To mark the anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, Austria, on 28 January 1756 we will once again be regaled with tales of the boy genius who was practically composing masterpieces in his crib.
We will be told that his music has a perfection and beauty matched by no other composer before or since, and much other hype as well.
There is of course some truth to this image. It is incredible that Mozart was able to compose sonatas, symphonies and operas before he hit puberty.
But, truth be told these works are relatively simple and in most cases childish, which is hardly surprising since they were composed by a child.
And while it is true that Mozart had a gift for composing music of great beauty, the idea that it can be objectively presented as more beautiful or poised than, say, the ballets of Tchaikovsky or the piano music of Chopin, let alone music from other genres, is absurd.
To accept this stereotype of Mozart does him a great disservice for it suggests he was simply a wonder of nature, impossible to explain.
In fact, at key moments of his life, he struggled for his art. His development from a child prodigy into the searching and radical composer that he became in the last ten years of his life was a result of artistic bravery and of his engagement with an environment flush with radical ideas in both music and politics.
Mozart came from a musical background. His father, Leopold, was a violinist and author of a textbook on violin playing that was a standard text well into the 19th century.
Both Mozart and his elder sister, Nannerl, were taught the piano and the violin by their father. When the musical gifts both children had was clear to Leopold he took them on a series of tours of the various courts of Europe.
From the age of six until he was 17 Mozart was essentially a performing monkey for the kings, princes and archbishops of Europe. Once the novelty of his precocious talent wore off, he returned to settle in the provincial town of Salzburg. For musicians of this time, there were really only two options.
They were to either go into service for the church and write music for services week after week, as Johann Sebastian Bach had done, or become a servant of the local aristocratic ruler, as was the case with Joseph Haydn.
Neither option appealed to Mozart. So he made his first attempt at a career as an independent musician, something almost unheard of at the time.
He moved to Paris in 1778. After two years he returned to Salzburg broke and disappointed. He joined his father as servant to the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg.
Mozart refused to accept the restrictions imposed upon him by his conservative and austere employer. On a visit to Vienna with the Archbishop tensions came to a head.
After a blazing row, Mozart was kicked out of the room by the Archbishop’s chief chamberlain.
Mozart had finally broken free and would remain an independent musician for the rest of his short life.
He decided to stay in Vienna, which was the vibrant capital of the Austrian empire. More importantly it was a centre of Enlightenment ideas and action.
The Enlightenment was the movement in the 18th century that promoted scientific reasoning, art as a means of individual expression and a relaxation of autocratic rule.
The year before Mozart arrived in Vienna, a man committed to these
ideals became the sole ruler of Austria, Joseph II. The new emperor attacked the privileges of the Catholic church, reformed the legal code and he greatly relaxed censorship in the arts.
It was this environment that allowed Mozart to live independently and to create his masterpieces.
But Mozart was not just a passive beneficiary of the Enlightenment. He actively engaged with it. In Vienna he joined the freemasons, at the time a society of Enlightenment thinkers.
He promoted these radical ideas in ways obvious and not so obvious in his music. For example, in the piano concertos of his Vienna years, he made the soloist an equal with the orchestra. A soloist had previously been seen as the accompanist to the orchestra. This made the idea of individual expression in music real.
More directly, in three of his greatest operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, he used his art to attack the old order.
Figaro is based on a play banned in Austria and France at the time and tells the story of the servant of the same name. He is about to marry Susannah, a fellow servant. The Count, their master, decides to assert his feudal rights by sleeping with Susannah before the marriage.
We see Figaro and the other servants seeking to outmanoeuvre the Count before the wedding. At one point Figaro sings an aria of revenge on the Count, Se Vuol Ballare.
Mozart adds sarcasm to Figaro’s anger in this aria by accompanying Figaro’s words with a minuet—music associated with the elegance of the aristocratic ballroom.
Don Giovanni is based on the Don Juan myth. Though the message in the story is ambiguous, the music displays a dramatic power not heard before.
The climatic scene where the Don refuses to atone for his sins and is dragged down to hell remains one of the most thrilling moments in opera. This scene also contains musical ideas that were to be still considered radical over 100 years later.
The French Revolution of 1789 was far more radical than the gradual reforms of Joseph’s rule. In response the emperor drew back towards reaction shortly before his death in 1790.
Mozart decided to make what was to be his penultimate opera, The Magic Flute, into a thinly veiled celebration of the progressive ideals of freemasonry and the Enlightenment.
While revolution was triumphant in Paris, Vienna was slipping fast into reaction. Mozart took sides with revolution over reaction. The tragedy is that within a few months of completing The Magic Flute he was dead.
Where he would have gone musically and politically is one of the great what ifs of history.
Mozart was only 35 when he died. At the same age his great contemporaries, Haydn and Beethoven, had still to write most of what are today regarded as their masterpieces.
Yet we still have so many works from Mozart that bring to life, over 200 years later, the excitement and hopes of his revolutionary age.
Discovering Mozart's classics
Mozart’s piano concertos, his greatest being numbers 19-27, are the best introduction to his works.
You can buy all of these on two sets put out by Phillips called The Great Piano Concertos Vols 1 and 2. Each set contains two discs and costs £12.
The pianist is Mitsuko Uchida, one of the greatest interpreters of Mozart in the world today.
Some other excellent recordings include Clifford Curzon on Decca conducted by Benjamin Britten, also for around £12. Their recording of the D-minor concerto number 20 in particular is a treat.
The piano was Mozart’s instrument and his piano sonatas are filled with the beautiful melodies and relentless invention for which he is famous.
Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of the complete sonatas on Phillips is a bargain at around £15.
Some recordings of his greatest operas can be had for under £13.
The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini on EMI and The Magic Flute conducted by Ferenc Fricsay on Deutsche Grammophon are highly recommended.
If you want to spend a little more a recent recording of Figaro conducted by Rene Jacobs on the Harmonia Mundi label fizzes with fun throughout but is a bit dear at £28.
Likewise, a classic recording of Don Giovanni conducted by Karl Bohm in Prague on Deutsche Grammophon is £26 but well worth investing in.
You might want to explore his Requiem Mass, left incomplete at his death. The first half of the piece is by Mozart with the rest being completed by one of his students. This contains some of the darkest and most dramatic music he ever wrote.
A live recording conducted by Benjamin Britten on BBC Legends is available.
On a lighter note, his two Sinfonia Concertantes, one for violin and viola and the other for wind instruments are less well known but absolutely delightful and worth seeking out if you have not heard them.
Try David and Igor Oistrakh on Deutsche Grammophon.
The short introduction to the composer, Mozart by Paul McGarr, published by Redwords at £3.99, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to www.bookmarks.uk.com