Today is the birthday (1719) of Johann Georg Leopold Mozart, a Swabian/Austrian composer, conductor, teacher, and violinist who these days is best known as the father and teacher of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and among music historians for his violin textbook Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule. Sometimes it’s good, I think, to stray away from the path of celebrating the best and brightest to consider the people who were instrumental in setting them on their path to glory. One of my main problems in assessing Leopold Mozart (as he is generally known nowadays), is that his life and work is inevitably entangled with the career of Wolfgang, so that it is virtually impossible to disentangle the two and treat Leopold in his own right. Historians, especially music historians, are deeply divided on this matter to this day. I confess right from the start that I am by no means an expert and my opinions are undoubtedly ill informed. Nonetheless, I’ll wade in.
Leopold was born in Augsburg, then part of the Swabian Circle of cities, son of Johann Georg Mozart (1679–1736), a bookbinder, and his second wife Anna Maria Sulzer (1696–1766). From an early age he sang as a choirboy. He attended a local Jesuit school, the St. Salvator Gymnasium, where he studied logic, science, and theology, leaving with an honors diploma in 1735. He then moved on to a more advanced school, the St. Salvator Lyceum.
While a student in Augsburg, he appeared in student theatrical productions as an actor and singer, and became a skilled violinist and organist. He also developed an interest, which he retained, in microscopes and telescopes. Although his parents had planned a career for him as a Catholic priest, but Leopold preferred music. He withdrew from the St. Salvator Lyceum after less than a year. Following a year’s delay, he moved to Salzburg to resume his education, enrolling in November 1737 at the Benedictine University (now University of Salzburg) to study philosophy and jurisprudence. At the time Salzburg was the capital of an independent state within the Holy Roman Empire (the Prince-Archbishopric of Salzburg), now part of Austria. Except for periods of travel, Leopold spent the rest of his life there. Leopold received the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy in 1738. However, in September 1739 he was expelled from the university for poor attendance.
In 1740, he began his career as a professional musician, becoming violinist and valet to one of the university’s canons, Johann Baptist, Count of Thurn-Valsassina and Taxis. This was also the year of his first musical publication, the six Trio Sonatas, Opus 1. (Sonate sei da chiesa e da camera). Leopold did the work of copper engraving himself. He continued to compose, producing a series of German Passion cantatas.
In 1747 Leopold married Anna Maria Pertl, who gave birth to seven children, although only two of them survived past infancy: Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia (called “Nannerl”) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1743 Leopold Mozart was appointed fourth violinist to Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. His duties included composition and the teaching of violin (later, piano) to the choirboys of the Salzburg cathedral. He was promoted to second violinist in 1758 and in 1763 to deputy Kapellmeister. He rose no further while others were repeatedly promoted over him to the head position of Kapellmeister.
The question of whether Leopold was successful in his own time as a composer (either in terms of artistic success or fame) is hotly debated. Scholars agree, however, that Leopold was very successful as a teacher. In 1755, he wrote Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which was published in 1756 (the year of Wolfgang’s birth), and went through two further German editions (1769, 1787), as well as being translated into Dutch (1766) and French (1770). Today, the work is widely consulted by musicians interested in 18th century performance practice in order to advance historically informed performances. This work made a reputation in Europe for Leopold.
In about 1759 began keyboard lessons with the seven-year-old Nannerl. The toddler Wolfgang immediately began imitating his sister, at first picking out thirds on the keyboard and then making rapid progress under Leopold’s instruction. By 1762, the children were ready to work as concert performers, and Leopold began taking the family on extensive concert tours, performing for both aristocracy and public, throughout central and western Europe. This tour included Munich, Vienna, Presburg, Paris and the Hague together with a lengthy stay in London.
Here’s where the music historians disagree. Did Leopold, at this time, have the startling revelation that his children, especially Wolfgang, were superbly talented and did all he could to develop their latent talents, or was he a ruthlessly exploitive father eager for fame and fortune at their expense? Leopold once referred to his son as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg,” so there is no question that he saw it as his duty to enhance that “miracle.” But he also knew how to make a buck. Often the children performed before large audiences and took in large sums.
Since the instruction of his children took up much of his time, and the touring kept him away from Salzburg for long periods, Leopold cut down his activities in other areas. Nannerl later claimed that he “entirely gave up both violin instruction and composition in order to direct that time not claimed in service to the prince to the education of his two children.” After 1762, his compositional efforts seem to have been limited to revising his earlier work; and after 1771 he did not compose at all.
The touring continued into the early 1770s. The last three trips were to Italy, with only Leopold accompanying Wolfgang. The failure of Leopold to advance above his Vice-Kapellmeister position at Salzburg is probably due to the great amount of time that he spent away from Salzburg (the longest tour was about three and a half years). After the final return from Italy in 1773, Leopold was repeatedly passed over for the Kapellmeister post.
Starting around this time Leopold was preoccupied with the lengthy and frustrating struggle to find a professional position for his son. Leopold was widowed in 1778 when Maria Anna died in Paris while accompanying Wolfgang on a job-hunting tour. Historians cannot, and probably never will, agree concerning what kind of father Leopold was to Wolfgang. Was he a tyrannical, mendacious, and possessive father, or a calm spirit using all his effort to guide the life of a grossly irresponsible son? My feeling is that the nut does not fall far from the tree.
Wolfgang left home permanently in 1781, and from this time until 1784, Leopold lived in Salzburg with just Nannerl (now in her early thirties) and their servants. Nannerl had a number of suitors, of whom the most important was Franz Armand d’Ippold, with whom she was evidently in love. In the end she did not marry him, and the reason for this is unknown even though historians tend to believe that Leopold had a hand in it. Nannerl finally did marry in August 1784, at age 33. She moved to the home of her new husband, Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, in the small rural town of St. Gilgen, roughly six hours journey east of Salzburg. During his remaining years, Leopold spent a fair amount of his time trying to help Nannerl at a distance, as her new marriage situation, involving five apparently ill-educated stepchildren, was apparently not easy.
In July 1785, Nannerl returned to Salzburg to give birth to her first child, a son. The infant stayed behind with Leopold when Nannerl went home, and with the assistance of his servants, Leopold raised the child. He frequently sent letters to Nannerl (at least one per week) that usually began with the sentence “Leopoldl is healthy”, (“Leopoldl” is “Little Leopold”) and offered a full report on the child. Leopoldl stayed until his grandfather’s death in May 1787.
Wolfgang left home for good in 1781, when instead of returning from a stay in Vienna with his employer Archbishop Colloredo he remained in the city to pursue a freelance career. This effort was to a fair degree successful. Wolfgang achieved great fame and was for a time quite prosperous (though poor planning later changed this status). The move almost certainly aided Wolfgang’s musical development; the great majority of his most celebrated works were composed in Vienna.
As indicated by Mozart’s return letters (which alone survive), Leopold was strongly opposed to the Vienna move, wanting Wolfgang to return to Salzburg. A harsh family quarrel resulted. Leopold was also strongly opposed to Wolfgang’s marriage to Constanze Weber in 1782, and gave his permission late, reluctantly, and under duress. In 1785 Leopold visited Wolfgang and Constanze in Vienna, at a time when his son’s career success was at its peak. He witnessed first hand his son’s success as a performer, and on February 12 heard Joseph Haydn’s widely quoted words of praise, upon hearing the string quartets Wolfgang dedicated to him, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name: He has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.” The visit was the last time that Leopold saw his son, though they continued to correspond, and Wolfgang sometimes sent copies of his piano concertos and string quartets for Leopold and Nannerl to perform with friends.
Later in 1785, when Leopold took in Nannerl’s child, Wolfgang was not informed. However, in the following year Wolfgang found this out from a mutual acquaintance in Vienna. At this time, Wolfgang wrote to Leopold to ask if he would be willing to take care of his own two children while he and Constanze went on concert tour. Leopold turned him down.. His letter to Wolfgang does not survive, but his summary to Nannerl of it does (17 November 1786):
Today I had to answer a letter from your brother which cost me a lot of writing, so I can write very little to you … You’ll readily understand that I had to write a very emphatic letter, because he made no lesser suggestion than that I should take his 2 children into my care, since he would like to make a journey through Germany to England … The good honest silhouette maker H[err] Müller had sung Leopoldl’s praises to your brother, so he found out that the child is with me, which I’d never told him: so this was how the good idea occurred to him or perhaps his wife. That would certainly not be bad, – They could travel in peace, – could die, – – could stay in England, – – then I could run after them with the children etc: as for the payment he’s offering me for the children, for servants and the children etc: – Basta! My excuse is forceful and instructive, if he cares to profit from it.
Starting around the time he wrote this letter and continuing through the first part of 1787, Leopold’s health was failing. He had become seriously ill by April 4. On this day, Wolfgang wrote to him in alarm at the news, though he did not travel to Salzburg to see him. When Leopold died on 28 May Wolfgang was unable to attend the funeral, the travel time to Salzburg being too long.
Little information is available on how Wolfgang took Leopold’s death, but a postscript he included in a letter to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin suggests that, despite the quarrels and partial estrangement, his father’s death was a blow to him: “I inform you that on returning home today I received the sad news of my most beloved father’s death. You can imagine the state I am in.” I think the general assessment of Leopold’s relationship with Wolfgang is wide of the mark. I think the two of them had their disagreements. Fathers and sons. I know about that very well. But I do not doubt that Leopold wanted the best for his son, and was more proud than jealous. He was also frustrated by his son’s irresponsibility and inability to gain and hold a worthy position.
Leopold Mozart’s music is inevitably overshadowed by the work of his son and much of it is now lost or attributed to other composers (including Wolfgang). A contemporary report described what Leopold had composed prior to 1757:
Many contrapuntal and other church items; further a great number of symphonies, some only à 4 but others with all the customary instruments; likewise more than 30 large serenades in which solos for various instruments appear. In addition he has brought forth many concertos, in particular for the transverse flute, oboe, bassoon, Waldhorn, trumpet etc.: countless trios and divertimentos for various instruments; 12 oratorios and a number of theatrical items, even pantomimes, and especially certain occasional pieces such as martial music … Turkish music, music with ‘steel keyboard’ and lastly a musical sleigh ride; not to speak of marches, so-called ‘Nachtstücke’ and many hundreds of minuets, opera dances and similar items.
Much of what survives is light music but there is some more significant work including his Sacrament Litany in D major (1762) and three fortepiano sonatas, all published in his lifetime. He was often concerned with introducing a “naturalistic” feel into to his compositions. His Jagdsinfonie (or Sinfonia da Caccia for four horns and strings) calls for shotguns, and his Bauernhochzeit (Peasant Wedding) includes bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, a dulcimer, whoops and whistles (ad. lib.), and pistol shots. The Toy Symphony was long attributed to Haydn, but is now generally thought to be Leopold’s (although the matter is not settled). It’s not great music but has that air of jollity and naturalism that mark his work.
Leopold lived most of his life and pursued his career in Salzburg, but he was born and raised as a Swabian in Augsburg. So a Swabian dish is suitable to honor Leopold. Swabian cuisine traditionally is dominated by heavy, starchy foods and light on meat and leafy vegetables. Schupfnudeln, also called Fingernudeln, are a type of dumpling or thick noodle, somewhat similar to Italian gnocchi, that are now widespread in Germany and Austria, but originated in Swabia. They are easier to make than pasta but fill a somewhat similar niche on the table. Use the starchiest potatoes available to you. This recipe uses sage butter as a flavoring, which is very traditional.
1 lb starchy potatoes
1 egg, beaten
⅔ cup flour
freshly ground nutmeg
2 tbsp butter
handful of sage leaves
Wash the potatoes, and cook them in boiling water until they are very soft. Peel them while they are still warm and press them through a potato ricer. Spread them in thin layers on baking sheets and set them aside to allow the water in them to evaporate.
Once cooled place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl and season with salt and nutmeg to taste. Add the egg and flour and combine with a wooden spoon. Then knead the dough with your hands on a floured surface. Form into a long, thin roll.
Cut the roll into one-inch pieces and use your hands to form bite-sized, finger shaped dumplings by rolling them with your palms (see photo). The dumplings should taper at each end.
Cook them in lightly boiling salted water until they float to the top. Take them out with a slotted spoon, and let them cool slightly.
Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add some sage leaves and let them wilt.
Add the dumplings and sauté for 5-10 minutes until lightly golden brown.
Serve immediately, garnished with fresh sage leaves.