Nov 142016


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.


Jan 172016


Today is the birthday (1706) of Benjamin Franklin, one of the so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, a renowned polymath – author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He facilitated many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and a university.

Franklin earned the title of “The First American” for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity, first as an author and spokesman in London for several colonies. As the first United States ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation (famous for his “natural” appearance by arriving at the French court for the first time showing his natural hair and not in a powdered wig). Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment.

Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies. With two partners he published the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper that was known for its revolutionary sentiments and criticisms of British policies. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette.


He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin became a national hero in America when as agent for several colonies he spearheaded the effort to have Parliament in London repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. His efforts to secure support for the American Revolution by shipments of crucial munitions proved vital for the war effort.

For many years he was the British postmaster for the colonies, which enabled him to set up the first national communications network. He was active in community affairs, colonial and state politics, as well as national and international affairs. From 1785 to 1788, he served as governor of Pennsylvania. Toward the end of his life, he freed his own slaves and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.


His colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement have seen Franklin honored on coinage and the $100 bill; warships; the names of many towns; counties; educational institutions; corporations; and, more than two centuries after his death, countless cultural references.

It’s impossible in a short post to run through all that Franklin accomplished, so I am going to pick a few of my favorites. I’ll begin with his invention of the mechanical glass harmonica. The use of a crystal wine glass to produce a ringing tone by rubbing a wet finger around the rim is documented back to Renaissance times. The Irish musician Richard Pockrich is typically credited as the first to play an instrument composed of glass vessels filled with differing amounts of water to produce different tones. In the 1740s, he performed in London but his career was cut short by a fire in his room, which killed him and destroyed his apparatus. Edward Delaval, extended Pockrich’s experiments by creating a set of glasses that were better tuned and easier to play. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention playing a similar instrument in England.


Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing Edmund Delaval play in Cambridge in England in May of 1761. Franklin worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in early 1762, played by Marianne Davies. In Franklin’s treadle-operated version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot pedal. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with water moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note: A (dark blue), B (purple), C (red), D (orange), E (yellow), F (green), G (blue), and accidentals were marked in white. With the Franklin design, it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets.

Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 other composers composed works for the glass harmonica. Some pieces survive in the repertoire through transcriptions for more conventional instruments. Camille Saint-Saëns used this instrument in his The Carnival of the Animals (in movements 7 and 14). Donizetti originally specified the instrument in Lucia di Lammermoor as a haunting accompaniment to the heroine’s “mad scenes”, though before the premiere he was required by the producers to rewrite the part for two flutes. Here’s Mozart’s Adagio in C Major for glass harmonica (K617a).

Many storybooks tell of Franklin flying a kite with a key attached in a storm to attract lightning to prove it is electrical in nature. Such an experiment was carried out in May 1752 at Marly-la-Ville in northern France by Thomas-François Dalibard. An attempt to replicate the experiment killed Georg Wilhelm Richmann in Saint Petersburg in August 1753, thought to be the victim of ball lightning. Franklin himself is said to have conducted the experiment in June 1752, supposedly on the top of the spire on Christ Church in Philadelphia. However, doubts have been expressed about whether the experiment was actually performed.


According to the canonical tale, Franklin realized the dangers of using conductive rods and instead used a kite. According to the legend, Franklin kept the string of the kite dry at his end to insulate him while the rest of the string was allowed to get wet in the rain to provide conductivity. A house key was attached to the string and connected to a Leyden jar (a primitive capacitor), which Franklin assumed would accumulate electricity from the lightning. The kite wasn’t struck by visible lightning (had it done so, Franklin would almost certainly have been killed) but Franklin did notice that the strings of the kite were repelling each other and deduced that the Leyden jar was being charged. Franklin reportedly received a mild shock by moving his hand near the key afterwards, because as he had estimated, lightning had negatively charged the key and the Leyden jar, proving the electric nature of lightning.

Fearing that the test would fail, or that he would be ridiculed, Franklin took only his son to witness the experiment, and then published the accounts of the test in third person. The standard account of Franklin’s experiment was disputed following an investigation and experiments based on contemporaneous records by science historian Tom Tucker, the results of which were published in 2003. According to Tucker, Franklin never performed the experiment, and the kite as described is incapable of performing its alleged role. Further doubt about the standard account has been cast by an investigation by the television series MythBusters. The team found evidence that Franklin would have received a fatal current through his heart had the event actually occurred. Nevertheless, they confirmed that certain aspects of the experiment were feasible – specifically, the ability of a kite with sufficiently damp string to receive and send to the ground the electrical energy delivered by a lightning strike.


Franklin was purportedly the master of the pithy aphorism. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise,” for example, is found in the 1735 edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanack, and is typical in that its attribution to Franklin is only partially accurate. Yes, he printed the saying; no, he did not create it. The earliest known record of a proverb that approximates to Franklin’s comes from The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486:

As the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth in this wyse. Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy & zely.

The Middle English word zely comes down to us now as “silly,” and could mean “foolish” in the 15th century. But it could also mean “fortunate.” “Holy helthy & zely” probably meant “wise, healthy and fortunate” and in some form came down to Franklin. It can be found in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina in 1639:

Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Later U.S. commentators have had some fun at Franklin’s expense. In 1928, Carl Sandburg suggested that ‘Early to bed and early to rise and you never meet any prominent people’. In the New Yorker, February 1939, James Thurber turned it round:

Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, dated 1789, Franklin wrote:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

The fact that Franklin doubted the permanence of the Constitution is interesting in itself; but we should also note that the notion of the certainty of only “death and taxes” did not originate with Franklin. It comes from Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil (1726):

Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.

I like this saying attributed to Franklin a lot:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

But he never said it. Likewise I once had a T-shirt with this saying attributed to Franklin:

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Franklin never said this either, but he did say this about wine:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!

Franklin has a great deal to say about food, and, in particular, promoted native American cultigens in Europe where they were largely disapproved of. Both potatoes and tomatoes were considered by some to be poisonous. He is credited, also, with introducing tofu, rhubarb, and kale into the U.S. (in the latter 2 cases sending seeds from Scotland). Here’s a defense of American cuisine from a 2 January 1766 letter:

Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin – But if Indian corn were so disagreeable and indigestible as the Stamp Act, does he imagine that we can get nothing else for breakfast? – Did he never hear that we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye and barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast and ale; that there is every where plenty of milk, butter, and cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage and bawm in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet hickery or walnut, and above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferably to any tea from the Indies … Let the gentleman do us the honor of a visit in America, and I will engage to breakfast him every day in the month with a fresh variety.

Lots to choose from here, but I pick succotash. The word succotash may come from Narragansett sohquttahhash meaning “broken corn kernels,” or misckquatash meaning “boiled corn kernels.” In any event, it is a common dish in the U.S. South. The primary ingredients are freshly hulled corn kernels and either lima beans or other shell beans. The two together are high in amino acids. Add squash and you have complete protein. There’s hundreds of versions of succotash. Here’s how I was taught to make it in coastal North Carolina. I’ll leave you to worry about quantities and such. This recipe uses fresh ingredients, but a lot of contemporary cooks use canned vegetables and simply mix them and heat them through. Occasionally a Southern cook will bake succotash with a pastry top.



Using a sharp knife scrape the whole kernels from corn cobs. Add an equal quantity of lima beans. Seed and dice some tomato and bell pepper (green or red or both), and add them to the mix. Place the vegetables in a large pot, cover with water, and simmer. Length of cooking time is cook’s choice. I prefer the vegetables to be al dente, but my Southern friends used to boil them to death.

Succotash is normally served warm as a side dish, but you can also serve it chilled, dressed with a little vinegar, as a salad.



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 the 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).