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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography

by Lydia G. Cochrane (Translator), Piero Melograni

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Piero Melograni here offers a wholly readable account of Mozart’s remarkable life and times. This masterful biography proceeds from the young Mozart’s earliest years as a wunderkind—the child prodigy who traveled with his family to perform concerts throughout Europe—to his formative years in Vienna, where he fully absorbed the artistic and


Piero Melograni here offers a wholly readable account of Mozart’s remarkable life and times. This masterful biography proceeds from the young Mozart’s earliest years as a wunderkind—the child prodigy who traveled with his family to perform concerts throughout Europe—to his formative years in Vienna, where he fully absorbed the artistic and intellectual spirit of the Enlightenment, to his deathbed, his unfinished Requiem, and the mystery that still surrounds his burial. Melograni’s deft use of Mozart’s letters throughout confers authority and vitality to his recounting, and his expertise brings Mozart’s eighteenth-century milieu evocatively to life. Written with a gifted historian’s flair for narrative and unencumbered by specialized analyses of Mozart’s music, Melograni’s is the most vivid and enjoyable biography of Mozart available.
     “Italian historian Piero Melograni delivers a charming biography. Expertly grounded by the massive correspondence between Mozart and his highly complex family, Melograni’s study benefits from its author’s keen understanding of the changing social environments of the late eighteenth century.”—Todd B. Sollis, Opera News
     “The idea that Mozart's achievements had nothing to do with self-discipline, hard work, knowledge or intellect is deeply embedded in the popular image of his genius, but Melograni . . . will have none of it, pointing out how hard Mozart worked on his music, even as a child, and suggesting that the ‘eternal child’ view was put about by . . . family members to emphasize Wolfgang's need for and dependence on them.”—Sheila Fitzpatrick, London Review of Books

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Melograni, an Italian historian who writes principally on nonmusical topics of the 20th century, has made a valuable contribution to the crowded field of Mozart studies published this year, the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. The author draws extensively from the letters and notes of the Mozart family, and thus his conversational, chronological account of the composer's life is unusually rich in detail. Readers will encounter frequent interjections from Melograni on the meaning of events or assumptions by other writers. For example, he makes a case for the removal of the Requiem from the Mozart canon, arguing that this masterpiece is mainly the work of others and is not up to par with Mozart's other final works. Conspicuous for avoiding any detailed discussion of the music itself there are no musical examples, and even superficial comments are kept to a minimum the book still holds value for lay readers. Melograni's citations are thorough, and his bibliographic notes give a useful if somewhat jumbled and hard-to-read accounting of Mozart scholarship. Those interested in a more integrated study of Mozart's life and works may prefer Julian Rushton's Mozart or David Cairns's Mozart and His Operas. Recommended for general collections. Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"The book brings something new to the table and in fact suceeds brilliantly. . . . [Melograni] examines Mozart's movement through various social and political strata of the late 18th century; his relationships with family memebrs, employers, and other musicians; and his efforts to forge a new kind of career. . . . The book can be read profitably by musicians and nonmusicians. Essential."

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart A BIOGRAPHY
By Piero Melograni
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-51956-2

Chapter One 1756-1767

The Rise and Decline of the Child Prodigy

Beginnings (1756-1761)

One day in December 1761, Wolfgang sat down at the harpsichord in the family home in Salzburg in the company of his parents, his sister Nannerl, and some family friends and played two or three very short, very simple pieces of his own composition. He was five years old, a slight, blond boy passionately fond of music, if not downright engulfed by it. All those present applauded and complimented the young composer and his proud father and teacher. No one could have imagined it at the time, but on that day one of the most portentous musical careers in history was launched.

In the Köchel catalog of Mozart's works, as item number 1 we find a piece long considered his first composition: the Minuet for Harpsichord in G Major with a playing time of a bit over one minute. Years later scholars concluded that the Minuet (K. 1/1e) was preceded by an andante, two allegros, and another minuet, all very brief pieces (K. 1a, 1b, 1c, and 1d). As we listen to these childish works, it is hard to tell whether they contain a hint of Mozart's genius or are mere school exercises written in collaboration with his father. To be truthful, these little works elicit emotion only because we know what is to come.

Wolfgang began playing at the age of three. He lived in a family of musicians and heard them making music every day. He began by sitting on the bench next to his sister and putting his hands on the keyboard, almost in play-which reminds us that in many languages "playing" and "playing an instrument" use the same word. This is true in English, but also in German and French (spielen, jouer). The child Mozart took to the game of music with a passion, and soon showed extraordinary talent. Given his very young age he could not have been aware of the fact, but his play with musical instruments was teaching him one of life's greatest secrets: success comes only from working with passion, ease, and pleasure, as if in play. Only when we enjoy ourselves can we find the energy for the hours and hours of study, the practice, and the inevitably monotonous training that accompanies all worthwhile human activities, the arts in particular. Before a great pianist or violinist can win over the public, he or she has to have the motivation and patience to devote thousands of hours to what are called "exercises."

As soon as Leopold became aware of the extent of Wolfgang's gifts, he gave the child regular lessons on the harpsichord, using a manual that he had compiled for Nannerl, the manuscript of which still exists. The book contains 135 pieces, minuets in particular, organized didactically by increasing difficulty. The father imposed a rigorous discipline on his son, which the boy accepted, intuiting that it was necessary if he were to "play" well. Little Wolfgang became a great musician because of his intense love of the world of musical notes. He entered into that world by beginning at an early age to cultivate his mind and construct an extraordinary musical memory. Learning was facilitated by his unusual talent for imitation, which he maintained even as an adult. Leopold threw himself into his task, sensing that his two talented children could provide an indirect road to an artistic, social, and economic success that he never could achieve alone.

Johann Georg Leopold Mozart was born in Augsburg, in Swabia, on 14 November 1719; hence he was not Austrian-born but a Swabian transplanted to Salzburg. He was thirty-six years old when Wolfgang was born. A short man with a large nose, he had been born into a Catholic family, had been educated by the Jesuits, and as a young man seems to have considered becoming a priest. In spite of this early exposure, he was no religious conformist, however. A man of modest means, he was the son of a bookbinder and a member of the lower middle class, and he harbored a lively hostility toward aristocrats that he passed on to his son. In 1756, the year in which Wolfgang was born, Leopold had achieved modest fame thanks to the publication of his treatise on mastering the violin, but he remained vice-Kapellmeister at a small court, that of the prince-bishop of Salzburg. Those who knew him described him as intelligent and prudent but pedantic, anxious, tormented by pangs of guilt, and prone to discouragement. He had been disinherited by his widowed mother and was no longer in contact with her.

His wife, Anna Maria Walburga Pertl, was born on 15 December 1720 in the small village of St. Gilgen, near Salzburg, where her father served as deputy prefect. Leopold and Anna Maria, who were almost the same age, were married in Salzburg in 1747; they had six children before the birth of Wolfgang, all of whom died in infancy except Nannerl, christened Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, who was born 30 July 1751. Joachim, born in 1748, died at five months; then came Anna Cordula, born in 1749, who lived only one week; Nepomucena, born in 1750, dead at two months; Karl Amadeus, born in 1752, dead at three months; and Francisca, born in 1754, dead at seven weeks. Women of the time gave birth at home attended by untrained midwives. There were no pediatricians or gynecologists. Babies born in the winter were often stricken with respiratory illnesses and in the summer with gastric troubles; the pharmaceutical arts of the time could do nothing to save them. Statistics show that in Austria in that period, 20 percent of newborns died before reaching one year of life. In the Mozart family, the figure was 71 percent.

Anna Maria was delivered of her last child, Wolfgang, at 8:00 in the evening on 27 January-one of the coldest months of the year-1756 in the family house at Getreidegasse 9, now the Mozart Museum. Anna Maria must certainly have thought that the baby would suffer the same fate as Joachim, Anna, Nepomucena, Karl, and Francisca. Mothers usually faced sad thoughts of the sort with more Christian resignation than anguish, comforted by the belief that their innocent babes would have an enviable life in the other world. It is even probable that the newborn Wolfgang faced particular dangers, since we know that his mother's milk was insufficient and he was nourished with barley water and oat gruel. Powdered or artificial milk and homogenized baby food were inventions of the future, and a wet nurse would have been beyond Leopold's financial means. Leopold stated later, in a letter dated 3 August 1778, that childbirth had brought his wife to death's door.

The new baby was baptized in a Salzburg church with the name Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus. The family soon changed Theophilus (beloved of God) to Amadé; they never used the more solemn "Amadeus," unless in jest. "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" used to be the preferred form, but scholarship today prefers "Amadé," as did Wolfgang himself. The name Wolfgang ("walks like a wolf") predicted hardiness, alertness, and rapidity, while Amadé suggested faith in God, an anchor of salvation that Mozart, given the precariousness of life in those days, relied on, repeatedly proclaiming his devotion and piety. He lived only thirty-five years, but he lived them at a wolf's pace and went far in that short time.

Some maintain that, given Mozart's innate gifts, he would have become a great musician even without his father's help and his sister's example. They may be wrong, because it is unlikely that any individual would possess such inborn, absolute musical talent. I prefer to think that certain predispositions can be developed from childhood by familiarity with music and early training. This is exactly what happened to Mozart. As Norbert Elias has said, "He must have been exposed continually to musical stimuli, the changing sequences on the violin and the piano from the first day of his life; he heard his father, his sister and other musicians practicing and correcting their mistakes." An exceptional natural predisposition enabled Mozart to develop very early a keen sensitivity to differences in sound and to musical construction. We can only guess what his fate might have been away from the environment that surrounded him from his birth.

The atmosphere in the Mozart house was highly protective. The children played with a cat and a fox terrier named Pimperl. Until December 1769, when Wolfgang was thirteen and Nannerl seventeen and a half, the entire Mozart family slept together in one big room. This intimacy and the absence of a lavatory explain the somewhat crude language that we often find shocking in Mozart's letters and those of his mother and other family members. One example is a letter in verse from Wolfgang to his mother dated 31 January 1778, which is largely dedicated to the topic of defecation. Such frank language might be read as a reassuring sign of reciprocal trust.

We should remember too that Salzburg was a small city with fewer than twenty thousand inhabitants, and it was provincial and conformist. It enjoyed a measure of independence, and it looked to nearby Bavaria for stimulation. In the years of Mozart's adolescence Salzburg was governed by a prince-bishop, Sigismund von Schrattenbach. Although the court's financial resources were modest, the prince-bishop sought to imitate the pomp of wealthier courts. Social life in the city was all too tranquil. Families gathered for conversation and parlor games in which children took part. We have the impression that although Salzburg may have been gray and unassuming, its very limitations offered a child like Wolfgang protection and serenity.

When Mozart was still quite small, he was also smitten by mathematics. "When he was doing sums," Friedrich von Schlichtegroll, Mozart's first biographer, recounted in 1793, "the table, chairs, walls, even the floor were covered with chalked figures." The Mozart family appears to have taken a keen interest in puzzles and numerology. It is a common notion that small children who are given piano or singing lessons usually demonstrate a greater aptitude for mathematics. If so, it is hardly surprising that Mozart, with his musical gifts, should have found numbers stimulating. Like all aspiring musicians, he did solfeggio exercises, which helped him learn to read music and to follow rhythmic patterns that correspond to fairly complex mathematical rules. Studying music involves mathematical training: Pythagoras himself used musical rules to explain the geometrical complexity of the universe.

At the age of six Wolfgang played the harpsichord astonishingly well, better than his sister. Placidus Scharl, a Benedictine who had heard him in Salzburg, wrote in his memoirs that the six-year-old Mozart played very difficult pieces with speed and accuracy. "He skimmed the octave which his short little fingers could not span." By then Wolfgang also played the violin with some confidence, and legend has it that he had learned to play the instrument without help by listening to others and imitating them.

All of Wolfgang's extraordinary achievements were made at the cost of an intense application that his family and their friends found worrisome. In a letter dated 16 February 1778, when Wolfgang was twenty-two, Leopold Mozart reminds him of the disconcerting gravity he had displayed as a child. Leopold states, "As a child and a boy you were serious rather than childish and when you sat at the clavier or were otherwise intent on music, no one dared to have the slightest jest with you. Why, even your expression was so solemn that ... many discerning people of different countries doubted whether your life would be a long one." Wolfgang was so thin that he seemed too fragile to bear up under his study regimen.

Leopold regarded his fragile but powerful child as if he himself were God and Wolfgang the baby Jesus, and his little son probably thought his father Leopold next to God in importance. He said as much in a letter dated 7 March 1778: "Next to God comes Papa was my motto and my axiom as a child." It is understandable that Leopold-Father-God should decide in 1762 to take his extraordinary boy on a European tour, away from a Salzburg that he considered totally inadequate to appreciate this miracle child.

The Trip to Munich and Vienna (1762)

Leopold was excited by the idea of traveling about the vast world with his children and his wife, but he was also anguished at the thought of the enormous risks involved. The unpaved roads of the time were often in terrible condition and so full of potholes that a day's travel in a horse-drawn coach covered little ground. Travelers were continually jostled and the coach made frequent halts. On 24 December 1762, to cite one example, it took the Mozart family twelve hours to go from Pressburg (Bratislava) to Vienna, a distance of some thirty miles, at an average speed of about 2.5 miles per hour. All cities closed their gates at sunset, highway robbers were a threat to travelers, and inns were primitive, poorly lit by torches and candles, without running water, and often quite dirty. Travelers supplied their own pillows and sheets. The danger of illness and accident was so great than many prudently drew up a will before setting o? on a journey. To top it o?, Leopold, as we know, was anxious by nature. Some years later, in letters dated 25 February, 3 August, and 3 September 1778, he explicitly admits to "nervous palpitations," "fits of melancholy," and a depressed, anxious heart.

It is highly probable that Leopold relied on Freemasonry to quell his fears and reduce the risks of travel. There were several Masonic lodges in Salzburg, and we can suppose that Leopold established relations with one of them on the eve of his first journey, perhaps even becoming a member. Freemasonry was a powerful mutual-aid association with branches throughout Europe: why not make use of its protection? At the time there were two other networks that offered protection, the aristocracy and the church, but Leopold had only limited ties to either of them. He belonged to the lower echelons of the middle class, and he was chary of aristocrats. Although he had been educated by the Jesuits, he subsequently rejected a priestly career, and in 1753 he had written a tract denouncing nobles and priests. He was an Enlightenment man, rational and concrete.

Turning to the protection of Freemasonry was the most congenial and perhaps Leopold's only recourse. It is worth anticipating later developments to recall that Wolfgang became a member of a Masonic lodge in Vienna in December 1784, and that when his father joined him there the following year, Leopold was welcomed into his son's lodge as a longstanding "brother," not a postulant. In any event, Wolfgang's career, which began in childhood with probable Masonic support, concluded with The Magic Flute, a great Masonic work, and with the Masonic Cantata, Laut verkünde unsre Freude (K. 623). He also composed a number of other works of Masonic inspiration, including Thamos, König in Ägypten (K. 345/336a), a heroic drama filled with esoteric echoes on a libretto by Tobias Philipp von Gebler. Many of Mozart's minor Masonic works convey a striking intensity.

In January 1762 Leopold Mozart decided to risk a trip to nearby Munich with the entire family. The two children are reported to have played before Maximilian III, the prince-elector of Bavaria, and to have received high praise. The family apparently returned to Salzburg excited by their trip, by the splendor of the Bavarian court, and by the children's success there, which encouraged them to work to improve their art. They began to play a radically new percussion instrument, the pianoforte, which was just beginning to be more widely available and which, unlike the harpsichord, could produce soft and loud notes and even play pianissimo and fortissimo.

We know little about the trip to Munich, but much fuller documentation exists about the succeeding and more challenging sojourn in Vienna. On 18 September 1762 the Mozart family left Salzburg for the capital of the Hapsburg empire, beginning a journey that was to last almost four months. On 20 September the Mozarts arrived in Passau, where Wolfgang was awarded the honor of giving a solo concert attended by the prince-bishop, Joseph Maria Thun-Hohenstein. On 26 September they arrived in Linz, where both children gave a concert. On 4 October they stopped at Mauthausen and, on 5 October, in the town of Ybbs, where Wolfgang played the organ in the Franciscan church so energetically and so skillfully that the friars, gathered in the refectory with their guests, interrupted their meal to rush to the church, where they were amazed to see a six-year-old at the keyboard.


Excerpted from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Piero Melograni Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Piero Melograni is the author of eighteen books, including Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution, and most recently La guerra degli italiani, 1940–1945. Lydia G. Cochrane has translated numerous works from Italian and French, including Luc Ferry’s What Is the Good Life?, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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