How Mozart became Mozart
Mozart in Italy by Jane Glover
What was it that made Mozart Mozart? Obviously, he attended many operas, composed a lot of music, practised performing and improvising. Jane Glover’s new book Mozart in Italy argues that his long Italian tour as a teenager was the basis of his success. Here are some of the factors—beyond all the listening, analysis, and writing of arias and operas—that stand out as being crucial to his development. Most of them are either innate or to do with cultural immersion. (In my book, I suggest that Mozart was something of a late bloomer.)
Second child. Mozart’s sister Nannerl was a talented harpsichord player, who started lessons aged seven. This meant Mozart started aged three, working through Nannerl’s exercises aged four. I saw this effect with my own children, when my son learned to read almost by absorption when his sister learned phonics. This effect is more innate than it looks, I think.
Mental retreat. Mozart could retreat entirely from his surroundings, and compose in his head. However noisy the room he was in, and even when he travelled, he composed in his head. He once got off the stage coach as a teenager, went to his rooms after a long journey, and wrote down three movements of a string quartet.
History made real. Mozart toured many historical sites in Italy. Pompeii was being uncovered. He stepped right into the past. Seeing the artefacts and being in the rooms where the legends he read about had occurred immersed his imagination. Glover calls the depiction of history and myth and real and human a hallmark of Mozart’s opera.
Prolific culture. Though unknown now, several of the composers and poets Mozart met on his journey in Italy were prolific. This culture prioritised quantity, and Mozart followed suit.
Inspiration. As well as writing critiques of opera home to Nannerl, thus learning about how the medium worked, Mozart met many people, especially singers. One prima donna called Bernasconi was especially pleased with the music he wrote for her. Glover says this is the start of a career when singers inspired the best music in Mozart. He was also composing for public events, which must have raised his sights.
Luck. Back in Vienna, something of an outsider, Mozart got a lucky break when the Emperor invited a group of Italian opera singers to his court. Lorenzo Da Ponte arrived too, having been drummed out of Venice for adultery. The two outsiders, both deeply versed in opera conventions, were able to make startlingly new work: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovani, and Cosi Fan Tutte all broke new ground musically and in terms of plot and character. This was part blind luck, when the emperor invited the musicians, but largely luck of Mozart’s making. Who else was so well prepared to reinvent Italian opera?
One way of linking some of this together is to say that Mozart lived with a vision of greatness always in his mind. Find your place among great people, his father told him. And he did.