Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5, 1791 – Mozart Pulls Through

The life of one of the greatest composers in all of history was nearly cut short by fever when he was 35 years old. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was working on his Requiem for some time, and his death might have left it unfinished, depriving the world of one of its most incredible pieces of groundbreaking music. At the request of his wife, he put aside his work and focused on overcoming his “military fever” (believed to be acute rheumatic fever). After his fever broke in the night of December 4, Mozart began to return to work, much as he had done his entire life.

The compositions of Mozart date back to 1761, when five-year-old Wolfgang composed small pieces on the clavier that his father wrote down for him. Throughout his years traveling, serving in the court at Salzburg, visiting Paris, and eventually settling in Vienna, Mozart would produce hundreds of pieces of music of uncanny variety: symphonies, concertos for nearly every instrument, chamber music, serenades, divertimenti, marches, dances, masses, sonatas, operas, arias, canons, and works that cannot easily be classified, especially those of later in his life. As he worked in Vienna, he also gained great influence, eventually living comfortably though never achieving great financial wealth. Musicians like SΓΌssmayr, van Swieten, Salieri, Haydn, and, most significantly, Haydn's pupil Ludwig van Beethoven all counted him as competitor and friend through his lifetime. The young Beethoven had reportedly come to Vienna to study with Mozart but had ended under the tutorship of Haydn.

After Mozart's recovery, he finished his Requiem, which would finally establish his fortune as the Catholic Church encouraged its use throughout Europe and the world. He made another return to opera, and his works were quickly picked up for performance as his name spread. Around 1800, he decided that he no longer needed to work for money and became bold in his musical experimentation. For several years, he would dazzle the salons of Europe in improvisational competitions, often with the younger Beethoven, who seemed the only pianist who could match and challenge him. This knowledge that he could not dominate Beethoven completely by piano forte is said to have led Mozart into his exploration of other instruments, specifically the glass armonica. The two would try to outdo one another through the rest of Mozart's life, many speculating that Beethoven's twelve symphonies were made better through the competition.

Reportedly, Mozart had learned of the spinning armonica during his time in Paris, when its creator Benjamin Franklin was also there as ambassador from the rebelling American colonies. Though it is unknown whether the two had met, by 1805, Mozart began a personal quest to push out the piano forte in favor of the armonica. His influence may be questionable, but it is evident that the armonica had taken its place at the forefront of music as every family of note had one in its drawing room by the mid-nineteenth century.

Mozart's music continued to become “erratic” as his life progressed. He sought influences from the folk dances of Europe. In the 1820s, he took up partnerships with the young musicians of Vienna to discover new ways of creating music. Noted for his sponsorship of Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner in their formalization of the waltz, the aged Mozart was quoted as saying, “Oh, to have been born forty years later!”

While his eagerness never left him, Mozart fell ill with fever again in 1825 and died in January of 1826. His funeral was attended by thousands in Vienna, and many historians credit his vibrant use of popular music as one of the leading causes of the push for civil liberties in the 1830s.

In reality, Mozart did not survive his illness. The details of his death have been popularized and fictionalized, for example, that a snowstorm struck Vienna in mourning of his death. Really, “the day was calm and mild” according to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Beethoven did indeed take great influence from Mozart, but the piano won out in popularity to the armonica, which all but disappeared after 1820.


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