Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg where his father, Leopold Mozart, was a violinist in court of the Prince-Archbishop.
The precociously talented Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, were often taken on extensive journeys by their father, performing across Europe as child prodigies.
By the end of this period, Father and son had embarked on two extensive trips to Italy These proved a turning point for the young Wolfgang, introducing him to new musical ideas that he absorbed into his own style, growing in confidence and skill as a composer.
Within a few weeks of his arrival back in Salzburg, which was seeming increasingly provincial each time he returned, Mozart composed three works for stringed instruments titled divertimentos. Literally “diverting” music, in the sense of lighter pieces for outdoor or background entertainment, Mozart at just 16 years old turned these light works into something of more substance, with full command of the newly-learnt Italian classical style.
Mozart’s work in the field of song writing spans almost the whole of his short life, beginning with An die Freude, composed in 1768 when he was twelve, and ending with Das Kinderspiel, written in January 1791. They show a side of the composer more intimate, more domestic than we normally see. Encompassing pathos, comedy, homespun piety and heartfelt tenderness, each song is a moment in time, capturing a glimpse into both the social and professional life of Mozart.
Little is known about the background to the song Komm liebe Zither, Komm but it was written in Munich in 1780 – most likely when Mozart was visiting the city in preparation for the premiere of his opera Idomeneo, which opened in January 1781. Originally with mandolin accompaniment, it foreshadows Mozart’s famous use of the instrument in his opera Don Giovanni that was to follow eight years later.
In 1781, Mozart settled in the Vienna to work as a composer for the aristocracy. By 1784, his career was in full bloom and he was as happy and wealthy as he would ever be.
His next operatic success – Le nozze di Figaro – was still at least two years away and Mozart was turning his attention instead to the piano concerto. In 1784 alone he wrote six concertos and in 1785 three more. In the midst of all this large-scale writing he crafted the Quintet for piano and winds, performing in it himself in Vienna on April Fool’s Day 1784 and pronouncing it “the best thing I have so far written in my life” in a letter to his father.
In three movements lasting in total only 25 minutes, it would seem an unlikely work to be singled out for such praise, although an unexpectedly powerful vote of confidence came in 1797 when another well-known resident of Vienna produced a similar work copying its key signature, instrumentation, and general design. The younger man was Beethoven and his quintet, Op. 16, is high tribute indeed. In some respects, Mozart’s quintet reflects his ongoing preoccupation with the piano concerto, the piano’s role in the piece being at times disproportionate, however, the work demonstrates exceptional understanding of the sonorities and distinctive qualities of each of the wind instruments.
1787 – String Quintet in G minor, K. 516
Toward the end of the decade, Mozart’s circumstances worsened. Around 1786 he had ceased to appear frequently in public concerts, and his income shrank. This was a difficult time for musicians in Vienna because of the Austro-Turkish War; both the general level of prosperity and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined. Not surprisingly given such circumstances, these years witnessed a dramatic reduction in the number of works Mozart produced.
1787, the year in which Mozart wrote the String Quintet in G minor, K. 516, was marked by misfortune and frustration, including the death of his father Leopold. In the G minor quintet, Mozart combined emotional depth, technical assurance, contrapuntal mastery, the broad scope of the symphony, and even elements of concerto *and opera writing in his handling of the five independent parts. It is the most famous of Mozart’s string quintets, a fact underscored by its special key of G minor, which Mozart reserved for works of dramatic intensity and deeply personal utterance, such as the Piano Quartet K. 478, Pamina’s aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute, and two symphonies (Nos. 25 and 40).
All six of Mozart’s string quintets employ two violas. Mozart’s fondness for this instrument, with its deep tone and rich, warm sound, is seen in the care with which he treats it in orchestral writing as well, where we find, increasingly as his life progresses, the tendency to write for divided viola sections, thus further exploiting its tone color.
Late in the summer of 1789 Mozart received a commission for a new opera from Emperor Joseph II, Così fan tutte, at the same time as he was working on what would become one of his most popular chamber works, the Clarinet Quintet in A Major K. 581. Not only does the quintet predominantly bask in the golden warmth that characterizes much of Così, but a sketch for its finale became “Ah lo veggio,” one of Ferrando’s arias from Act Two of the opera.
The clarinet won only gradual acceptance as an orchestral instrument, but notably so in Vienna with the brothers Johann and Anton Stadler engaged in the Imperial court orchestra. Anton, specialising in the lower register, experimented with a form of the instrument with a still lower range, now generally known as the basset clarinet, for which Mozart wrote both the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto.
Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the 6 September 1791 premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito, commissioned for the Emperor’s coronation festivities. By late November he was bedridden, and died at home on 5 December 1791, aged 35.
The cause of Mozart’s death cannot be known with certainty. The official record has it as hitziges Frieselfieber (“severe miliary fever”) but researchers have suggested at least 118 causes of death, including acute rheumatic fever, streptococcal infection, trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment. He was buried in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December.