Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s boundless creativity resulted in more than 600 works, now a permanent part of the classical canon. The composer, a native of Salzburg, Austria, was also an inveterate traveler.
His wanderings began when he was a child performer taken on tour by his overbearing father. In the last decade of his life, he frequently traveled to conduct his own compositions at their premieres. In fact, he spent a total of 10 years (close to one-third of his life) on the road, visiting some 200 cities and towns within the present-day borders of ten countries across central and western Europe.
Mozart and his Praguers
One of Mozart’s major journeys was the second time he went to Prague to debut his great opera Don Giovanni. It was late in the year 1787, and the 31-year-old composer had already visited the Bohemian city earlier that same year to conduct his Prague Symphony (No. 38) and his opera The Marriage of Figaro. During that second trip, he stood at the podium of the Estates Theatre in Prague’s Old Town to lead the new work, one of the most dramatically strong and magnificently scored operas of all time.
Mozart’s work usually found a warm reception in Prague, so he chose to favor the city with the premiere of the new piece. The reception was overwhelming, and Mozart is remembered observing, “My Praguers understand me.”
Outside the Estates Theatre today is a haunting statue of a cloaked figure with its face hidden in shadows. This work of Czech sculptor Anna Chromý (1940 - 2021), entitled “The Cloak of Conscience,” represents the ghost-statue of Il Commendatore, the character who arrives at Don Giovanni’s door with an ominous knock and hustles the unrepentant reprobate to the underworld.
A prodigy’s travels
Mozart’s crisscrossing of Europe began before he was six years old. He was already known as a prodigy who played the harpsichord and composed. His sister also showed unusual talent, and their father took the children first to the Bavarian court and then to the imperial court at Vienna. Leopold Mozart considered his son’s talent a “miracle” and was disposed to profit from it.
The year Wolfgang turned seven, the family took the children on an extended tour of the music capitals of Europe. In Germany, they visited Munich, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Mainz. One of Mozart’s father’s letters also documents a visit to Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava. The family also stopped in Brussels and wintered in Paris before going to London when Mozart was eight.
His time there is documented in British historian Lucy Worsley’s BBC documentary Mozart’s London Odyssey. Worsley describes the child musician’s life-changing experiences that led to the writing of his first symphony while there. His father lay in bed recovering from a near-fatal illness, and Mozart was unable to perform. So he sat down to write original music instead. Already in this first symphony’s lyricism and play of harmonies, we can hear the mature composer.
After more than a year in London, the Mozart family wound their way home through The Hague, Amsterdam, and Paris again, then passed through Lyon and Switzerland before reaching Salzburg more than three years after they had left.
During a 15-month trip to Vienna from 1767 to 1769, several of Mozart’s works flopped, but his setting of a festal mass, performed at Vienna’s Orphanage Church and the archbishop’s palace in Salzburg, led to his appointment in Salzburg as an honorary Konzertmeister.
Maturing during the Italian years
Mozart next made an extensive tour of Italy, again at his father’s behest. The now-teenaged composer set out in December 1769 and enjoyed a delightful 15 months there. His artistic ability grew along with his experiences of a new culture and language. He performed for Pope Clement XIV in Rome, who rewarded him with a knighthood.
Perhaps Mozart’s greatest feat while in Italy was his reproduction, completely from memory, of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, which he had heard performed in the Sistine Chapel. Papal authority forbade any copying of the work on pain of excommunication, but Mozart didn’t need to copy: He carried all the music away in his head.
Mozart expanded his knowledge of counterpoint in Bologna, conducted his opera Mitridate at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, and passed the entrance examination at the Accademia Filarmonica in Verona. He learned to master his own talent, becoming increasingly aware of how to create sonic texture.
In 1771, Mozart went to Milan to present a joyous opera, Ascanio di Alba, to the archduke on the occasion of his marriage. Again in Milan from 1772 to early 1773, he presented the opera Lucio Silla. The work’s high drama earned it 26 performances.
During the years of travel to and from Italy, Mozart continued to flex his musical talent. He composed new symphonies in a lively Italian style, along with six string quartets. A 1773 trip to Vienna honed his skills even further, producing string quartets heavily influenced by classical master Joseph Haydn and showing Mozart’s growing understanding of the form. New symphonies also emerged, as did his first piano concerto.
Love and loss in Germany and Paris
After toiling in the provincial court at Salzburg, Mozart at age 21 left to seek work in Munich, but was refused. After spending time in Augsburg, he traveled to Mannheim, where the court of the Elector Palatine was among the most musically sophisticated of its day. Mozart spent a successful four months in the city, producing several sonatas for piano and violin. He also fell in love, but his father thwarted the romance by forbidding him to travel to Italy with the young woman’s family.
Mozart followed his father’s wishes and went to Paris in 1778, accompanied by his mother. Their six-month stay resulted in the composition of a very well-received symphony in D Major. Mozart had learned to use dramatic Parisian techniques well, as stunningly exemplified in the opening movement of this “Paris” symphony (No. 31).
But the trip was tragic personally. In Paris, his mother fell ill and died just after the premiere.
Summoned to Salzburg by his father to take a job as court organist, Mozart dilly-dallied in Munich and Mannheim on the way home. His receipt of a commission in 1780 resulted in the Italian opera Idomeneo, another turning point in his style. This work, which he premiered in Munich just after his birthday in January 1781, was richly dramatic beyond the scope of his earlier operas.
Coming into his own in Vienna
After angrily breaking from his Salzburg position, Mozart relocated to Vienna, where he debuted his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with lyrics in German, at the Burgtheater in 1782. The work is noted for its use of “exotic” tone colors and for containing more notes than any other opera in the German repertoire. The heroine of the piece, like his soon-to-be-wife, was named Constanze.
Inspired by both Haydn’s classicism and the Baroque tradition, Mozart’s work in the 1780s was now fully mature. Still in Vienna, he became furiously productive, and often performed piano pieces and conducted his own symphonies, which now included the “Linz,” written in honor of his stay in that city. His piano concertos and string quintets became especially individualistic, romantic, and grandiose. New commissions in 1789 led to travel to Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.
A last love letter to Prague
In 1791, Mozart was working on his last great opera, La Clemenza di Tito, for the Prague opera, in honor of the imperial coronation of Leopold II. This more classically structured work, again debuted under his baton at the Estates Theatre, renewed the love of Prague audiences for his work. That December, when “his” Praguers learned of the composer’s death at 35 after his return to Vienna, they tolled the church bells throughout their city.