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Mozart: Music of a tortured soul

Gaby Reucher
May 28, 2024

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was more than just a child prodigy and pop star of his time. This year's Mozartfest delves deep into his soul.

Painting of the composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart only lived to be 35Image: Imago/United Archives International

Mozart's "Magic Flute" is one of the most famous and reverred operas in the world. But the composer, dubbed the "pop star of classical music," also produced works that are mainstays of popular culture, including "Little Night Music" — perhaps best-known today as a ringtone.

The musical prodigy too created profound music that plumbed the depths of the soul.

"Mozart is more than the chocolate ball from Salzburg and more than a cell phone ringtone," said Evelyn Meining, director of the Mozartfest Würzburg, the biggest Mozart festival in Germany. 

"He was a hard-working person who composed day and night," she added.

Meining wants to promote am image of Mozart that is far-removed from the clichés.

A classical child prodigy

Born in Salzburg in current-day Austria in 1756, Wolfang Amadeus Mozart composed over 600 works in the 35 years of his life, including 41 numbered symphonies and 21 operas.

He also wrote concertos, masses, instrumental works and songs.

"When you look at the extent of his huge output in his short life, you get an idea of how many hours and years he spent sitting alone and composing," said Meining.

A woman wearing a blue jacket and pearl necklace smiles at the camera.
Evelyn Meining, Director of the Würzburg Mozart FestivalImage: Dita Vollmond

During his childhood, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his equally talented sister Anna Maria "Nannerl" were presented at court as musical prodigies.

Their father took them all over Europe — in a bumpy horse-drawn carriage, which was a strain for the siblings.

Later, Mozart repeatedly defied the authorities and left his job with the Archbishop of Salzburg to set up his own business in Vienna.

By those days' standards, he earned a good living but spent more than he earned. Shortly after the premiere of the "Magic Flute," he fell seriously ill and died in December 1791 — aged just 35 and with an infinite number of compositions in his head that he was no longer able to complete.

'Capturing the soul in sound'

Mozart was a genius who couldn't switch off. "The light and the dark, loneliness and happiness, these are the contrasts that Mozart's music thrives on," Meining said.

He confided his emotional states to his wife Konstanze in numerous letters. In 1790, he wrote: "If people could see into my heart, I would almost be ashamed. Everything is cold for me, ice-cold."

Picture of an orchestra performing onstage in front of a packed auditorium.
At the opening Mozartfest concert, the orchestra 'Les Talens Lyriques' under Christophe Rousset showed how Mozart's music touches the soulImage: Dita Vollmond

As a Catholic, Mozart also composed many sacred works, with "Requiem" being one of his latter works that remained uncompleted.

As the concepts of guilt and atonement play a major role in Christianity, Mozart incorporated these themes into his operas too.

"No one can capture the soul in sound better than Mozart," said Meining.

She added that the voice is the best possible mirror of the soul, which is why one focus of this year's Mozartfest Würzburg is on Mozart's operas, songs and choral works.

Mozart portrays people in his operas as they fail and shows their guilt, but without condemning them.

Fittingly, "Guilt and forgiveness, Mozart the explorer of souls" is the motto of this year's festival in Würzburg in central Germany.

Cosi fan tutte: a comic opera with depth

Mozart's opera "Così fan tutte" (which translates to "Women all do thus"), which he composed in 1790 to a libretto by the Italian poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, is a storey of guilt, forgiveness and the human condition.

Two couples stand on stage in court outfits. Between them is an older, smirking man in a black suit with a walking stick.
Don Alfonso (center) causes confusion in the Mozart opera 'Così fan tutte'Image: Gerhard Rauchwetter/dpa/picture alliance

It is actually a light-hearted comedy about broken vows of fidelity and the loss of ideals.

Two couples become entangled in emotional chaos as the wealthy Don Alfonso challenges his young friends Ferrando and Guglielmo to put the loyalty and devotion of their respective fiancees, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, to the test.

Don Alfonso and the two sisters' farewell sonnet is about desires and longings.

Mozart uses dissonant sounds to create great tension, especially in the word "Desir" (desire).

Music journalist and author Wolfgang Stähr writes that "contradictions of human feeling have never before been captured in music." At this point, Mozart researcher Ulrich Konrad speaks of an "incomparable tone symbol."

Mozart: the eternal mystery

Of guilt and forgiveness

Until the late 18th century, forgiveness was an important theme in 'opera seria' — "serious" opera.

The rulers forgave the repentant sinners; honor and glory were reserved for the nobility.

Mozart's "Così fan tutte" parodies these ideas. Everyone involved, regardless of their class, is to blame. And in the end, they forgive each other — or do they?

"You shouldn't be fooled by this surface, after which there seems to be a happy ending," said Meining.

"Mozart goes beneath the surface, into the deep layers of humanity."

The illustrrious conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt considered "Così fan tutte" to be the saddest opera in the history of music.

Acknowledging one's own guilt

What artistic director Evelyn Meining describes as an "unconventional and experimental" festival in Würzburg will include the project "Hell ist die Nacht" (or "Bright is the night"), which deals with German guilt under National Socialism. 

At the end of World War II, on March 16, 1945, 90% of the city of Würzburg was destroyed within 20 minutes in a hail of bombs from the British Royal Air Force. At the time, 500 people found refuge in the air-raid shelter of the convent of the Sisters of the Redeemer.

In the rooms of this facility, the guilt and sense of complicity among some Germans is addressed in a musical-theatrical installation with poetry, reports from contemporary witnesses and, of course, music by Mozart.

A conductor directs an orchestra while a singer stands beside him, singing.
Baritone Benjamin Appl sings Mozart arias at the opening of the Mozartfest WürzburgImage: Dita Vollmond

"Even after the war, many Germans still claimed that they knew nothing about the persecution of the Jews," said Meining.

The installation will also trace the path to a new focus on peace in the postwar nation.

"A new path into the future can begin here," the artistic director added. 

The Mozartfest runs until June 23, 2024 in Würzburg.

This article was originally written in German.