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W. A.

Mozart – A sketch of his life and times

This talk is the first installment of a five-part series. Tonight I will

attempt to bring Mozart, the man, to life and give a brief history of
the symphony. Each of the next four Wednesdays will cover one
of the four movements of the symphony that we will be
performing. My purpose in presenting this material is to enhance
our understanding of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a person and
the culture in which he lived and also to understand the musical
forms employed in his G-minor symphony so that we might better
appreciate and enjoy the music we will be performing. I also hope
that by exploring these topics we might become inspired to hear
what Mozart was conveying and to communicate his vision to our

Like any of us Mozart was a person with strengths and

weaknesses. And he, like Beethoven, was born on the threshold of
political changes that would bring an end to the Monarchy and
birth to democracy. At the time of Mozart’s birth the aristocracy
was still very much in charge. Court musicians, like his father,
were part of the servant class. Court musicians were held in high
esteem and their job was to musical entertainment for the court.
Music that was light and melodious was the style that Mozart was
trained to produce. But there was an emerging professional class
that was gaining in power, influence, and independence. By the
end of the 18th century the new middle class’s rise was being felt
all over Europe.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756 to

Leopold and Anna Maria Pertl Mozart. Baby Mozart was baptized
Johannes Chrisostomos, Wolfgangus Theophilus. Theophilus
(Gottlieb in German or Amadeus in Latin) means “beloved of
God”. Mozart preferred the Latin version and in his early twenties,
during a stay in Paris, began to sign his letters, “Amadei”, because
it was a French custom at the time to use the first name initial and
middle name spelled out. I have often wondered what it would
have been like to speak with Mozart. Given the fact that the

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W. A. Mozart – A sketch of his life and times

Mozart’s were Austrian I’ll bet that if he were standing before us

tonight, explaining his symphony he wouldn’t sound much
different from our current governor.

As we all know young Wolfgang was a very talented prodigy and

in 1762, when Mozart was six years old, Leopold took him and his
older sister, Nannerel, on their first tour. Nannerel was a very
accomplished keyboardist in her own right and the three of them
wowed audiences wherever they went. More tours followed that
became longer and further reaching. I find it interesting that in
1764 – 8 year old Mozart met King George III of England, the very
king who reigned during the American Revolution. Tours
continued periodically until 1778 when Wolfgang was 22 years
old. During this period his relationship with the Archbishop of
Salzburg became increasingly strained and much to his father’s
dismay, Wolfgang resigned his post in 1781. After 25 years, under
Leopold’s tutelage, management, and support young Mozart was
ready to make his mark in the world. San Francisco Music
Conservatory’s Robert Greenburg, in his lecture series How to
Listen to and Understand Great Music said that the compositions
that Mozart produced during his first 25 years, though the work of
a great genius followed the norms of the established style –
nothing really revolutionary. Mozart’s own voice began to flower
when he left Salzburg and started his own life in Vienna. So, you
might say that his greatest contributions to music were produced
during a ten year period from 1781 to his death in 1791.

Mozart’s first years in Vienna brought much success and

recognition. There he met and married Constanze Weber with
whom he had two children. He also met Joseph Haydn and, along
with Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorff and the Bohemian composer
Johann Vanhall enjoyed playing string quartets together. In these
sessions Wolfgang played the viola.

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W. A. Mozart – A sketch of his life and times

By 1785 Mozart had a great following of the Viennese intellectual

middle class, he was the toast of Vienna, and was earning lots of
money. But just two years later his troubles had begun to engulf
him. His father’s death in 1787 was a devastating blow. It is
believed that Wolfgang may have never felt forgiven by Leopold
for having married a woman of lesser social standing. Leopold
never warmed up to Constanze or accepted their children.
Wolfgang’s inheritance was also smaller than Nannerel’s and that
sealed the wedge that had been growing between them for years.
Just before his father’s death Mozart also lost two other very close
friends. Not only did he loose people but he was loosing lots of
money as well. Mozart’s money troubles were the result of an
extravagant lifestyle rather than because he was not earning
money. It was during these depressing final years that his
penultimate symphony, the G minor, was written. The themes
show great sadness and an unsettled mind, which we will explore
in later sessions.

During Mozart’s lifetime the symphony as a musical form

underwent a great evolution. In Compleat Mozart: A guide to the
Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Neal Zaslaw states, “These
style changes were closely related to a gradual shift in the function
and valuation of symphonies, from works intended to provide
entertaining but conventional introdutions to plays, operas, ballets,
concerts, serenades, and a variety of other social, religious, or civic
events, to works viewed as art for art’s sake and the principal
attractions of formal concerts.”

The word sonata comes from the Greek which means “a sounding
together”. Sonata and sinfonia were names often used
interchangeably to refer to instrumental works. Before 1630, in the
middle Baroque, the sinfonia was used to denote instrumental
preludes or interludes in predominantly vocal works. After 1630
these forms began to evolve into separate instrumental
compositions, usually containing three sections of quick-slow-

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W. A. Mozart – A sketch of his life and times

quick tempi. The Baroque sonata usually employed two to four

instruments with a basso continuo (keyboard and viola da gamba).
These early sonatas consisted of either dance rhythms (sonata da
camera) or church use (sonata da chiesa). Later up to six or eight
instruments with continuo were used. In these works the term
“sinfonia” was used to identify the introduction section followed
by other movements. By the end of the 17th century a distinction
was made between chamber and orchestral music. Chamber music
was for smaller gatherings using one instrument per part while at
grander affairs multiple instruments played a single part – as in an
opera orchestra where the sinfonia evolved into the overture. The
orchestral suite, usually a collection of dances, and the concerto,
solo instruments supported by an orchestra, emerged in the late
Baroque. J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites and Brandenburg Concerti
are well known examples of these forms.

Joseph Haydn, said to be the “father” of the modern symphony,

established the symphony as a four-movement work structured as
1. Quick/Happy (often sonata-allegro form)
2. Slow
3. Minuet
4. Quick (often a rondo)

During Mozart’s lifetime the symphony evolved from simple and

pleasing (almost background music) to complex, provocative, and
emotionally deep works. Neal Zaslaw notes three basic changes to
the sinfonia over this period:
1. “A key technical and stylistic change was the dissolution of
the composite bass line into independent parts for cello,
double bass, and bassoon.”
2. “Another noteworthy development was the definitive
separation of the overture-sinfonia and the concert-sinfonia.
These two genres were intertwined for most of the eighteenth
century, not only in their forms and functions but in the

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W. A. Mozart – A sketch of his life and times

interchangeability of the labels ‘overture’ and ‘sinfonia’. The

last opera overture refurbished by Mozart as a symphony was
Il re pastore of 1775 (age 19). The last concert symphony
used as an overture with his consent was K. 318 of 1779 (age
3. “Orchestration changed as well. Wind instruments in the
Baroque doubled strings or opposed the strings in concerto
grosso, or were soloists. Their new function became ongoing
participation in the presentation, fragmentation, and
development of important thematic materials.”

Events in U.S. history:

• Benjamin Franklin performed his lightning experiment –

• In the year of Mozart’s birth – 1756 -- the French and Indian
war was in full swing.
• 1781 – When Mozart resigned his Salzburg post and victory
in the battle of Yorktown
• In 1789, about 6 months after the G minor symphony was
written George Washington was elected first president of the
United States.
• 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, the first 10 amendments to
the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, was

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