In 1792, a year after Mozart’s death, his older sister Nannerl wrote of him: “Apart from his music he was almost always a child, and thus he remained.” The idea that Mozart was musically brilliant, but emotionally and intellectually immature only gathered strength over the next two centuries. In a 1982 biography, Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote that Mozart “was as great a stranger to the world of reason as to the sphere of human relations.”
The reasons why this image of the composer has proven so compelling and persistent are complex. It is partly because Mozart was a child when his fame was at its height. As the most famous prodigy in the history of music, he traveled throughout Europe and astonished the people of his day with his miraculous musical talent. When he returned to Paris as a young man in 1778, he complained that “these stupid Frenchman seem to think I am still seven years old, because that was my age when they first saw me.”
But the next sentence in Nannerl’s reminiscence of her brother hints at another reason for Mozart’s reputation as a perpetual child: “He married a girl quite unsuited to him, and against the will of his father, and thus the great domestic chaos at and after his death.” Nannerl never forgave Mozart for leaving the family home in Salzburg and striking out on his own, and she insisted that he was incapable of navigating the world without their father’s guidance.
Fortunately, Mozart wrote letters as prolifically as he wrote music, and these not only tell his side of the story, but also reveal his sophistication and wit. When he moved to Vienna in 1781, Mozart finally freed himself from his controlling and overbearing father, and met with great success in his personal and professional life. He had a loving wife and a large circle of friends, who included some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the city. He composed music of great intellectual complexity and created some of the most compelling and lifelike characters in the history of opera. This is his musical legacy, the legacy of a man who was completely at home in the world of reason and in the sphere of human relations.
WIH is pleased to introduce Dr. David Ferris, associate professor of music history at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. His upcoming class, “The Most Amazing Genius: Wolfgang Amade Mozart” will meet for 8 weeks beginning Monday, March 18 at 10:00.