I care little for Salzburg and not at all for the archbishop: I shit on both of them.

– Mozart


CHAPTER AIM: Providing a background to the history and ideas behind Mozart’s music




1979_FirstDecade_rwinters_comWe love to make sense of History by dividing it into periods: the Iron Age, the Medieval, Pre-Industrial, Post-Modern, and so on.

Life, as we know, is not like that. Of course we have the 70’s, and then we have the 80’s. But it’s not as if on January 1st 1980 people suddenly cut their hair and decided to get a job in the city.


But, however you look at it, there’s little avoiding the massive historical fault-line that judders across 19th century Europe towards the end of Mozart’s life.



An Objecting Subject

It’s 1781, a decade before his death. Mozart is just 25.

He’s not happy.


Ex boss Colloredo

His first grand opera, Idomeneo, has just proved a big success in Munich, and Mozart wants to write more. But a future in opera is being stymied by his employer and his patron, the Bishop of Salzburg.

Mozart desires greater recognition and more freedom. The bishop refuses, no doubt annoyed with his arrogant underling. He passes Mozart over for at least one lucrative contract. The young composer seethes with rage.


The simmering resentments between Bishop and his composer erupt into three very public arguments at court. The bishop makes clear he finds Mozart insolent. Mozart makes clear he’s not insolent to people he likes.

In the final furious row, Mozart is booted out of court. Literally. The bishop’s chamberlain, Count Arco (in Mozart’s own words) “…throws me out of the room and gives me a kick up the backside.”.

Mozart left for Vienna. Professionally, he went freelance. “Saltzburg…” Mozart continues in the letter to his father “…no longer exists, except to give me the chance to kick the Count a kick up the arse in return.


Mozart, 1780's

Mozart, 1780’s

It was a bold move for a young artist of the time, displaying a man unafraid to voice his opinions, and confident of his fortune away from the protection – or constraints – of a single patron.

Consider how Bach wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg, as dedication of his thus titled Brandenburg Concertos:

…begging you most humbly not to judge their imperfections by the standards of that refined and delicate taste in music that everyone knows you to possess, but rather to accept with benign consideration the profound respect and humble devotion that I attempt to show by this means…

It’s 1781, a short generation after Bach, and it’s hard not to avoid the massive historical shift taking place across Europe. Bach had issues with pretty much every one of his employers, but he always knew which way his bread was buttered.

With Mozart, the  discontent is out in the open.


It’s a trend that will continue until, by the time of Beethoven – our next composer on this course – revolution was in the open (  Beethoven 5). And when we reach the next composer on our course, Wagner, we find that the relationship between patron and artist become pretty much reversed (  Wagner 5).

Composers were leading the call for freedom, independence, and even power.



Industrious Revolution

Europe in 1781 stood poised at a major turning point. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason had reached its zenith (  Bach 5). Science was in the ascendancy.

Already in Britain, its practical application was transmuting simple crafts, like pottery and weaving, into mighty industries. These would in turn help transform the small island nation into a world empire.


1781, hot off the press


The previous decade alone saw James Watt finally mastering his Steam Engine, and the publication of what remain to this day two towering masterpieces in their fields: Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire” (both first published in 1776).

Cook had landed at Botany bay, completing the mapping of the world’s final continents.

The world was being mapped. Limits were being reached. Presumptions were being questioned. In Prussian Königsberg the philosopher Emmanuel Kant initiated his quest into the very notion of reality itself. Kant’s “The Critique of Pure Reason” was published just as Mozart moved into his new accommodation in Vienna. The book’s title offers a clue to its purpose: a challenge to scientific claims of objective reality, the most basic assumption of this Age of Reason.

Kant preferred to seek a definition of the world through our own experience, through our perception of it. This was an early skirmish in the mighty war which was about to engulf not only philosophy, but politics, art, and just about every other major field of human endeavor.


Europe waits at the edge of a boundary into an entirely new world-view. We can understand this artistically with a simple aphorism…


Eye vs I


Think of the “Eye” as representing the eighteenth century view of knowledge. The eye is a passive receiver of knowledge – objective knowledge – coming from the outside world. This as the metaphysics of Baroque music. Bach and his contemporaries are revealing the underlying harmonies of the universe.


But Feeling is about to supplant Reason, as the eighteenth century ‘Eye’ becomes a nineteenth century capital-letter ‘I’.

For the 19th century artist, knowledge will no longer be passive and objective, but active and very much personal. The “Eye’s” received knowledge is about to become the “I” of subjective and active response. The Heart now makes claims over the Head. Feeling over thought. Romanticism is on its way.




This is more than abstract theorizing  At the end of the eighteenth century Europe stands at a dizzying precipice. Individual voices had begun to develop into a chorus, calling for freedom and equality. All those individual ‘I’s were coalescing into a ‘We’, and that ‘We’ demanded its own rights and freedoms.

That meant political action, conflict, and even revolution and war.


The same basic issues lie at the heart of Mozart’s argument with his Bishop. It wasn’t ultimately about church music and opera, but about freedom. The Bishop demanded Mozart come back to Salzburg, whilst Mozart dallied in Vienna.

The Bishop wanted Mozart to do obey him. Mozart wanted to be free.




Mozart is not alone. Revolution hangs heavy in the air.

The Scientific Revolution is transforming into an Industrial Revolution in Britain, and a political Revolution in mainland Europe.

America becomes a coffee-drinking nation

America becomes a coffee-drinking nation

And beyond: already in 1773 Boston begins its rebellion against London-imposed taxation by hurling crates of tea into the sea. By 1776, the very year Smith and Gibbon publish their studies (and warnings) on Global Capital and Empire, the American colonies unite in rebellion to British rule, and by 1783 America has won its independence. Not by force of argument, but through force of arms.

In August 1788, even as Mozart’s ink was drying on the final pages of this music, King Louis XIV had agreed to reconvene the Estates-General in France. Within a year the Bastille was stormed and one thousand years of continuous French royal rule came to a sharp end under the blade of the guillotine.


Capital Punishment

Europe was about to become engulfed by a political frenzy the like of which had not been seen since the Reformation.

In 1793 the removal of Louis as head of state was confirmed by the removal of his head. It would be hard to think of a more appropriate metaphor for the victory of Heart over Head.

Thousands thronged Paris to witness the event, transfixed with every kind of emotion. The paranoia, hysteria, and violence of the ensuing years, would become known simply as ‘The Terror’. Another victory for Heart against Head?


MOZART-280_1640136aMozart didn’t live to witness these cataclysmic events: he died in 1791, two years before Louis XVI, at the tragically young age of 35. In the words of the humorist Tom Lehrer “When Mozart was my age, he’d already been dead two years.

When Mozart was my own age, he had been dead for 14 years! It’s almost frightening to imagine what he might have composed had he lived longer.



Classical and Romantic

Traditionally, Mozart is seen to epitomize the Classical age, and Beethoven to introduce the Romantic. In reality the lines are far more blurred. The strains of Revolution can be heard increasingly during the last decade of Mozart’s music…his opera The Marriage of Figaro shows the composer in sympathy with disgruntled employees.

classicvsromanticThe shift from classical attitudes to romantic sensibilities and revolutionary sympathies becomes even more marked with Beethoven, who was 19 when Mozart died. With Beethoven, the shift can be marked between his 2nd and 3rd symphony (  HERE in Beethoven 3).

Which is part of the reason both composers are so fascinating. They both composed during a pivotal moment in  history. If you think of the Classical and Romantic as two sides of a huge mountain, Mozart and Beethoven, from opposite sides, both straddle the peak.

If you want some approximate dates, we might abbreviate our musical history thus:

 Baroque 1650-1760 

 Classical 1730-1820 

 Romantic 1790-1910 

If you want to know why ‘classical music refers to both Mozart’s music, and all classical music, check out 



Here’s three violin concerto extracts, from each of the above periods. Can you guess which is Baroque, Classical, and Romantic? Each clip is just over 20 secs, so take your time…

Violin Concertos x3 

Click For Answer
1. Classical   2. Romantic   3. Baroque.

More details about the music as ever at the Recommendations section below


Balancing Up

Mozart, ahem, doodling

Mozart, ahem, doodling

In the end we shouldn’t represent Mozart, or the Age of Enlightenment in general, as a trumping of the heart by the head. Rather his music represents a proportioned synthesis, a perfect balance of emotion and intellect. It can be passionate and emotional, but always comes with wit and proportion.

The result sounds right, perfectly right. “Listening to Mozart, we cannot think of any possible improvement” said the conductor George Szel. Mozart’s music hangs perfectly balanced, you might say, in the space between heaven and earth. As the Theologan Karl Barth once remarked, “the angels sang praise to God with Bach’s music, but amongst themselves they no doubt played Mozart”.


The balance is always right with Mozart, between precision, and elaboration, between matter and space. Between the head and the heart, between the ‘I and the ‘Eye’. Even from within the architecture of his music, Mozart’s seems to speak for a world of ethical balance, full of exuberance and sparkle, yet always honest and fair.




Or at least that’s how the view looks today.

Back in 1781 at the court of Salzburg, Mozart’s position as composer officially ranked him above cook, but below the butler. Mozart and his family will endure financial hardship in the final decade leading up to his death, and his corpse will be buried in an unmarked grave, somewhere under Vienna.

The times were a chanin’, but unfortunately for Wolfgang Amadeus, they times weren’t changin’ quite quick enough.




Firstly if you wish to check out about the two meanings of ‘classical music’, check out here.



The only composer approaching Mozart’s talent in the Classical period was his friend and colleague Joseph Haydn. ‘Papa Haydn’, as he become known in his own lifetime, far outlived Mozart, and indeed taught the young Beethoven (at least for as long as the irascible Beethoven could bear it).  He’s come to be seen in particular as a father (if not sole parent) of two art-forms: the symphony and the string quartet.