Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is so central to western musical culture that it's easy to forget how important he is and how unique he was. Like the other "huge" names - Bach, Beethoven, all the others we could list - Mozart often falls prey to being so well known that we think we don't need to listen any more. And many people are just tired of hearing his music. In a situation of overkill and overuse, that's completely understandable.
So why more on Mozart? Because I want to look at one part of his life - 1791, his last year - rather than looking at a single work or group of works. By doing this I want to perhaps put the music of this vital year in some sort of context, and perhaps dispel a myth or two along the way.
The Austrian economy had gone through a terrible decline from 1788 to 1790. The Turkish wars and other factors led to a marked downturn in all manner of commercial activity in Vienna, and as is usually the case, artistic activity was one of the first things to suffer. After the triumphs of 1786 and 1787 - marked most notably with the operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni - Mozart's fortunes were badly affected like those of everyone else in the following few years. Fewer concerts were given and when they were, fewer people came. Fewer opera commissions were offered and fewer students wanted to learn the piano; we tend to forget that an important part of Mozart's income was from teaching. By late 1790 he was seriously in debt and had been for some time.
By late 1790, though, things had started to turn around - for Austria and for Mozart - and he would have had every reason to enter 1791 optimistically. But so many details of his day-to-day life, even in his last year when he was garnering real fame, aren't known to us. Thankfully he had started a thematic catalogue of his works in 1784, dating each work as it was completed, and he continued this right up until his death. The first work entered for 1791 was his last piano concerto, K595, and thereby hangs another mystery as it stands apart from the glittering series of piano concertos Mozart had written earlier in Vienna and presented in his own concerts. By early 1791, though, he was no longer mounting his own concerts.
The final piano concerto was started in 1788 but put aside before it was finished. It seems Mozart returned to it around the start of 1791 to complete it; he entered it in his catalogue on 5 January. The evidence suggests that he performed it a benefit concert for the clarinettist Joseph Bähr, the last time Mozart would perform in public in Vienna. [listen]
In 1787 Mozart had been given a largely nominal appointment to the imperial court in Vienna by Emperor Joseph II. This was hardly lucrative and he was subservient to other composers, including Antonio Salieri, but it seems the Emperor wanted to ensure Mozart would stay in Vienna, and this was his means of keeping him there. In early 1791 (by which time there was a new Emperor, Leopold II), he was required to fulfil one of the few duties of this position, which was writing dances for the court balls which began on 6th January. In late January, February and early March several sets of minuets and German dances written for these occasions were added to the thematic catalogue.
Mozart took the commissions very seriously. Not only was it a chance for his music to be heard by the highest levels of the aristocracy, but the musicians in the orchestra were some of the finest in Vienna. They would have played in his operas and concerts, and many were close friends. This is one of the 6 minuets K599, which were entered into the catalogue on 23 January. [listen]
German dances were similar to minuets in that they were in triple time, but they had a heavier, more down-to-earth feel to them. Like the so-called "contredanses" Mozart wrote for the court balls, they developed into the peculiarly Austrian dance called the Ländler, which in turn became the waltz. The dance steps were completely different to that of the minuet, and in the German dances and contredanses he occasionally added humorous or programmatic elements. This German dance from the K600 set (entered into the catalogue on 29 January) has a central trio section called "The Canary". [listen]
The minuets, German dances and contredanses K599, 600, 601, 602, 604, 605, 606, 611 and probably 609 all date from the first three months of 1791, a total of 27 dances in all.
Mozart's last piano sonata, K576, had been written two years before, in 1789. In his last year he wrote only one important keyboard work, the variations in F, K613. Variations on well-known operatic tunes were very marketable in Vienna at the time, and these eight variations are based on a melody from a then-popular musical play. The lightness of the original melody is transcended by Mozart's dazzling treatment of it, which over the course of about a quarter of an hour covers a huge range of moods. It was written in March, and published soon after. [listen]
The fact that Mozart gave no more public concerts in 1791 didn't mean that he didn't involve himself in private music making, and it's likely that his last string quintet, K614 (entered into the catalogue on 12 April) was written with such social music-making in mind. The E flat quintet inhabits a lighter musical world than the earlier quintets, as do the last string quartets (written the year before), and it's often criticised for this. Lighter style or no lighter style, the E flat quintet is a masterpiece of the first rank, summarising so many things which were important to Mozart in his later years, especially the influence of Haydn and his fascination with fugue. [listen]
Another aspect of a composer's life in the 18th century - and Mozart was no exception in this - was the occasional need to compose an aria or ensemble to be inserted into another composer's opera. This usually happened when a new singer took over a role in a revival and found parts of the original singer's role outside their range or abilities. On 20th April, Mozart noted in his catalogue that he'd composed an ensemble to be inserted into Giuseppe Sarti's opera Le gelosie villane, but sadly the piece itself is lost.
Eight days later, on 28 April, Mozart received a favourable decision with regard to another career and income avenue he'd been exploring. He had petitioned the Vienna City Magistracy to be appointed - without salary - as assistant Kapellmeister at St Stephen's Cathedral. The Kapellmeister was Leopold Hofmann, elderly and prone to illness, and the plan was that when he died, Mozart would succeed him in this influential and lucrative post. The City agreed to the request and Mozart had every reason to feel confident about his future in due course. As it turned out, he would die first; Hofmann outlived him by nearly a year and a half.
Mozart seems to have had an insatiable curiosity for new sounds and new ideas. The two works for glass harmonica (an instrument radically redesigned by Benjamin Franklin in 1761) which he wrote around May of 1791 are examples of this, although only one - the Adagio and Rondo for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello, K617 - was entered into his catalogue (on May 23rd). The other, a short solo for glass harmonica, was given the much earlier number of 356 by Köchel; since then, though, it's been shown that it too would have been written at this time, and so it's been classified as K617a in the more recent editions of the Köchel catalogue.
The glass harmonica has no connection with the blown instrument we call a harmonica. Rather it's based on the principle of wine glasses filled with water which are made to "ring" by running a moistened finger around the rim. With this instrument, though, the "glasses" are a series of differently-sized glass plates which are made to revolve through a trough of water by a foot treadle. Both hands are then free to play the differently-pitched glass plates to make music.
Mozart wrote the Adagio and Rondo (and, we assume, the solo piece) for the blind glass harmonica player Marianne Kirchgessner, and he played the viola part himself in the work's first performance, which was given privately. This haunting and delicate gem is in fact Mozart's last piece of chamber music. [listen]
Mozart had married Constanze Weber in 1782 after a turbulent courtship, but their marriage was stable and happy. Constanze was treated harshly by many Mozart biographers, an ignorant view which is thankfully dying out. She bore him six children, but only two survived beyond infancy. Her regular pregnancies and frequent ill-health led her to often undertake expensive spa cures - a further drain on Mozart's shaky income - and she undertook treatment of this nature in Baden in mid-1791. The letters between husband and wife display a playful, loving relationship, and he went to join her in Baden in mid-June.
While he was there he composed his final completed church work, the tiny but sublime motet Ave verum corpus. This hymn to the body of Christ was written for the feast of Corpus Christi and it remains one of the most concentrated, yet deceptively simple sounding, examples of his genius. [listen]
Mozart entered the Ave verum into his catalogue on 17th June, 1791, but by that date a far larger project was well underway: a German-language Singspiel (or opera with dialogue) called Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Written for a theatre in Vienna's suburbs run by the singer and actor Emanuel Schikaneder, The Magic Flute is one of Mozart's most famous and exciting works (and Schikaneder created the role of Papageno). It hovers in the background of his life, among everything else he was doing, for the next three months.
In 1784 Mozart had become a Freemason, and he took his Masonic membership very seriously during the last seven years of his life. Music for Masonic ceremonies appears among his compositions during this period, including a small Masonic cantata, K619, for single voice and piano. Considering Freemasonry was a male-only organisation, this work is usually sung by a tenor. But it's fascinating that he wrote the voice part in the soprano clef, which he only did when writing for a soprano voice. Was it intended for a boy? Or could it be - as is possibly the case with The Magic Flute - that this cantata supports the assertion being made by many in Vienna at the time that women should be admitted to the lodges? [listen]
This Masonic cantata dates from July 1791, the month in which the two other major works of Mozart's final months (apart from The Magic Flute) come into the picture. It was probably in mid-July that he received the commission to compose the opera for the celebrations surrounding the coronation of Leopold II in Prague as King of Bohemia. Legend has it that the work was composed in a mere 18 days but the evidence suggests that he started work in mid-July and had it finished in time for the premiere on the day of the coronation, 6 September (that is, it took about six weeks). The opera, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), is a setting of an updated version of an old libretto by Metatstasio, and it's full of glorious music. Thankfully Clemenza, for a long time shunned as a failure and unworthy of Mozart, has been accepted back into the operatic canon and is performed regularly today. [listen: extract]
[listen: complete opera]
The other major work which came into Mozart's life in mid-July was destined to be unfinished at his death. He received a bizarre commission from the eccentric Count Franz von Walsegg for a Requiem Mass to commemorate his late wife on the first anniversary of her death in early 1792. Walsegg, an amateur composer, commissioned the work anonymously and through intermediaries, and wanted to claim it as his own composition. Mozart accepted the commission and probably began work on the Requiem in October once the premieres of Clemenza and The Magic Flute were out of the way.
With the premiere of Clemenza in Prague on 6 September, Mozart returned to Vienna to prepare for the opening of The Magic Flute later that same month. By then it seems most of the work was finished, although he still had to write the overture (it was a common practice to write the overture last, and not just for Mozart) and some other sections. But this mixture of fairytale, Masonic ritual, Egyptian mysticism and morality play has fascinated audiences ever since its premiere on 30 September, and will continue to do so.
Sixteen days after the premiere of The Magic Flute, a concert took place in Prague featuring Mozart's friend and colleague, the clarinettist Anton Stadler. Mozart had written works for Stadler before, most notably the Clarinet Quintet in 1789 and important solos in Clemenza. But the concert in Prague featured Mozart's last concerto, the clarinet concerto K622, which he entered into his catalogue on 28 September. Surely this is one of the greatest gifts a composer ever gave to a soloist. [listen]
But at the time of the concert in Prague, Mozart was back in Vienna, suffering bouts of ill-health, picking himself up and getting on with his composing. On 15 November he entered another work in his catalogue, the Masonic cantata K623. Scored for three male soloists, male chorus and orchestra, this was performed three days later on 18 November at his lodge. It was very successful and Mozart was elated with the response. This is the short final movement of the cantata, the last composition Mozart ever completed and therefore the last work he listed in the catalogue. [listen]
On 20 November, two days after the performance of this cantata, Mozart became seriously ill. He was confined to bed but continued to work, as much as he was able to, on the Requiem. Theories abound as to the nature of his final illness. He most certainly wasn't poisoned and Antonio Salieri most certainly wasn't involved. Thankfully myths of this nature have long been debunked. The official cause of death was listed as "severe miliary fever", where "miliary" refers to a rash resembling millet seeds. A later diagnosis refers to "rheumatic inflammatory fever". More recent theories abound. But whatever the cause, Mozart died around 1.00 am on 5 December, 1791; he was six weeks short of his 36th birthday. The Requiem was finished by others. [listen]
Despite the many myths which have developed over the years, the weather for Mozart's funeral on 7 December wasn't stormy; records show that it was cold, but quite calm, with a "weak east wind". It was also customary for no mourners to be present at the burial, although a later report said that five people - including Antonio Salieri - were there. And his burial in St Marx's cemetery was not in a mass grave reserved for paupers. Viennese practice at the time dictated that citizens who were not members of the aristocracy should be buried in a common grave; that is, a grave for commoners. Such burials were given an individual plot, but these plots could be dug up and re-used after ten years, something not applied to aristocratic burials. So while Mozart's remains are now lost to us, his actual burial was completely normal for the time.
In the 19th century, efforts were made to properly mark the place of Mozart's grave, and a beautiful memorial was erected on the most likely spot in 1859. In 1891, to mark the centenary of Mozart's death, the memorial was moved to the central cemetery in Vienna, the Zentralfriedhof, to join a number of memorials to other composers, including Beethoven.
In St Marx' cemetery, his actual final resting place, there is now a small, later memorial marking the possible location of the grave. But as for the remains themselves, they have long been lost. The Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation, which supports an internationally acclaimed music school named after the composer, has in its collection a skull which some claim belonged to him, but this is impossible to verify now and recent tests on it have been inconclusive.
Looking at Mozart's final year like this enables us to see a little more of the man as well as his work, the pressures he worked under and the incredible breadth of his talent. No composition he undertook received anything less than 100% of his skill; he never threw a work off half-baked. And we are so much the richer for the treasure trove of music he did leave. [listen]
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2015.