Jan 272014


Today is the birthday (1756) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, a prolific and major composer of the Classical era. He began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (and sometimes jokingly “Wolfgangus Amadeus”),

Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty. At 17, he was engaged as a court musician in Salzburg, but grew restless and traveled in search of a better position, always composing abundantly. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he was dismissed from his Salzburg position. He chose to stay in the capital, where he achieved fame but little financial security, not least because he spent lavishly more than he earned. During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known symphonies, concertos, and operas, and portions of the Requiem, which was largely unfinished at the time of his death. The circumstances of his early death have been much mythologized, and largely sensationalized unnecessarily.

Mozart composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers, and his influence on subsequent Western art music is profound; Beethoven composed his own early works in the shadow of Mozart, and Joseph Haydn wrote that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.”

As with so many other awe-inspiring geniuses I have focused on in this blog, I will not give you some generic survey.  If you are interested you can look up the details of his life and work.  Instead I am going to do two things.  First I am going to present you with a series of quotes from Mozart, most of them well known to musicians and music historians.  Second I am going to give a brief appreciation of two of my favorite pieces.

The following quotes give insight into Mozart the man – quirky, funny, irreverent, self-reflective, narcissistic, intelligent, honest, spiritual . . .

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.

She will never learn the most necessary, most difficult and principal thing in music, that is time, because from childhood she has designedly cultivated the habit of ignoring the beat.

A fellow of mediocre talent will remain a mediocrity, whether he travels or not; but one of superior talent (which without impiety I cannot deny that I possess) will go to seed if he always remains in the same place.

It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.

To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but that an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop.

I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.

Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, I hear them all at once. What a delight this is! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.

The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.

I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.

My subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statute, at a glance.

When I am ….. completely myself, entirely alone… or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them.

I have chosen two pieces to focus on that are among my favorites and represent a study in contrasts.  The first is the Divertimento in D major (K136).

The divertimento in D major is one of three roughly similar works which Mozart wrote in early 1772 when he was 15.  He had already been composing for 10 years, developing an impressive expertise over this time.  Most of these earlier works rarely see the light of day nowadays, but the divertimento in D major is still a solid fixture in the repertoire.  It is often characterized as “light” or “incidental” music, which I think is a mistake.  Admittedly his great masterpieces still lay ahead, but this is not a minor piece by any means.  The label “divertimento” (amusement) is not Mozart’s. The autograph score has this designation at the top but it is not in Mozart’s hand.  Later published editions refer to it as a “symphony without winds” which strikes me as more accurate, although in the end,­­ titles are not really terribly important. It is also sometimes designated as chamber music and can be played as a string quartet. It is a remarkable work by any standards.

The opening Allegro, in sonata form, moves me every time I hear it even though by later Mozart standards if is quite simple – nothing more than a tip of the hat to the minor.  The Andante is lyrical and leads back to the sonata form for the Presto finale.  This is not my favorite rendition by any means, but better versions on YouTube have the awful habit of focusing on the antics of the conductor. Orpheus has taught us that for Mozart the conductor is unnecessary.

For my second (contrasting) piece I have chosen the aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”), commonly abbreviated Der Hölle Rache. It is the second aria sung by the Queen of the Night, a soprano coloratura part, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). It is one of the most famous opera arias, highly memorable, fast paced and menacingly grandiose, and hands down my favorite soprano aria. It is often referred to as the Queen of the Night Aria despite the fact that the Queen of the Night sings another distinguished aria earlier in the opera, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”.

The aria forms part of the second act of the opera. It depicts a fit of vengeful rage, in which the Queen of the Night places a knife into the hand of her daughter Pamina and exhorts her to assassinate Sarastro, the Queen’s rival, on pain of abandoning and cursing Pamina if she does not comply.

The aria is written in D minor, and is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, along with timpani and the string section. The aria is widely renowned for being a demanding piece to perform well. The aria’s vocal range covers two octaves, from F4 to F6 and requires a very high tessitura. The first singer to perform the aria onstage was Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who at the time was 33. By all accounts, Hofer had an extraordinary upper register and an agile voice and apparently Mozart, being familiar with Hofer’s vocal ability, wrote two arias to showcase it.

An anecdote from Mozart’s time suggests that the composer himself was very impressed with his sister-in-law’s performance. The story comes from an 1840 letter from composer Ignaz von Seyfried, and relates an event from the last night of Mozart’s life—December 4, 1791, five weeks into the opera’s initial (very successful) run. According to Seyfried, the dying Mozart whispered the following to his wife Constanze:

Quiet, quiet! Hofer is just taking her top F; – now my sister-in-law is singing her second aria, ‘Der Hölle Rache’; how strongly she strikes and holds the B-flat: ‘Hört! hört! hört! der Mutter Schwur!’ (‘Hear! Hear! Hear! Mother’s Oath)

Here is Natalie Dessay in what I consider to be an astoundingly complex and moving performance, in contrast to Diana Damrau’s equally famous performance with no holds barred (which I like too).  This version has English subtitles for the German impaired. In this regard I will also note that although there had been operas in German before Mozart, he was the one who cracked the dominance of Italian as the primary language of opera.

On Feb. 17, 1770 Mozart’s father wrote from Milan to his wife, Anna Maria:

If one does not ruin one’s health through undisciplined and excessive eating and drinking, etc., and has no other internal constitutional disorders, there is nothing to worry about. We are in God’s hands wherever we are. Wolfgang will not ruin his health by eating and drinking. He is fat and in good health, and is merry and cheerful all day long.


Mozart enjoyed a variety of foods, and his many travels allowed him to sample the delights of Europe.  But he is also on record as being particularly fond of two dishes from the Austro-Hungarian Empire – paprikash with spätzle, and leberknödel with sauerkraut. Leberknödel are liver dumplings that normally are boiled in broth and served either as a first course as a soup, or as a main course with potatoes and sauerkraut.  The specialty of Saltzburg, which is almost certainly what Mozart enjoyed, was deep fried rather than boiled leberknödel.  Here is a serviceable recipe. Even today in Salzburg these are deep fried in clarified butter, but vegetable oil will work.


Leberknödel (Liver Dumplings)


9 ozs beef liver
3 stale rolls
½ pint milk
3 ½ ozs butter
1 small onion
1 egg
salt, pepper
1 tbsp marjoram, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped fine


Dice the rolls and pour the milk over them. Work the mixture together with your fingers and then let it rest for at least an hour.

Chop the onion very fine and sauté it in butter until translucent.

Mix the rolls, finely chopped (or ground) liver, beaten egg, and herbs together very thoroughly with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  You can check your seasonings by taking a teaspoon of the mixture and quickly frying it in a skillet.

Heat oil in a deep fryer to 350°F/175°C.

Form the dumplings into balls about 2 in/5 cm across.

Deep fry them in batches, turning frequently to be sure of even cooking.  Drain on wire racks.

Serve with sauerkraut (and boiled new potatoes if you wish).