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Celebrating a Quarter-Millennium of Mozart

Gaby Reucher (jen)December 28, 2005

2006 is the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth, and classical Europe is looking to party. A look at one of the geniuses of the German-speaking world.

Promoting festivities, this funny version of a famed portrait has the maestro rolling his eyesImage: AP

On Jan. 27, 1756, musical Wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria. Despite early success, the composer died in poverty in Vienna on Dec. 5, 1791. Only after his death was Mozart celebrated as one of the greatest musical geniuses of all times.

The world-famous Mozart KugelnImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Interest in the composer never seems to wane. Publishers continue to put out murder mysteries, audio books, novels, biographies, and new academic findings from the world of Mozart research. And if anyone had thought to secure the royalties for Mozart-related products during the composer's lifetime, he would be rich today. Probably the best known are Mozart Kugeln -- the marzipan flavored chocolate balls wrapped in cellophane bearing his likeness.

Festivities in Augsburg

Some facts of Mozart's life are well known. For instance, he began showing extraordinary music talent at an exceptionally young age. He wrote his first composition at age five; at seven he is said to have taught himself how to play the violin and the organ. By age eight he had composed piano sonatas, and at 12 he wrote his first opera. His father Leopold, himself a violin teacher, recognized his son's talent and toured Europe with Wolfgang and his sister Anna Maria. By 1766, the siblings had been to Paris, London and The Hague, where they played before royalty and in public academies.

At first, though, Mozart performed in Munich and Vienna, then in Augsburg and Frankfurt. Augsburg was Leopold Mozart's home town, and that is where Germany's "Mozart Year 2006" will take place, under the patronage of German President Horst Köhler.

The year gets under full swing during May, with two straight weeks of historically accurate performances of works by both father and son. Vienna will be hosting a similar festival.

Return to Salzburg

Mozart is considered one of the first composers who was not dependent on the court; he earned enough money in his child-star years to be financially independent. As a teenager, he was temporarily named unpaid concert master of the Salzburg Court Orchestra, but he asked to be let go in August. He tried unsuccessfully to get jobs in Munich, Mannheim and Paris before returning to be court organist in Salzburg after his mother's death in 1788.

Mozart Salzburg
Ubiquitous in Salzburg: the composer's statue in Mozart SquareImage: dpa

Today, Salzburg is the epicenter of Mozart studies. In 2006 the town will host innumerable artistic projects, workshops and exhibits that aim to shed some light on the composer's life, work and personality. The head of the Salzburg Festival, Peter Ruzicka, has put all 22 Mozart operas on the festival lineup.

In 1782, Mozart married Konstanze Weber, and the two lived together in Vienna. He supported his family by giving piano lessons and found patronage from Emperor Joseph II, for whom he wrote operas, including The Marriage of Figaro.

Not pleasing to the public

But the public found his music too complex and critical of social mores, and Mozart's financial situation worsened steadily.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This oil portrait of Mozart is said to be truest to his likenessImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Although he was named royal chamber composer in 1787, the pay was low. He had a final success with his opera The Magic Flute in 1791, but died at age 35, impoverished, while working on his Requiem.

The exact cause of Mozart's death is debated, and speculations range from poisoning to syphillis. He was given a pauper's burial at the St. Marx Cemetary in Vienna, which is being restored for the occasion.

Despite his short life, Mozart composed more than 600 works; a multifaceted repertoire of symphonies, concerts, sonatas, operas, and secular and religious vocal music. Even if recent research shows the genius was not above borrowing from his contemporaries (such as Joseph Haydn), his oeuvre is still an important part of the western canon.

The performances honoring Mozart will go on throughout the year, but on Jan. 27, 2006, Mozart afficionados who want to be at the center of the action should travel to Vienna. There will be premieres, concerts and television shows broadast around the world, in honor of nearly a quarter-millennium of the maestro's music.