The magic of Mozart
February 23 2021, by Toby Wright
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an influential and significant Austrian composer who wrote over 800 works over his rather short life, including some of the finest vocal pieces and choral works that are still performed to this day. Remarkably, his compositions spanned almost every genre and are compared to those of Shakespeare. His genius and creative talent led him to be heralded as ‘happiness before it had gotten defined’ and greatly revered by musicians and listeners across the world.
His most well-loved compositions were written in mind for the stage and the church. His early Italian operas for German theatre infrequently opposed existing conventions, however, they set the ground for the ground-breaking works of his later life. Similarly, his Salzburg masses formed the basis of his great contribution to sacred works, such as his C minor Mass and Requiem.
Mozart was invited to write an opera for the Munich court in 1780 and as an ambitious composer and cathedral organist in Salzburg, he was highly excited by the opportunity. During rehearsals, his opera Idomeneo came to fruition. He transformed what was an uninspiring libretto into a captivating drama that catches the audience’s attention and demonstrates the extreme emotional ranges of the characters.
Then five years on he created one of his most well-known and cherished operas, The Marriage of Figaro which caused a revolution in Italian opera. It was his first collaboration with renowned librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The comedic and almost nonsensical plot is accompanied by highly original and exquisite melodies, harmony and arias that enhance the actions and dramas of the characters. Mozart could reflect anything and everything in the music, from the ridiculous arguments to the surprising discoveries and his score absolutely complements da Ponte’s onstage goings-on.
Some of the finest and most widely performed works by Mozart include:
Ave Verum Corpus, K618
The title meaning ‘Hail, true body,’ this short motet was composed by Mozart in 1791 during the final year of his life. It is only forty-six bars – and three minutes – long, but is considered to be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It contains the words ‘sotto voce’ (meaning ‘subdued’) in Mozart’s own handwriting on the score. He wrote it when he was visiting his wife Constanze, who was in Austria. It also served as a payment to one of his close friends, Anton Stoll, for a choir to sing to celebrate the important religious feast of Corpus Christi.
This is an opera in two acts and premiered at the original National theatre in Prague in October 1787. The main character of the opera is Don Juan and depicts his eventual fall into hell. Unusually for Mozart, it is a highly intense work and was not fully understood in his own time.
Mozart was cursed to write a requiem as a final ‘swansong’ for himself because he was certain he was going to die. He had received an anonymous commission to write a requiem mass and so he was determined to get into his composition. However, due to his deteriorating health, he only ever managed to finish the Kyrie and Requiem movements and sketch the voice parts and bass lines from the Dies Irae to the Hostias. It is still a great choral masterpiece and even received praise from the admired German composer and pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven, who claimed that ‘if Mozart did not write the music, then the man who wrote it was a Mozart.’
Cosi fan Tutte
This is another one of Mozart’s comic masterpieces and is an opera in two parts which was first performed on 26 January 1790 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria, with the librettist also being Lorenzo Da Ponte. The plot begins with two sisters who are enjoying a holiday in Coney Island with their fiancés, Ferrando and Guglielmo. Their fiancés then decide that they are going to bet that their girlfriends shall always be faithful to them. The philosopher, Don Alfonso, claims he can prove otherwise. The men then put on crazy disguises and attempt to fool their partners. Through the music, Mozart is able to explore the honesty and integrity of relationships between people, allowing the audience to hear some stunning vocal performances. It has been acclaimed to be a ‘rollercoaster of production’ by journalists.
The Magic Flute
Another opera in two acts, Mozart was sadly dead within ten weeks of its premiere. The German score draws on Masonic imagery, folklore and pantomime to take the audience on an unforgettable course of emotions. The plot centres around Prince Tamino who promises the Queen of the Night that he will rescue her daughter Pamina from the enchanter Sarastro. One of the most famous pieces from this opera is known as ‘The Queen of the Night Aria’ and features a repeated top F, sung by a coloratura soprano. This, along with its complex triplet sections, helps to make it a masterpiece of composition and performance, hugely impressing its listeners.
Toby Wright, U6
- Mozart’s best music: 15 of his greatest works (Classic FM)
- A beginner’s guide to Mozart (English National Opera)
- Glenn Gould: Mozart, in his later years, was not a very good composer (Slipped Disc)
- Exploring Mozart (Gramophone)