Mozart: The Boy Musician

By Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Johannes Chrysostemus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart--what a burden to be put upon a baby's tiny shoulders!

If there is any truth underlying the belief that a name can in some measure foreshadow a child's future, then surely Wolfgang Mozart, who was born in Salzburg in 1756, came honestly by his heritage of greatness, for when he was only a day old he received the five-part name, to which was later added his confirmation name of Sigismundus. But as soon as he could choose for himself, the little son of Marianne and Leopold Mozart from his store of names, selected Wolfgang, to which he added Amadeus, by which combination he was always known, and the name is for ever linked with the memory of a great genius.

Almost before he could talk plainly the little fellow showed himself to be a musical prodigy, and when he was scarcely three years old he would steal into the room where his father was giving a lesson on the harpsichord to Anna (or "Nannerl," as she was called), the sister five years older than himself, and while she was being taught, Wolfgang would listen and watch with breathless attention.

One day when the lesson was over, he begged his father to teach him too, but Leopold Mozart only laughed as he answered, glancing down into the child's serious face looking so intently into his:

"Wait, my little man, you are but a baby yet. Wait awhile, my Wolferl!" and the disappointed little musician crept away, but as soon as Nannerl and his father had left the room, the tiny fellow crept back again, went to the harpsichord and standing on tiptoe, touched the keys with his chubby fingers stretched wide apart until he reached and played a perfect chord! Leopold Mozart was in another part of the house, but his sensitive ear caught the sound, and he rushed back to find his baby on tiptoe before the harpsichord, giving the first hint of his marvellous ability.

At once the proud and excited father began to give him lessons, and always, too, from that day, whenever Nannerl had her lesson, Wolfgang perched on his father's knee, and listened with rapt absorption, and often when the lesson was over, he would repeat what she had played in exact imitation of her manner of playing.

Leopold Mozart, who was himself a talented musician, saw with pride almost beyond expression, that both of his children inherited his musical ability, and soon felt that Wolfgang was a genius. When the boy was only four, his father, to test his powers, tried to teach him some minuets which to his perfect astonishment, Wolfgang played after him in a most extraordinary manner, not merely striking the notes correctly, but marking the rhythm with accurate expression, and to learn and play each minuet the little fellow required only half an hour.

When he was five years old, one day his father entered the sitting-room of their home and found Wolfgang bending over a table, writing so busily that he did not hear his father enter, or see that he was standing beside him. Wolfgang's chubby little hand held the pen awkwardly, but held it with firm determination while it travelled back and forth across a large sheet of paper on which he was scribbling a strange collection of hieroglyphics, with here and there a huge blot, testifying to his haste and inexperience in the use of ink.

What was he trying to do? His father's curiosity finally overcame him and he asked:

"What are you doing, Wolfgang?" The curly head was raised with an impatient gesture.

"I am composing a concerto for the harpsichord. I have nearly finished the first part."

"Let me see it."

"No, please, I have not yet finished."

But even as he spoke, the eager father had taken up the paper and carried it over to where a friend stood, and they looked it over together, exchanging amused glances at the queer characters on it. Presently Leopold Mozart, after looking carefully at it, said:

"Why it really seems to be composed by rule! But it is so difficult that no one could ever play it."

"Oh, yes, they could, but it must be studied first," exclaimed little Wolfgang eagerly, and running to the harpsichord, he added:

"See, this is the way it begins," and he was able to play enough of it, to show what his idea in writing it had been, and his father and the friend who had before exchanged glances of amusement, now looked at each other with wonder not untouched with awe.

In the Mozart collection at Salzburg, there is still preserved a music book in which those early pieces written by little Wolfgang were written down by his father, and also the minuets he learned, and in the book his father wrote after them:

"The preceding minuets were learnt by Wolfgang in his fourth year," and further on we find the record:

"This minuet and trio Wolfgang learned in half an hour on the 26th day of January, 1761, the day before his fifth birthday, at half-past nine at night."

In his first composition the sense of perfect form is felt to a remarkable degree, and the little book in which it was written down, not only accompanied the family on their travels, but in it Wolfgang also wrote down his first sonatas, published in 1763.

When he was not much over five years old, Wolfgang was chosen to take the part of chorister in a Latin comedy which was given at the close of the school year of the Salzburg Gymnasium, and among the one hundred and fifty young people who took part in the entertainment one can picture the charming little musical fellow as the great feature of the occasion, and many stories were told at that time of his marvellous sense of sound, and the ease with which he overcame every technical difficulty. Meanwhile he learned to play on the violin, and could tell, it is said, when one violin was an eighth of a tone lower than another. Even games, to be interesting to him, had to be accompanied by music, and a family friend in writing of him says: "If he and I carried playthings from one room to another, the one who went empty-handed must sing, and play a march on the violin as he walked."

On an evening when a number of violinists were gathered in the Mozart home to play together, Wolfgang, who had recently been learning to play the violin, begged to play with them. His father refused to let him, and told him to run away, but the second violinist called him back, saying:

"Never mind, little man; wipe away those tears and stand by me." So close beside him stood the little chap, and presently all were surprised to hear a clear, clean-cut tone coming from the child's violin. His touch was so exquisite, his interpretation so masterly, that presently the second violinist laid down his instrument and listened breathlessly, while Wolfgang played on and on, forgetful of everything but the magic spell of the music, and as his father listened, his heart throbbed with pride and joy, and tears rolled down his face, as he exclaimed:

"Little music-king you are, my Wolferl, and you shall reign over us all!"

From that moment it was plain that Wolfgang Mozart was a musical prodigy, and as little Nannerl, too, had great talent, the proud father now determined to show them to a world which was ever eager to applaud such genius, and in 1762 he made his first experiment of taking the children on a concert tour. This was so successful that before Wolfgang was eight years old and Nannerl twelve, they had appeared at the Courts of Vienna, Paris, Munich and London, and everywhere Wolfgang made friends with rich and poor alike, his personality was so full of charm and simple dignity.

Christian Music from Nest Entertainment

Before Kings

Once, during their travels, being detained by a heavy shower at Ypps, they took refuge in a monastery. The monks were at supper and did not know of the arrival of any stranger, until suddenly from the chapel came wonderful music, music grave and happy, sad, sweet, thrilling, and marvellous in its appeal to hearts and souls. The Fathers were frightened, not knowing who could have entered their sanctuary, thinking it must be a spirit, when at last a light was brought, and creeping into the chapel, they discovered little Wolfgang at the organ, not a vision, but just a mortal boy. The Fathers were overcome with amazement and lavished all possible courtesies on the wonderful little musician and his family while they remained.

On entering Vienna, at the Custom House, Wolfgang, after a brief chat with the official there, took out his violin, and played to the official, who was so delighted with the boy and his music, that the family had no trouble with examination of their luggage, as they would otherwise have had.

The Imperial family of Vienna were all very fond of music, and had also had their curiosity greatly excited in regard to this child prodigy, so it was not strange that only a few days after the Mozarts arrived, Leopold should have received a command to bring his children to play at Schoenbrum, an imperial palace near Vienna, and this without any effort on Mozart's part to get the invitation.

The Emperor was delighted with the little "sorcerer" as he called Wolfgang, and besides listening to his real playing with deepest interest, he made him play with one finger, in which the little fellow was perfectly successful. Then he asked him to play with the keys covered by a piece of cloth, which he did instantly, and these musical tricks suggested by the Emperor's fancy, thereafter formed a far from unimportant part of Wolfgang's repertoire on his long concert tours, and always interested his audiences. The boy had a keen sense of humour, and always entered heartily into any joke that was made with him, but sometimes he could be very serious, as for instance, when he was called to play for the court composer, George Wagenseil, who was himself a proficient performer on the harpsichord. The Emperor stepped back when Wagenseil came forward, and Mozart said very seriously to him:

"I play a concerto by you, you must turn over the pages for me," and turn the pages the great man did.

The Emperor ordered one hundred ducats to be paid to Wolfgang's father for the performance, and the Empress, both then and later, was kindness itself to both the children, and sent them expensive and beautiful clothes. In writing to a friend at that time, Leopold Mozart said:

"Would you like to know what Wolferl's dress is like? It is the finest cloth, lilac-coloured, the best of moire of the same colour. Coat and top-coat with a double broad border of gold."

In the portrait which is in the Mozart collection in Salzburg, Mozart is painted in this dress, and he wore it with as much ease as if he had always been used to such finery. Also he never showed any embarrassment or self-consciousness when in the presence of royalty, and once jumped on the lap of the Empress, Maria Theresa, put his arms around her neck and kissed her as effusively as if she had been his mother, while he treated the princesses as if they were his sisters. Marie Antoinette was one of his great favourites after she helped him up from a severe fall on a highly polished floor. To her great amusement he thanked her by saying:

"You are good. I will marry you," and when the Crown Prince Joseph, who afterwards became Emperor, played the violin before the little prodigy, he exclaimed: "Fie!" at something he did not like, then, "that was false!" at another bar, and finally applauded, with cries of "Bravo!"

Little Nannerl who played only less well than her remarkable brother, was a charmingly pretty, piquant little girl, whose manner, both in society and in the concert hall, was winning and demure, while Wolfgang's grace and elegance of manner were striking. Wherever the children went, people went mad over them. They were the fashion, the furore, no musical entertainment was a success without them, and they were so petted that they might easily have been spoiled, had it not been for their father's wise and watchful care. But with true German caution, the father guarded them from bad effects of over-excitement or indulgence. All sorts of presents were constantly given them, among which were many jewels and beautiful articles of clothing, but the clothes were only used on concert nights or special occasions, the jewellery was kept locked up in a box, and the children were only allowed to see or handle it when they had been especially good.

When Paris was the headquarters of the travellers, all possible honour was given them, and the concerts in the French capital brought the Mozarts a substantial sum and they were received very kindly in a visit to the Court of Versailles; of which visit little Nannerl said later, that her only recollection was of the Marquise de Pompadour standing Wolfgang on a table, that he wanted to kiss her, and when she drew back, he said indignantly:

"Who is she that she will not let me kiss her? The Empress kissed me."

The King's daughters were very kind to the children, and on New Year's Day, 1764, the Mozart family dined with the royal family. Wolfgang sat next to the Queen, who talked to him in German, translating the conversation to Louis Fifteenth, while near Wolfgang sat his father and his mother, and Nannerl sat on the opposite side of the table by the Dauphin.

After playing at Versailles the little musicians became the fashion in Paris, and every circle was open to them, while Wolfgang's reputation as a musical genius was steadily growing, and he had already composed two sonatas which were really good pieces of work from an artistic point of view.

Leaving Paris at last, the Mozarts arrived in London, and after taking lodgings, they hastened to adopt English customs.

"How do you suppose," wrote Leopold Mozart, to a friend, "my wife and girl look in English hats, and the great Wolfgang in English clothes?"

Almost immediately they were requested to play at Buckingham House, before the King and Queen, where they met with exceptional kindness and appreciation, and the London visit was an unqualified success, one brilliant performance following another in quick succession, until it seemed as if the quaint, charming little music-king who made such an imposing appearance on the stage, must be really as old and grown-up as he seemed when playing in public.

But while they were in England, in lodgings in Chelsea, which was then open country, Leopold Mozart was very ill for a time, so the children could not practise, and for awhile were obliged to run wild, and it would have been hard to imagine that the bright little German girl and the pretty boy, busy making houses and grottos and arbours out of stones and earth and leaves, at the rear of their lodgings, were the infant prodigies of the concert stage. But even then, while he could not use the harpsichord, little Wolfgang was composing, and when tired of out-of-door sports would sit down, with his sister beside him and work on a symphony for the orchestra, and it was thus that his earliest symphonies were composed, which were all marked by real artistic form and feeling. The chief advantage of these compositions, however, was that Wolfgang kept in practise, and was able to announce that at his next concerts all the instrumental numbers would be his own compositions, which, of course, made a great impression on his audiences.

Again they were invited to Court, but this time Leopold Mozart felt obliged to have six sonatas of Wolfgang's for harpsichord and violin, printed and dedicated to the Queen, so the visit was not the financial benefit to the Mozarts that the first one had been, and from that time the concert tour brought in less great returns than those of the previous months, for both Nannerl and Wolfgang were seriously sick. But they recovered and journeyed on to Holland, where Wolfgang was called to play before the Prince of Orange, and commanded to write six sonatas for the princess, also to write a variation for the harpsichord on the melody which is sung, played and whistled by everybody in Holland and is the real Dutch national hymn.

The little composer was also called upon for various other pieces of musical work and in no way disappointed his critics or his audiences. Again the trio journeyed on, stopping wherever the father felt that his son's fame might be increased by a concert.

To Paris they went again, then through France to Switzerland, and finally journeyed homeward, reaching Salzburg in November of 1766, and it was a matter of great interest to their friends to find the children who had left home three years ago, still happy, hearty boy and girl, despite all their new worldly experience.

Old and young came to bid them welcome, to hear the story of their adventures, and to see the numerous and costly presents, about which they had heard so much. They found pretty Nannerl prettier than ever, and Wolfgang, notwithstanding the severe illness he had recently had, looked normally well and happy, and was as childish in his interests as if he had not become a public idol.

It is said that at that time, so glad was he to be at home again, that he rode merrily around the room on his father's stick, as he had done three years before, and played with his favourite cat just as he used to do, the cat having been well cared for in the absence of the family, by a friend.

During their tour Wolfgang had created for himself an imaginary kingdom, which he called Ruecken. This country was to be inhabited entirely by children, and he was to be the king. His idea of the place was so distinct that a friend had to draw him a map of the cities in it, to which he gave names, and his friends were completely fascinated to hear him talk of his droll conceits, when he was not holding them spell-bound by the magic of his music.

Life Goes On

And now as soon as they were settled down again in their home, Leopold Mozart began to instruct Wolfgang seriously in counterpoint, that he might be thoroughly fitted for his life-work, and then as his precocious childhood begins to merge into young boyhood, we find him working indefatigably, working with fingers and with brain, every faculty alert, to conquer technique and achieve perfection in his art.

In the summer of 1767, when Mozart was eleven, they started on a new tour, for which the little prodigy composed four pianoforte concerti, which were interesting on account of certain harmonic effects produced in them, but that second tour, was not a fortunate one, for during it, both Nannerl and Wolfgang were stricken with small-pox, which took a very violent form, and poor Wolfgang lay blind for nine days, and convalescence was slow, and hard to bear. Again they visited Vienna, but there they found things greatly changed, for while in former days, music was always a feature of great social gatherings, now the only pleasure seemed to be in balls, and there was absolutely no interest shown in Mozart, the child prodigy. Also much jealousy was shown towards the Mozarts by other musicians, and when Wolfgang set to work on an opera, to be used with the text written for him by the Viennese dramatic poet of the day, and had already completed a score of six hundred and fourteen pages, it was said that Wolfgang had not written it at all, that it was his father's composition. To contradict these statements, in the presence of several prominent critics, Leopold opened a volume of Metastatio, at the first aria, which he placed in front of Wolfgang, and before that assemblage of critical older men, the boy seized a pen and wrote without hesitation, music to the aria for several instruments, and with such incredible swiftness that the company watching him were dumb with amazement at his ability.

But matters did not grow brighter--all sorts of unpleasant incidents occurred to embitter the tourists, and at the end of a year the family returned once again to Salzburg.

At that time Italy was the Mecca of the musician, and to study and win his first laurels there was the ideal of every musical student. The musical atmosphere of Salzburg was narrow and provincial, and Leopold Mozart wished Wolfgang to escape from it, so presently we find young Mozart and his father journeying Southward to Italy where Wolfgang is studying, meeting interesting people, playing in public, and writing amusing letters home to Nannerl, who was becoming more devoted to her home duties now, than to her music, but even so it was always into her ears that Wolfgang poured his musical feelings, sure that he would be understood.

When he was in Rome, he saw in the Sistine chapel the painting of "The Last Judgment," while listening to the wonderful music of "The Miserere," which music is only performed in Holy Week by the Pope's choir, and no one has ever been allowed to have a copy of the music or even to see it. But so accurate was little Mozart's memory, that after leaving the chapel, he not only wrote out the music correctly, but could also sing it perfectly, a feat which made him the musical marvel of his age!

For two years he worked and studied, and accomplished great things musically, then the Elector of Bavaria invited him to write a comic opera for the Carnival, which invitation the boy joyfully accepted, and at once set to work on the none too easy task. He was now at home again, and his father and Nannerl listened eagerly to his themes, as bit by bit he elaborated them.

La Finta Giardiniera

In due time the opera was finished; it was called "La Finta Giardiniera," and Wolfgang, accompanied by his father and pretty sister, set off for Munich, where the performance was to be given, where court life was very happy just then, and where Nannerl and Wolfgang were sure to have much to amuse and interest them.

Nannerl was taken to board by a widow who lived in the old market-place, while Leopold and the young composer were obliged to take rooms nearer the Court. At once rehearsals of the opera began, and the days were marked by a succession of exciting events for Wolfgang and for Nannerl, into whose apartment Wolfgang ran half a dozen times a day to report progress.

Up and down the street, humming bits of the opera or intent on some new scenic effect, dashed the young composer a dozen times a day, and he and Nannerl were perfectly sure that no performance ever was or ever could be so marvellous, as this one was to be.

At last the great night came. Nannerl was dressed in her dainty white gown hours before the time, but Wolfgang, who was detained at the opera house until the last moment, had just time to jump into his fine new costume of satin and lace, with the flash of brilliants in his ruff and on his slippers; without a glance in the mirror, but he looked like a proud young prince when he joined his father and sister, although the hand that he slipped through Nannerl's arm was trembling. Who could say what the evening would hold of triumph or of failure? No wonder he trembled.

When they arrived at the opera house, it was crowded to the doors. All the court was there in gala dress, but the youthful music-master, scarcely nineteen years old then, sat with his father and Nannerl, unmindful that all eyes were focussed on him, forgetful of all but the performance of his opera.

The music began, and from the first note to the last, the opera was a triumphant success. Young Mozart then became the object of the wildest enthusiasm, and from that moment his popularity as a musician was established.

There let us leave him, as he stands before us in his stately costume, bowing acknowledgment of the applause raining upon him, with the blaze of light shining full upon his clean-cut dignified face, and when we hear his famous compositions played, let us think back to that night of his first great public triumph, when he was nineteen years old.

Pianist, violinist, composer, little music-king and great genius as well--the world owes a debt of gratitude to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which can only be paid in the coin of appreciation.

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