13 Facts About Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.
Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.

A genius composer turned pop culture icon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 musical works and influenced other maestros like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He continues to inspire everyone from film directors to computer scientists today. Here are some things you might not know about the famous child prodigy.

1. MOZART'S FATHER THRUST HIM INTO THE MUSIC BUSINESS.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756, to his mother Anna Maria and his father Leopold Mozart, who was a composer and music teacher at Salzburg Cathedral. Little Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna were taught to play the clavier (a stringed keyboard instrument) from a young age. Both children showed immense musical talent. By the time he was 4 years old, Mozart could learn a song on the clavier in just 30 minutes.

2. MOZART HUNG OUT WITH A YOUNG MARIE ANTOINETTE.

When he was 6, Mozart's family was performing at royal courts, and he began to perform concerts himself. At the Habsburg summer residence outside Vienna, Mozart met Archduchess Marie Antoinette, who was two months his senior. It’s said that she helped Mozart when he slipped on a polished floor. In return, he proposed marriage to the future queen of France. The experience in Vienna would lead to the beginning of a wildly successful tour across Europe that stopped at dozens of cities and royal courts between 1763 and 1766.

3. HE WROTE HIS FIRST OPERA AT 11.

Mozart took in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Versailles, and more as he traveled with his family. At one concert in Munich, Mozart and his sister played together for three straight hours, and they wowed audiences everywhere they went. While playing a series of concerts in Paris, Mozart published his first piece of music: a violin sonata in five parts. He was 8.

At age 11, he wrote his first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. A series of tours of Italian cities beginning in December 1769 confirmed Mozart's preternatural talent. He was commissioned to write operas for Milan's carnival, was admitted to Bologna's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica, and directed the first three performances of his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto. At 15, he wrote that he was hearing whole operas “at home in my head.” Mozart later admitted to feeling “as proud as a peacock” about his fame.

4. HIS EARLY TRIUMPHS DIDN'T LAST—AND THEN HIS FATHER BLAMED HIM FOR HIS MOTHER'S DEATH.

After the Italian tours, Mozart returned to Salzburg and began composing for the court of its new ruler, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, but the work was unchallenging. In 1778, Mozart's ever-ambitious father sent him to Paris with an order to “put yourself in the company of the great.” But now, Mozart was 22 and no longer the boy wonder who hung out with Marie Antoinette on his three-year European tour. He was an adult musician with “a plain, pockmarked face” who could barely speak French.

Left out of high society and running out of money, Mozart and his mother, who was chaperoning him, holed up in a cold and dilapidated hotel in the 2nd arrondissement. His mother fell ill with a fever, and she died on July 3, 1778 at the age of 57. Mozart was all alone, and too scared to tell his father what had happened to his mother. Instead, he got his friend, Abbé Bullinger, to tell him the news. Leopold Mozart ended up blaming his son for her death, believing that if his mother hadn't accompanied him to Paris, things would have turned out differently.

5. HE KIND OF HATED WORKING IN SALZBURG.

Following the Paris stay, Mozart went back to Salzburg to live with his father and sister via Strasbourg (where he played three poorly attended concerts), Mannheim, Munich, and Augsburg. At home, he found a job as a court organist, but wasn't happy. He wanted more for himself, once writing, “to waste one’s life in inactivity in such a beggarly place is really very sad.” The worst part of staying in Salzburg was dealing with the stinginess of his patron, von Colloredo, who wanted him to compose only music meant for the local church. Despite his difficulties during this period, Mozart nevertheless wrote two important compositions, Symphony No. 32 in G Major (K318) and Symphony No. 33 in B Flat Major (K319).

6. HE MOVED TO VIENNA IN 1781, AND HIS LIFE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY.

In Vienna, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. Nights in the capital belonged to the wealthy, who attended the finest masked balls and operas. Starting off as a freelance musician with just one student, Mozart worked his way into the heart of Viennese social life, propelled by the popular appeal of his piano concertos and symphonies. One biographer noted that audiences for his piano concertos had the experience of “witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.”

Soon, Mozart could be seen going about town in gold-trimmed hats and red coats with mother-of-pearl buttons. A year after moving to Vienna, he married the soprano Constanze Weber. They had their first child in 1783—a boy named Raimund Leopold.

7. HE INSISTED HIS CHILDREN SHOULDN'T BE BREAST-FED.

He wrote, “I was quite determined that even if she were able to do so, my wife was never to nurse her child. Yet I was equally determined that my child was never to take the milk of a stranger. I wanted the child to be brought up on water, like my sister and myself.”

Feeding infants on barley water instead of milk was common practice among the middle classes at the time. Mozart did eventually give in to his midwife's and mother-in-law's pleas to have a wet nurse breastfeed the child, but unfortunately, Raimund died two months after he was born. Only two of Mozart’s six children survived infancy.

8. MOZART HAD A PET STARLING.

Starlings are amazing mimics, and the one Mozart brought home from a Vienna pet shop on May 27, 1784 had been singing a movement from one of the composer’s pure, bright songs—the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major (K453).

Mozart’s starling was his constant companion. It was there for the composer’s move to a ritzy Vienna apartment in the Domgasse, just steps from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was there for the birth of two more sons, Karl Thomas Mozart and Johann Thomas Leopold, and the subsequent death of Johann a month after he was born. It witnessed Mozart achieving real fame for his symphonies and arias.

9. HE DIDN'T ATTEND HIS FATHER'S FUNERAL.

Around a week after Mozart’s father died on May 28, 1787, his pet starling passed away. Mozart didn’t go back to Salzburg for his father’s funeral, but he did bury his starling in the grandest way. Mourners in heavy veils marched in procession, sang hymns, and listened to Mozart recite a poem he’d written for the occasion. By a tiny graveside, the world’s greatest composer spoke with love of his starling “gay and bright” who was “not naughty, quite” [PDF].

10. HIS MUSIC SPANNED EVERY FORM AND STYLE OF HIS TIME.

From chamber music like Serenade No. 13 in G Major (K525), a.k.a. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to beloved operas such as The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte, Mozart's compositions redefined many forms of music: symphonies and concertos, harmonie-music for wind instruments, chamber music for string quartets, sonatas for the piano, masses, and choral and church music. All were parts of his oeuvre.

What makes Mozart’s work so revolutionary? Romantic composer Johannes Brahms noted the exceptional “purity” of his music. To the American composer Leonard Bernstein, Mozart’s works were “bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness, and enlightenment … over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s—the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering—a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”

Or, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, “Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined.”

11. MOZART'S LAST COMPOSITION REMAINED UNFINISHED.

His final commissioned piece was Requiem Mass In D Minor (K626). Mozart died before it was finished, but his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the work and delivered it to Austria’s Count Franz von Walsegg, who had commissioned the piece to memorialize his deceased wife. It’s believed that von Walsegg intended to pass the mass off as his own. That plan was scuppered by Constanze, who let it be known that it was, in fact, Mozart who had received the commission and that she was due a fee for the work.

12. THE REASON FOR HIS EARLY DEATH PROBABLY WASN'T POISON.

Mozart died when was 35 years old, on December 5, 1791. The coroner reported the cause as “severe miliary fever,” but a rumor suggested he had been poisoned by Antonio Salieri—an influential opera composer and an exceptional musician who taught Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. The rumor became entrenched in pop culture largely due to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1984 film adaptation. But the gossip was seen as baseless back in the 18th century, having stemmed from a false report of poisoning in a Berlin newspaper a week after the composer passed away. The real cause behind Mozart’s early death is likely much less nefarious. It was probably a fatal strep infection.

13. HIS MUSIC AND LIFE ARE STILL WIDELY CELEBRATED.

Named one of the “Greatest People of the Millennium” by TIME, Mozart’s fame has only grown since his death 226 years ago. New York City hosts the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center for a month every summer; Salzburg celebrates with an 11-day birthday party for the composer every January. In fact, an impressive percentage of Salzburg’s economy is built on Mozart tourism, with everything from Mozart keychains to t-shirts to chocolate-marzipan Mozart balls for sale in the city’s historic Old Town.

Google Creates First AI Doodle for Bach’s Birthday

Google
Google

Although there’s some debate about Johann Sebastian Bach’s exact birth date, today is roughly the 334th anniversary of the famous composer’s birth. In celebration of Bach’s contributions to a genre that would later be called classical music, Google created a Doodle that lets users create a song in Bach’s signature style.

Google has created musical Doodles before, but what sets this one apart is that it’s the first-ever Doodle powered by artificial intelligence, according to Newsweek. In this case, users create a simple melody by choosing their preferred notes on a musical staff, then increasing or decreasing the pace (measured in beats per minute, or BPM) or changing the key, if desired. Once satisfied, all they have to do is hit the “harmonize” button and let AI create a more sophisticated tune.

Fortunately for Google, there was a lot of material to draw from. Bach was a busy man, creating more than 1100 compositions in his lifetime (while also finding time to father 20 children). However, for this Doodle, a machine-learning model called Coconet was fed a portion of his oeuvre—306 harmonies in total. In addition to being trained to recognize the musical patterns in Bach's work, the model is also capable of creating harmonies, smooth transitions, and compositions from scratch.

“So when you create a melody of your own on the model in the Doodle, it harmonizes that melody in Bach's specific style,” Google explained in a statement. And just for fun, there’s a feature that lets you hear what the harmony would sound like in a modern rock style.

For a behind-the-scenes look of how the Bach Doodle was made, from both an artistic and technical perspective, check out Google’s video below.

[h/t Newsweek]

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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