Mozart – the greatest composer of all?

David Vickers talks to leading Mozartians – including Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Roger Norrington and Mitsuko Uchida – about Mozart’s extraordinary musical legacy.


There are myths and there are truths, and the former are often more entertaining than the latter. In Mozart‘s case, we have the glorious truths of his music but the true facts of his life have often been clouded by the mists of time and by tall tales. Our perception of Mozart has been moulded by legends. If he seems to loom larger than life, it is partly because each generation reinvents this composer for itself. There sometimes seem almost as many Mozarts as the staggering number of compositions that he left us.

The bare facts. Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus (or Gottlieb) Mozart was taught music by his father Leopold, a respected theorist, composer and violinist at the Salzburg court. (It seems likely that his education also included mathematics, languages, literature and religious training.) The child prodigy was taken on exhausting concert tours all over Europe and his skill as a composer benefited enormously from his experiences in Italy, Germany, France and England. After such an itinerant life at many of the most important royal courts and musical cities in Europe, it is little wonder that after reaching adulthood Mozart could not settle at Salzburg, which he considered to be a provincial backwater. He spent the last 10 years of his life in Vienna, moving house frequently according to his economic circumstances. Mozart died of a severe rheumatic fever on December 5, 1791, a few weeks short of his 36th birthday.

Barbara Bonney enthuses: ‘Every time you are involved with a concert, opera or a recording session it is an uplifting experience. There is a reason why they play Mozart to babies to enhance their IQs — it is written with such perfection. When you look at his scores, such as the original manuscript of The Magic Flute, it is amazing how perfectly it is written down, as if he was dictating it from another place. It seems inconceivable that anybody could be so talented. It is so perfect, and that is how the music feels in your throat or under the fingers. It has a physical feeling of perfection to it.’

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