’s Turn” ended on a much different note. “I had persuaded Jule to end the number on a high, dissonant chord of eerie violin harmonics: a woman having a nervous breakdown would not wind up on a triumphant tonic chord,” Sondheim writes. But when his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, came to see the show, he suggested that the song end in a show-stopping climax. Otherwise, he argued, the audience would be waiting for the curtain call, when they could give Merman the ovation she deserved, instead of listening to the scene that followed the song, in which Rose and Louise reconciled and made the point that all children become their parents. “Gently chastened, I gave up and we affixed a big ending and a tonic chord to the song,” Sondheim writes. “Ethel got an enormous ovation and the audience listened to the last scene in rapt silence. Lesson learned.”

3. “Ladies Who Lunch” // company (1970)

Company’s Joanne—a cynical older woman who is friends with the show’s main character, Robert—was based on the legendary Elaine Stritch, “or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat.

The song “Ladies Who Lunch” marked the third time (after Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) that the lyricist/composer had to write music and lyrics for a specific personality playing a character. “The song fit her perfectly, the only problem occurring when, in all innocence, she asked me what kind of pastry ‘a piece of Mahler’s’ referred to.” Stritch would later recount how she thought Mahler’s was “a pastry shop on Broadway ... The ladies had lunch, they went to see a matinee, they saw a Pinter play, and then afterwards, they went around the corner and had a cup of tea and a piece of Mahler’s. Made perfect sense to me. When I brought it up to Stephen Sondheim, he said, ‘Elaine, I have to go to the bathroom.’” (Gustav Mahler was a Jewish composer.)

Sondheim had hoped that the number would be a showstopper, and the audience would actually stand up when Stritch said “Rise!” over and over and give the performer a standing ovation. “It was a showstopper, but not quite that big,” he wrote. “My hope was probably a holdover from my Hollywood fantasies in which one opening night's black-tied men and bejeweled women stood up at anything—much as they do nowadays, where standing ovations are a forgone conclusion, it being necessary for audiences to remind themselves that they’ve had a live experience by participating in it.”

4. “Send In The Clowns” // A Little Night Music (1973)

A Little Night Music, with lyrics and music by Sondheim, was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. The song that appeared in this second act scene was supposed to belong to the male lead, Fredrick, a middle-aged lawyer in an unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. He is tempted to reignite an affair with Desiree, an older actress, “since the action is his, the passive reaction being Desiree’s, and I started to write one,” Sondheim writes. But Desiree had only two songs in the first act, neither a solo, so director Hal Prince suggested that the scene might be the ideal place to give Desiree a solo, and that “he had directed it so that the thrust of the action came from her rather than from Fredrik. I went skeptically to see a rehearsal, and he had indeed accomplished what he had promised.”

Desiree was played by Glynis Johns, whose voice, Sondheim wrote, was “small but silvery, musically and smokily pure,” and whose biggest limitation was her inability to hold a note. “The solution was to write short breathy phrases for her, which suggested to me that they should be questions rather than statements,” Sondheim writes. “Once I’d reached that conclusion, the song wrote effortlessly … The song sat so well in Glynis’s voice that at the recording session, even though she’d been in a recording studio only once before (for the Disney movie of Mary Poppins), she did it perfectly in one take.”

“Send in the Clowns” was a huge hit for the composer/lyricist. “Why so many fine (and not so fine) singers have recorded ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a mystery to me,” he writes. “For two years after A Little Night Music opened, the only even faintly known vocalist who took an interest in it was Bobby Short, a singer and piano player who performed it in nightclubs, where it made no impression on even that tiny and dwindling audience. Then Judy Collins recorded it in England, where it incomprehensibly became a hit, after which Frank Sinatra’s recording made it an even bigger one, and soon enough virtually everybody in the pop field climbed on the bandwagon. … It even won a Grammy Award as Song of the Year in 1975, amid rock and pop contenders—a song from a musical, no less. (It’s the last one that did.)”

5. “On The Steps Of The Palace” // Into The Woods (1986)

After his first collaboration with book-writer James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim suggested that they “write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well.” Lapine combined all of the classic Grimm fairy tale characters and added a Baker and his Wife, who are unable to conceive, thanks to a curse put on his family by a Witch.

The story, of course, included Cinderella. “The story of Cinderella has always struck me as the most incomprehensible of all the moral fables known as fairy tales,” Sondheim writes in Look, I Made a Hat. “Here is a plain, depressed slave of a girl, beaten and maltreated by her [stepfamily who] … suddenly finds herself magically transformed into a radiant, opulently dressed beauty, sought after by the Prince of the Kingdom, who three times flees the palace where she is the belle of the ball to return to the hole in a corner of the house where she is a virtual prisoner. And she can’t decide which place to choose?”

Lapine came up with a twist that makes sense: The accident of leaving her slipper behind isn’t an accident at all; Cinderella chooses to leave it there. “She knows she’s an imposter and doesn’t want willingly to mislead the Prince (and the world),” Sondheim writes. “She figures that if the Prince really cares to see her again, he’ll follow the clue she has left.” Cinderella’s big song in Into the Woods, “On the Steps of the Palace,” shows the future princess coming to the decision to leave her shoe behind. Writes Sondheim, “No one, as far as I know, has ever made this observation, and if there were no other reason to write this book, the opportunity for me to point out James’s insight would be justification enough.”

6. “How I Saved Roosevelt” // Assassins (1990)

This musical—with a book by John Weidman, and based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.—featured all of the 13 people who have tried (or succeeded) to kill American Presidents. “How I Saved Roosevelt” is about a 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt, which occurred in Miami; instead of hitting the President-elect, unemployed brick layer Giuseppe Zangara, who fired six rounds, hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who later died from his wounds.

Sondheim painstakingly researched to write the song. “There were in fact five bystanders who claimed to take the actions described in the song, although no one deflected Zangara by pushing his arm in the air,” Sondheim writes. “He had the misfortune to be only five feet tall and had arrived too late at the arena to get a seat close to the front. Roosevelt’s speech was unusually brief, and, as he started to sit down, Zangara was hastening to shoot when the entire audience rose to its feet in applause and blocked his view, forcing him to stand on his seat, which wobbled just enough to ruin his aim. Thus Roosevelt was indeed saved.”

There was also a song about the time Teddy Roosevelt was shot, but it was cut. “The bullet would have pierced Roosevelt’s heart were it not for the steel eyeglass case and the fifty-page speech lodged in the breast pocket of his jacket,” Sondheim writes. “So one Roosevelt was saved by being long-winded and the other by being terse, a ripe opportunity for a song if I ever heard one.”

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