Mozart, The People’s Composer

Part 5 of 5 of your Concert Notes

We’re following CPR Classical’s Great Composers Series on Mozart

We like to give you Concert Notes.  Why?  CPR Classical’s Scott O’Neil says it best…

“I’m convinced that the music itself has an inherent, aesthetic beauty to it, but when we understand the stories – certainly in the case of the tumultuous life of Wolfgang Mozart – but also the context that the music was written, not only do we understand the music better, but the music – the individual pieces themselves – sound more beautiful.”

It’s the Fall of 1788, Wolfgang doesn’t know it, but he has only 3 years left to live. He’s at the height of his powers, but no one is listening. His last 3 symphonies – perhaps his most innovative and greatest – have no audience. They are likely never performed during Wolfgang’s lifetime. They are not even published until after his death.

Economic conditions are very bad in Vienna due to the war. There are actual bread riots in the streets. People aren’t paying for niceties like music, making life hard for a freelance composer. Though he’s enjoyed fame and lived comfortably for a while, Wolfgang is now out of money and no one wants to hear his music. In the past, he’s composed his way out of troubling situations, but now he’s out of new genres to develop and is exhausted. Perhaps he’s at the end of his rope.

Wolfgang returns to touring as a keyboard soloist, turning away from composing in order to make money. He pawns what few things he owns, borrows money, and hitches a ride with a friend who is headed away from the war. They travel north, hoping for better financial conditions.

The music for the tour is notably simpler than his previous, heavier works. Perhaps there is a parallel to the rise of swing music during WWII, lighter music is heard to take the mind off the war. The King of Prussia commissions Wolfgang to write a set of string quartets. These pieces are simpler, enchanting to the mind, and tickling to the ear. Here is the first movement of one of the ‘Prussian Quartets’ – Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 575 ‘Violet’:


It’s Mozart writing for his audience.  It’s something the King himself could probably play.

The tour is the first time Wolfgang is away from Constanze in their 7-year marriage. This plus the lack of financial success are the likely reasons the tour is only less than 2 months. The tour is critically successful, but makes Mozart no money. He writes Constanze,

“To be sure, I am famous, admired, and popular, but people here are even greater skinflints than the Viennese.”

Wolfgang returns to Vienna, his finances now reaching a very low point. He tries putting on his own concert, only to have the pre-sales list just 1 name, his benefactor Baron von Swieten. Inconceivably, no one wants to hear the great Mozart perform. His letter to his reliable, generous best friend reflects his desperation as he writes,

“The situation I am in, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And if you, my best friend and brother forsake me, I, hapless and blameless as I am, will be lost together with my poor, sick wife and child…I can hardly make up my mind to send this letter, but I must. If it weren’t for my condition, I wouldn’t be forced to be so shameless before my one and only friend. Adieu. Forgive me. For God’s sake, do forgive me. And adieu.”

Wolfgang has exhausted his possibilities and seems to not know where to turn next in his desperation. In the midst of this, Mozart pens a clarinet quintet, a beautiful work for his one of his favorite instruments, written for his friend, Anton Stadler, and for the widows of musicians. It’s written for a benefit concert, so he’ll make nothing from it. However, noted Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon puts it, “The music smiles through the tears.”  You can here it here in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, II. Larghetto – ‘Stadler’:


Commentators note that there is a marked difference from the condition of Mozart’s life and his music, that they seem almost divorced from one another. Mozart’s music reflects happiness and cheer often, especially when times are rough. However, in reading Mozart’s letters, we see that he holds a core belief that he is responsible for cheering people up through his music. He’s trying to find the beauty in each moment.

Wolfgang writes many arias during this time for other composer’s operas. As people flee due to the war, musicians are not always available to fill opera parts. Mozart steps in to write substitute areas for a different voice to sing a given part in someone else’s opera. He works as a compositional ghost writer in this way, getting money but no recognition for the work.

He finally catches a break. He lands the commision to pen the opera Cosi Fan Tutte. The commission first goes to Salieri, who starts the work but abandons it. Then, it is given to Mozart. Wolfgang scraps Salieri’s work and starts over.

In Cosi, Wolfgang deploys his talent towards tailoring arias to individual singers along with his predilection for making fun of people. He’s aware that the prima donna is not only rude and arrogant, but also likes to throw her head back to sing high notes and tuck her chin in to sing low notes. He writes her aria with large jumps from high notes to low notes and back again.  Here is that aria, Come Scoglio from Cosi Fan Tutte:


In his own words, Mozart writes of the soprano he had in mind,

“In order to sing it, she’s going to have to bob like a chicken.”

This is a happy occasion. Wolfgang is finally making money from an opera run. But just then, Emperor Joseph II dies, bringing the opera run to a halt. Many people had benefited under Joseph II, but not Mozart. Joseph II is the one who famously told Wolfgang, “Too many notes” about one of his works, and criticized Don Giovanni without having even seen it. The Emperor would invite composers like Haydn and Salieri to perform for visiting monarchs, but not Mozart, the court composer. He’s continually passed over.  Perhaps the new Emperor will grant Mozart more favorable conditions.

But no, Wolfgang is not even invited to the coronation. He attends, paying his own way from what little he has.  At this point, he applies for and wins an unpaid position as the assistant to the music director at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. He’s hoping that when this man dies, he’ll be able to step in as the music director. This is Mozart at his lowest, humblest point.

But finally, he lands another commission. He’s to write in the German form of Singspiel, a light opera that is similar to a musical. It’s for the common man. He writes The Magic Flute. Notably, there is much similarity in The Magic Flute’s overture to a theme in a piano sonata he heard 10 years previously from Italian composer Clementi. (Borrowing themes from others is a common practice at the time, and it’s even sometimes considered a tribute to the original composer.) Mozart is able to reach back that long to what he’s heard only once or twice and then write variations on that same theme.

In addition to including pieces that the common people can easily sing or hum along to, he also pens one of the most difficult coloratura soprano arias in the opera repertoire: the Queen of the Night aria. Listen to modern German soprano Diana Damrau perform it here:


The Magic Flute displays Mozart’s great ability to combine his need to write high art with the audience’s need for a great tune. It’s a balance between both art and entertainment, reconciled into one magnificent masterpiece. He’s achieved his goal of becoming ‘the people’s composer’ in this opera, using his art to express the common message of light triumphing over darkness.

It’s now 1791, in the final few months of Mozart’s life. The Magic Flute is a huge success and things are looking up. The darkness and desperation he faced now seem to be behind him, and he’s even able to pay off some of his debts. This is a very prolific period. In addition to The Magic Flute, he pens La Clemenza di Tito, the clarinet quintet, and a Masonic Cantata.


A mysterious event has happened in the midst of all this activity. Just before he’s penned The Magic Flute: he receives a commision to write his Requiem. A messenger appears several times through this time, giving him a little bit of money in order to keep Wolfgang writing the work.

Wolfgang soon comes to believe that someone is poisoning him, even to the point of calculating when he will die. He thinks he is writing the Requiem for himself. He becomes obsessed with this notion. Constanze becomes so concerned about Wolfgang that she forcibly takes his Requiem score and locks it away.

After taking a break for a while, Wolfgang begins to recover. He admits how absurd the idea was that he’d been poisoned, and asks for the Requiem score so he can finish the work. Constanze gives it back to Wolfgang, and he continues. But then, Wolfgang’s health takes a nosedive. He and others around him realize: he’s dying.

Wolfgang is once again consumed with the Requiem and is overwhelmed at the thought of dying with the work unfinished, leaving his family unprovided for. He’s feverishly trying to finish as much of the Requiem as possible before he dies, but there’s a problem. His hands have become very swollen, and he’s starting to say that he ‘can taste death’. Wolfgang brings in his student, Franz Süssmayr, and begins dictating the work to him.

Wolfgang completes the first two movements of the Requiem and leaves notes and sketches with Süssmayr. He writes the opening accompaniment and choral parts for the Lacrimosa, as heard here:


Wolfgang dictates the instrumental opening, then brings in the choral parts next, and breaks down sobbing, saying,

“Did I not say that I was writing this for myself?!”

Wolfgang completes the Lacrimosa only as far as the choir sings the words, “…homo reus”. From there forward, the movement is no longer Mozart’s composition, but Süssmayr’s completion.

The mysterious messenger and patron is the other side of the story. Now we know it was Count Walsegg who commissioned the work and his valet (the mayor’s son) was his messenger. Walsegg wanted to pass it off as his own work, as he did with other compositions.  The Requiem is to be done in memory of his wife. The first 2 performances see Walsegg conducting the work at his own private concerts. For at least a few years, Mozart’s Requiem is known as Walsegg’s.

Mozart has given up the rights to his Requiem out of financial desperation. The commission was offered before the success of The Magic Flute. By this point, he’s been given enough over time that he’s essentially been paid for the Requiem, and there is encouragement that he’ll receive a bonus on its completion. Knowing that the money hinges on the Requiem‘s completion as well as his own desire to leave a testament of his own talents in what will be his last work, he becomes consumed and overwhelmed by the project.

Wolfgang dies short of his 36th birthday. Because of the mysterious illness he suffered, the circumstances at the time, and stories of him claiming he’d been poisoned, fingers started pointing at his sometimes rival, composer Salieri. Salieri doesn’t do his reputation any favors when years later he exclaims,

“I killed him! I killed Mozart!”

However, Salieri is hospitalized at the time, and this is said during a fit of delirium. When he’s more lucid later, he denies the statement. There is no other evidence to suggest Salieri killed Mozart, despite the suggestion made in the modern play adapted into the movie Amadeus.

What if Mozart had lived?

The Requiem would have been completed very differently. When it’s heard, the piece is almost two different works in one. Scott O’Neil says,

“Kudos to everyone who’s tried to complete it, but no one is Mozart but Mozart.”

Perhaps also the formula he discovered in The Magic Flute – balancing high art with tunes the public could understand – would have been further developed and made him more successful financially. At the same time, his higher art operas and other works would have continued pushing the frontier, writing as he said, “…what I could write”.

Constanze’s reputation is sometimes that of being not very savvy. However, she shows business skill and cleverness in building Wolfgang’s legacy. She goes so far as to have Süssmayr write a complete copy of the Requiem in his own hand, even having Süssmayr forge Wolfgang’s signature. When Walsegg receives it, he believes he has the originals in fulfillment of the commission, but Constanze has kept those. When 8 years later, Constanze publishes the Requiem under Mozart’s own name, Walsegg is furious.

Without Constanze, we probably would not have some of Mozart’s works today, such as his Requiem and his final 3 symphonies (which were likely not performed during Wolfgang’s lifetime and were not published until after his death – by Constanze). Constanze also preserves hundreds of his letters.

When Constanze later remarries, even her new husband joins in preserving the Mozart legacy. They move to Salzburg and befriend Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, gaining access to more of Wolfgang’s letters. Nannerl’s collection are the larger treasure trove of letters, which reach back to Wolfgang’s childhood. She further has all the childhood memories of Wolfgang to share with them.

Mozart had always referred to Constanze as if she were the one who created order out of a world of chaos. Mozart even writes his Ave Verum Corpus for a friend who took care of Constanze while Wolfgang was away travelling. It’s evidence of the endearing love Wolfgang felt for Constanze.  Hear it here:

Wrap-ups from the series…

Mozart became the world’s first freelance composer, not necessarily because he initially wanted to. But it was because the aristocracy rejected him. His only practical response was to pursue writing directly for the people, becoming ‘the people’s composer’. It’s a huge change, as now the music is not just heard in the upper class’ private music rooms, but where the people are – concert halls and the opera house. It helps set the stage, at least artistically, for the French Revolution.

There’s also the notion that his peppy, cheerful and triumphant music is somehow divorced from a lot of the dark, desperate situations Mozart faced in his lifetime. Yet, Scott O’Neil says,

“Sometimes the music expresses grief, sometimes overcomes grief, and always with a sense of hope and beauty. And sometimes, it just expresses that thrill of discovery.”

The hope is that the story has been told in this series from Wolfgang’s perspective, and how integral his life was to his music. It’s ultimately a sad story of an unappreciated genius with a life cut short by a mysterious illness and death. But Mozart likely wouldn’t want us to be sad about his story. He once wrote his father:

“We don’t know what will happen next anyway. Yet, we do know. It’s all in God’s hands, so let’s cheer up, allegro style!”

Constanze first took steps to make sure Mozart’s music lives on, and countless musicians and music lovers have ever since. And now, a bit of his music and story lives on in you.

That’s the end of this series!

This concert week, we’re listening to CPR Classical’s podcast series on Mozart.  You can find the entire series here:  Read along as we write excerpts from this podcast.

Featured image credit: The Edlinger Mozart, attributed to Johann Georg Edlinger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons –


The Longmont Chorale performs, “Requiem: Mozart’s Last Words” on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at 3PM at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont.  The Chorale and guest soloists are accompanied by instrumentalists from the Longmont Symphony Orchestra.

The Longmont Chorale is a nonprofit Longmont choral group, an SATB choir which performs four major concerts in Longmont each season.  Concert tickets and information are both available at

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