Mozart By Numbers, the final tour of the Scottish Ensemble 2017/18 season, celebrates a composer who needs very little introduction. But what exactly are we celebrating? And what makes Mozart’s story (and his music) still so appealing, more than 200 years on?
The final tour of our 2017/18 Season is quite an intriguing one. In short, it’s a paean to one of the best-known composers who ever lived, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – or, more specifically, his incredible range. ‘Incredible’ is one of those words we try not to use too often, because (in our humble opinion) it’s used a bit too often. If we’re being literal, is the range of works that Mozart wrote beyond credibility?
Well, yes, in some ways. That someone who died just shy of his 36th birthday could have written over 600 pieces of music, for all types instruments, across so many forms, deserves accolade on its own – never mind when you consider the sparkling, effortless quality of his music.
Our Mozart By Numbers concert is built around a selection of the composer’s works. In terms of when they were written, they date from 1774 (his Symphony in A major, written when he was 18 years old) to 1788 (the Divertimento in E flat major, written at the age of 32). Considering the composer died just a few weeks before his 36th birthday, this range represents a satisfying portion of his working life. But then, for an artist whose compositional career began at the age of eight, the phrase ‘working life’ feels a little redundant.
This legend of Mozart-as-child-prodigy is endlessly appealing. It was then, and it is now; across the centuries our fawning admiration of unquantifiable talent, our greed for celebrity, has not eased, simply changed its format. Mozart’s story is so appealing that it has achieved that most defining indication of celebrity fame – backlash, in the form of books, essays, documentaries. Was he really a genius? Is anyone, or is there only hard work? Are the facts even correct?
His story has been teased and plumped so many times – the irresponsible spending, the terrifying father, the sinister arch-enemy in Salieri – that the truth is almost bound to be more disappointing than the impression given in the entertaining films and theatre productions. And yet, some key and still tantalising facts, understood as true by historians, remain.
Days before his fifth birthday, he opened a notebook containing a piece of music his father, the musician and composer Leopold Mozart, had written out. 30 minutes later, he’d learnt to play it, and well. Turning seven, he was promptly whisked across Europe, performing to dukes, barons and bursting concert halls, playing the organ with astonishing prowess after being merely shown the pedals by his father. “Everyone was amazed. It’s another gift from God — the type many people are bestowed with only after hard work,” Leopold wrote in a letter.
In 1764, just 8 years old, he published his first piece, a violin sonata. By the summer of that year he’d written and published his first symphony. By the age of twelve came his first opera. By the time he turned fifteen, he’d written over a hundred pieces.
Forgive the italics, but amidst the myths and the plumping and the glamorising and the disproving, it’s easy to overlook the cold, hard truth that when we talk of Mozart, or when we listen to or play one of his pieces, we are dealing with someone who would be considered extraordinary in any time or any society. Even if we consider his creations to be merely the result of sheer hard work, focus and dedication – hours spent crammed indoors, rather than playing outside with his fellow children or teenagers – the sheer number of pieces he produced, pieces of high quality, skill and aesthetic loveliness, is still something to be marvelled at.
There’s also the fact that, however much the stories become jumbled in our minds, the equally-tantalising impression of Mozart’s jumbled personality remains unchallenged – equally tantalising, because it marries with our experience of his music to enhance it even further. As his letters reveal, this exaggerated public figure of juvenile pranks, of carefree arrogance in the face of the elite which was paying his wages, of committed party-going, was also a private figure – one who felt deeply, thought deeply, grieved deeply. All of this is in his music; a portrait of genius, fragmented into over 600 works.
As mentioned, our Mozart By Numbers concerts, we’ll particularly explore the expansive range of Mozart’s output – focusing, of course, on his works for strings. Beginning with a string duo for viola and violin, musicians will gradually join the stage until we have enough for a symphony. It’s one he wrote in Salzburg, during the prolific period when he was employed by the Viennese court. The 29th out of a total of 41 he would go on to compose (and that’s just the official number; there were other unnumbered ones), it stands out as a work full of spirit, spark and care for life, radiating the character of the composer at this time. Or, as musicologist Stanley Sadie states, “a landmark…personal in tone, indeed perhaps more individual in its combination of an intimate, chamber music style with a still fiery and impulsive manner.”