Prototypical wunderkind. Revolutionary composer. Precocious firebrand. Today, it is typically in this highly romanticized light that people choose to remember Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Growing up with such talent during what is viewed as the golden age for artistic patronage, it is no wonder that Mozart’s life is often described as a carefree one full of limitless opportunity and tragically cut short. However, this rosy picture not only fails to capture the human qualities of this great man, it also trivializes how hard he worked to overcome institutional opposition, the harsh realities of his time and his own inner demons.
Despite his middle-class upbringing and clear musical gifts from an early age, childhood was not easy for Mozart. He was only six years old when his father, Leopold Mozart, swept him and his older sister Nannerl along on a three-year tour across Europe. The conditions were brutal and nearly fatal for the younger Mozart, who fell gravely ill in 1765. Today, Leopold’s controlling and opportunistic use of his children would certainly border on abusive. This near constant travel during his formative years almost certainly contributed to the younger Mozart’s peculiar personality and his inability to settle in one place for many years afterward.
Nevertheless, during his childhood Mozart was accustomed to being admired and respected by his peers. As such, he was ill-prepared for the rejections that he would receive later in life. His early 20s were troubled by his unrequited love for Aloysia Weber, an accomplished singer who repeatedly rejected Mozart’s advances. After Aloysia was married, Mozart settled his attentions on her sister Constanze. While she ultimately accepted his proposal, their courtship was not without its own drama, including a period of separation just months before their marriage. Even after the two were wed, they suffered the tragedy, not uncommon at the time, of having all but one of their six children die in infancy or shortly after.
It is widely documented that Mozart also had considerable difficulties with landing a steady job with a sufficient income. Many of his patrons, most notably the ruler of Salzburg Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, viewed Mozart as merely a petty entertainer and refused to grant him the respect and wages that Mozart felt he deserved. Mozart’s indeference to authority certainly didn’t help him on this cause. As a result, he spent years as a migrant, travelling between odd jobs throughout German-speaking Europe, including a considerable time during which he couldn’t find any stable employment and worked mainly as a freelancer. In order to make ends meet Mozart had to rely on his own ingenuity. With no court to entertain, Mozart chose to hold his own concerts in rented rooms throughout Vienna, showcasing his impressive skills at the keyboard as well as his compositions.
These concerts were a boon to Mozart’s career but the success was short-lived. By the late 1780s war between Austria and Turkey and general austerity towards the arts were putting a great strain on Mozart, and he began to succumb to periods of depression and decreased creativity. Attempting to retain his lavish lifestyle from a few years earlier, Mozart was forced to depend more on the monetary support from his friends in the forms of loans, many of which he was unable to pay back before his death. It is likely that these financial woes were a deeply ingrained part of Mozart’s disposition, and even during his most successful years he seemed incapable of staying in one place long enough to cement his reputation and start to save money.
While much of the focus on Mozart is typically focused on his miraculous childhood and the tragically unexpected nature of his death, the truth is far more nuanced. Mozart only lived a short 35 years, and his life was a story not just of unbridled success but also of heartache, insecurity and occasional despair. The fact that he was able to achieve great success in the face of such adversity is a true testament to his passion and resilience, qualities that are every bit as inspiring as his talent as a child.