A genius composer turned pop culture icon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 musical works and influenced other maestros like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He continues to inspire everyone from film directors to computer scientists today. Here are some things you might not know about the famous child prodigy.
1. MOZART'S FATHER THRUST HIM INTO THE MUSIC BUSINESS.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756, to his mother Anna Maria and his father Leopold Mozart, who was a composer and music teacher at Salzburg Cathedral. Little Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna were taught to play the clavier (a stringed keyboard instrument) from a young age. Both children showed immense musical talent. By the time he was 4 years old, Mozart could learn a song on the clavier in just 30 minutes.
2. MOZART HUNG OUT WITH A YOUNG MARIE ANTOINETTE.
When he was 6, Mozart's family was performing at royal courts, and he began to perform concerts himself. At the Habsburg summer residence outside Vienna, Mozart met Archduchess Marie Antoinette, who was two months his senior. It’s said that she helped Mozart when he slipped on a polished floor. In return, he proposed marriage to the future queen of France. The experience in Vienna would lead to the beginning of a wildly successful tour across Europe that stopped at dozens of cities and royal courts between 1763 and 1766.
3. HE WROTE HIS FIRST OPERA AT 11.
Mozart took in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Versailles, and more as he traveled with his family. At one concert in Munich, Mozart and his sister played together for three straight hours, and they wowed audiences everywhere they went. While playing a series of concerts in Paris, Mozart published his first piece of music: a violin sonata in five parts. He was 8.
At age 11, he wrote his first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. A series of tours of Italian cities beginning in December 1769 confirmed Mozart's preternatural talent. He was commissioned to write operas for Milan's carnival, was admitted to Bologna's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica, and directed the first three performances of his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto. At 15, he wrote that he was hearing whole operas “at home in my head.” Mozart later admitted to feeling “as proud as a peacock” about his fame.
4. HIS EARLY TRIUMPHS DIDN'T LAST—AND THEN HIS FATHER BLAMED HIM FOR HIS MOTHER'S DEATH.
After the Italian tours, Mozart returned to Salzburg and began composing for the court of its new ruler, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, but the work was unchallenging. In 1778, Mozart's ever-ambitious father sent him to Paris with an order to “put yourself in the company of the great.” But now, Mozart was 22 and no longer the boy wonder who hung out with Marie Antoinette on his three-year European tour. He was an adult musician with “a plain, pockmarked face” who could barely speak French.
Left out of high society and running out of money, Mozart and his mother, who was chaperoning him, holed up in a cold and dilapidated hotel in the 2nd arrondissement. His mother fell ill with a fever, and she died on July 3, 1778 at the age of 57. Mozart was all alone, and too scared to tell his father what had happened to his mother. Instead, he got his friend, Abbé Bullinger, to tell him the news. Leopold Mozart ended up blaming his son for her death, believing that if his mother hadn't accompanied him to Paris, things would have turned out differently.
5. HE KIND OF HATED WORKING IN SALZBURG.
Following the Paris stay, Mozart went back to Salzburg to live with his father and sister via Strasbourg (where he played three poorly attended concerts), Mannheim, Munich, and Augsburg. At home, he found a job as a court organist, but wasn't happy. He wanted more for himself, once writing, “to waste one’s life in inactivity in such a beggarly place is really very sad.” The worst part of staying in Salzburg was dealing with the stinginess of his patron, von Colloredo, who wanted him to compose only music meant for the local church. Despite his difficulties during this period, Mozart nevertheless wrote two important compositions, Symphony No. 32 in G Major (K318) and Symphony No. 33 in B Flat Major (K319).
6. HE MOVED TO VIENNA IN 1781, AND HIS LIFE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY.
In Vienna, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. Nights in the capital belonged to the wealthy, who attended the finest masked balls and operas. Starting off as a freelance musician with just one student, Mozart worked his way into the heart of Viennese social life, propelled by the popular appeal of his piano concertos and symphonies. One biographer noted that audiences for his piano concertos had the experience of “witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.”
Soon, Mozart could be seen going about town in gold-trimmed hats and red coats with mother-of-pearl buttons. A year after moving to Vienna, he married the soprano Constanze Weber. They had their first child in 1783—a boy named Raimund Leopold.
7. HE INSISTED HIS CHILDREN SHOULDN'T BE BREAST-FED.
He wrote, “I was quite determined that even if she were able to do so, my wife was never to nurse her child. Yet I was equally determined that my child was never to take the milk of a stranger. I wanted the child to be brought up on water, like my sister and myself.”
Feeding infants on barley water instead of milk was common practice among the middle classes at the time. Mozart did eventually give in to his midwife's and mother-in-law's pleas to have a wet nurse breastfeed the child, but unfortunately, Raimund died two months after he was born. Only two of Mozart’s six children survived infancy.
8. MOZART HAD A PET STARLING.
Starlings are amazing mimics, and the one Mozart brought home from a Vienna pet shop on May 27, 1784 had been singing a movement from one of the composer’s pure, bright songs—the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major (K453).
Mozart’s starling was his constant companion. It was there for the composer’s move to a ritzy Vienna apartment in the Domgasse, just steps from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was there for the birth of two more sons, Karl Thomas Mozart and Johann Thomas Leopold, and the subsequent death of Johann a month after he was born. It witnessed Mozart achieving real fame for his symphonies and arias.
9. HE DIDN'T ATTEND HIS FATHER'S FUNERAL.
Around a week after Mozart’s father died on May 28, 1787, his pet starling passed away. Mozart didn’t go back to Salzburg for his father’s funeral, but he did bury his starling in the grandest way. Mourners in heavy veils marched in procession, sang hymns, and listened to Mozart recite a poem he’d written for the occasion. By a tiny graveside, the world’s greatest composer spoke with love of his starling “gay and bright” who was “not naughty, quite” [PDF].
10. HIS MUSIC SPANNED EVERY FORM AND STYLE OF HIS TIME.
From chamber music like Serenade No. 13 in G Major (K525), a.k.a. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to beloved operas such as The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte, Mozart's compositions redefined many forms of music: symphonies and concertos, harmonie-music for wind instruments, chamber music for string quartets, sonatas for the piano, masses, and choral and church music. All were parts of his oeuvre.
What makes Mozart’s work so revolutionary? Romantic composer Johannes Brahms noted the exceptional “purity” of his music. To the American composer Leonard Bernstein, Mozart’s works were “bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness, and enlightenment … over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s—the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering—a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”
Or, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, “Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined.”
11. MOZART'S LAST COMPOSITION REMAINED UNFINISHED.
His final commissioned piece was Requiem Mass In D Minor (K626). Mozart died before it was finished, but his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the work and delivered it to Austria’s Count Franz von Walsegg, who had commissioned the piece to memorialize his deceased wife. It’s believed that von Walsegg intended to pass the mass off as his own. That plan was scuppered by Constanze, who let it be known that it was, in fact, Mozart who had received the commission and that she was due a fee for the work.
12. THE REASON FOR HIS EARLY DEATH PROBABLY WASN'T POISON.
Mozart died when was 35 years old, on December 5, 1791. The coroner reported the cause as “severe miliary fever,” but a rumor suggested he had been poisoned by Antonio Salieri—an influential opera composer and an exceptional musician who taught Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. The rumor became entrenched in pop culture largely due to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1984 film adaptation. But the gossip was seen as baseless back in the 18th century, having stemmed from a false report of poisoning in a Berlin newspaper a week after the composer passed away. The real cause behind Mozart’s early death is likely much less nefarious. It was probably a fatal strep infection.
13. HIS MUSIC AND LIFE ARE STILL WIDELY CELEBRATED.
Named one of the “Greatest People of the Millennium” by TIME, Mozart’s fame has only grown since his death 226 years ago. New York City hosts the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center for a month every summer; Salzburg celebrates with an 11-day birthday party for the composer every January. In fact, an impressive percentage of Salzburg’s economy is built on Mozart tourism, with everything from Mozart keychains to t-shirts to chocolate-marzipan Mozart balls for sale in the city’s historic Old Town.