Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s name is familiar even to people who know little or none of his music. However, Mozart’s fame is based on two different frames of reference: firstly, being the most famous child prodigy in music history (as both a performer and a composer) and secondly, his unquestioned brilliance as an adult composer of Classical symphonies, operas, chamber music, sonatas, church music, and concerti for various instruments. Perhaps what he is best remembered for are his operas. His astonishing rate of production continues to stupefy scholars today. In his short life, he composed over 600 works, including 21 stage and opera works.
The most obvious distinction between Mozart and other opera composers is that he was the master of all other branches of composition. Mozart’s operas are from a mind that thought symphonically, so even if you don’t know what’s going on, you can tell you are listening to an extended piece of music in which the dramatic incidents form a part of a perfectly coherent whole. Mozart wrote from some excellent libretti, yet the music is always the dominant element, giving the action inflections of meaning the words alone couldn’t reflect. Furthermore, until Mozart’s emergence, operatic characters where generalized and typical. Mozart was the first to put real people up on the stage, people who had real emotions that were inconsistent and whose personalities were evolutionary.
In 1767, the Mozarts went to Vienna where Wolfgang was commissioned to compose his first opera, La finta semplice, K. 51. Intrigues created by envious composers, prevented this first opera from being performed. However, another charming early theatrical work of Mozart, Bastien und Bastienne, an opera buffa, was performed in Vienna where it was greeted with much acclaim. His first major serious opera, Mitridate, was performed in Milan in 1770 when he was only fourteen, and it was received with unqualified raves that critics compared him to Handel.
The 1780’s began the struggling times for Mozart, although the Emperor, who thought highly of Mozart, attended several of his “academies” but did little else for him. Eventually, there was an appointment as Court composer, but there were next to no orders for compositions. When a salary was added to the title, it was a meager one, and Mozart’s last years, in spite of some notable successes (Figaro, 1786), were beset by financial worries, aggravated by Konstanze’s (Mozart’s wife) many sicknesses and confinements. Although Mozart had initially thrived in Vienna, since he was in great demand as a performer and composition teacher, and his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, was a hit, life was seldom easy for him.