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A Profile of Mozart


In the figure of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, supreme native genius, complex personality and unusual upbringing united to create one of the most admired composers in the history of music.

He was born in 1756 in Salzburg, the son of a violinist at the court of the local Prince-Archbishop. His father Leopold, recognising the boy's extraordinary musical talents at an early age, proceeded to take him on performing tours throughout Europe so that he could be exposed to as wide a range of musical styles and cultural influences as possible.

By the age of 16, Mozart had visited England, Italy, France and Germany, met many important musical and political figures, and had three operas performed in Milan. It was the sort of education he could never have gained in provincial Salzburg; and, while the constant travelling may have contributed to his lifelong poor health, it was doubtless also a major factor in the formation of his cosmopolitan musical style.

Throughout the 1770s, Mozart was a member of the Salzburg orchestra. Despite a handful of opera commissions, his compositional activities were mainly directed towards the court in the form of symphonies, serenades and church music.

Growing frustration with his position led him to try his luck in Paris in 1777-8, but the trip brought only disappointment, and within a few months he was back in Salzburg. A breakthrough of sorts came, however, when a commission from Munich led to his first great opera, Idomeneo (1781), a work into which he poured all of the musical experience he had gained so far.

1781 finally saw him break with Salzburg and move to the musically more sophisticated Vienna, where he embarked on the life of a freelance composer, pianist and teacher. At first he enjoyed considerable success, particularly as a pianist in his own concertos and with his lively comic opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail .

There followed three of his greatest operatic masterpieces - The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790) - but by the time of the last his popularity had waned and he found himself seriously in debt. He died in December 1791, not long after the successful premiere of his last opera, The Magic Flute , and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In more than 600 works, Mozart excelled at almost every form he turned his hand to, from operas, piano concertos and chamber music to Masses, symphonies and wind serenades. From the outset his music was characterised by formal and melodic fluency, but the works of his last decade took this to new heights, adding a textural richness and an emotional profundity far beyond the reach of his rivals.

One of the defining figures of the High Classical style as well as an inspiration (through his more demonic side) to the Romantics, he is today the best-loved of all classical composers. But, more than that, with his Shakespearian ability to combine tragedy and comedy, confidence and vulnerability, beauty and truth, he ranks as one of the most enriching presences in Western art.

Profile by Lindsay Kemp © BBC; adapted for the Web by Graeme Kay

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