December 5, 2007

December 5 | Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

January 27, 1756 - December 5, 1791: Age 35

"I never lie down at night without the reflection that — young as I am — I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled."

Mozart was perhaps the most brilliant musical genius in European history; certainly he is the most famous. He began playing piano at the age of 3; his first composition was created at the age of 5. He early career is a laundry list of such incredible bits of information. Certain Mozart was a child prodigy, but his father Leopold, a musician and composer himself, was also a canny marketer, and made the most of his son's talent. Mozart's older sister, Nannerl, was also a talented young musician, and the Mozart family travelled around Europe exhibiting the young prodigies.

Mozart went on to be an equally brilliant adult composer. (Nannerl, on the other hand, was discouraged and never performed in public once she had reached her late teens. It was thought she would not be "marriageable" if she performed as an adult.) Mozart's gigantic output of operas, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and choral music are still performed and loved today. There is a special brilliance, a lightness to his music that is irresistable. His personal life was more difficult, as he had a rocky relationship with his father (he eventually moved from Salzburg to Vienna to get away from him) and the life of a freelance composer has never been an easy one in any age. For the most part he prospered until the 1790s brought an economic downturn and concomitant financial problems for the Mozart family (by this time he was married and had two children).

However the year 1791 was a very productive one artistically and financially. Alas, this was also the year of his death. His final illness came in November of 1791, when he was only 35. He came down on November 20 with swelling, pain, and vomiting. The most likely diagnosis is acute rheumatic fever, of which he had had several attacks starting when he was young. He was working at the time on a Requiem, and continued to do so during his illness until the swelling of his limbs made it impossible. On December 4 he seemed a little better, then suddenly much worse. He said to his sister-in-law, "You must stay here tonight and see me die...Why, I have already the taste of death on my tongue."

According to his son Karl, who was 7 when he died, "A few days before he died, his whole body became so swollen that the patient was unable to make the smallest movement, moreover, there was a stench, which reflected an internal disintegration which, after death, increased to the extent that an autopsy was rendered impossible." Just before he died, he asked his wife what the doctor had said after his visit that day. When she lied by telling him something positive, he said, "It isn't true. I shall die, now when I am able to take care of you and the children. Ah, now I will leave you unprovided for." According to his wife, as he spoke these words, "Suddenly he vomited — it gushed out of him in an arc — it was brown, and he was dead."

Much is made of the fact that Mozart was buried in a common grave and had a simple funeral, but this was normal practice for middle class people in Austria in that period.

Click here to see and hear the gorgeous 2nd movement of his clarinet concerto, written in the last year of his life.

Sources: Wikipedia; Solomon, Maynard, Mozart, Harper Collins, 1995

This post is for Stephen Prime, a damn good first violin, who suggested the subject.

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