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Mozart And Haydn: Two Lives Of Musical Genius

Late in his life Goethe, who had seen the seven-year-old Mozart play in Frankfurt, defined genius as a “productive power” whose actions have “consequences and lasting life.” Both Haydn and Mozart certainly qualify as musical geniuses. To experience Mozart’s Requiem, for example, even in its unfinished and coauthored state, is to partake in the passion and creativity of a genius almost unique in human history. But unlike Haydn, Mozart was both a genius and a prodigy, and these two defining elements do not easily coexist. Perhaps because he died at such a young age, unburdened by the inevitable transitions of middle age and old age that Haydn experienced, there is remarkable continuity in Mozart’s life and music. It is hard to think of another great artist in whom we can trace an almost unbroken developmental line of composition and performance through an astounding childhood and an equally astonishing young adulthood.

Mozart’s musical education, a critical variable in any prodigy, was entirely fashioned by his father, Leopold, who was a professional musician, composer, and renowned educator even before his three-year-old son began to demand to play and compose from under the piano stool. Due in part to Leopold’s own financial ambitions, Mozart was “home schooled” with demonic vigor, and home schooled rapidly turned into “world schooled” in the concert halls of Europe as fame spread of the young child’s ability as performer and composer. Mozart’s other teachers were some of the greatest musicians of the continent and England at the time. They included J. C. Bach (J. S. Bach’s son), the so-called “English Bach,” upon whose lap the child sat while the two shared a keyboard and improvised together for the King and Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. Other mentors were Michael Haydn, whose Litany we will sing, and perhaps most important, Franz Josef Haydn.

Prodigy and genius aside, Mozart’s educational experience makes it easier for us to appreciate why he was so determined to stay in Vienna, the epicenter of German culture. At great personal and professional cost, he also determined no longer to work for others, in an era when musicians were virtual slaves to their patrons. So it was that at 25, Mozart took the amazing step of established himself as a freelance musician in Vienna, thereby breaking his own musical servitude and creating a model for a new professional identity for musicians that has continued to this day.

In marked contrast to the all-too-brief whirlwind of Mozart’s life stands that of the other musical genius of mid-18th-century Vienna, Franz Joseph Haydn, whose early work Salve Regina we will sing. Haydn’s career was marked by patience, continuity, and above all gradualism. A musically precocious child (but not a prodigy), at the age of eight he was able to leave parents unequipped to help him in order to receive a musical education as a boy chorister at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna.

There Haydn was trained to be a competent performer well suited for an indentured institutional musical life at church or at court, but he wanted to be a composer, and for almost the next ten years he remained at the edge of poverty while he learned musical theory and the craft of composition. At 27, he was ready to return to the protection of the court, and he gained employment and patronage first in Bohemia and several years later with Prince Esterházy near Vienna. Haydn remained in the prince’s employ for almost 30 years, patiently honing his compositional skills. It was not until he was around 40, though (recall that Mozart died at 35), that his compositions began to transcend standard Viennese fare. But Haydn lived well into his 70’s, creating an ever more brilliant body of work and inventing original musical structures defining Classicism that all his colleagues, including Mozart, built upon.

Genius is fragile: Mozart could have succumbed psychically to his father’s intrusive authority and to the musical world’s ambitions for him; Haydn could have accepted the role of a court musician mired in the ceremonial demands of Viennese society. Fortunately for the world, these two geniuses’ commitment to making great music enabled them to insist on the artistic independence that allowed them to create their unique legacies.

— Pilar Montero and Arthur Colman

Sources: Mozart, by Peter Gay, New York, Viking, 1999; Musical Prodigies, by Claude Kenneson, Oregon, Amadeus Press, 1998; Great Masters: Mozart, His Life and Music, by Robert Greenberg, Virginia, The Teaching Company, 2000 (audio tapes).

Reprinted from The Society Page—The Voice of the San Francisco Choral Society, Fall 2004.

Copyright © Arthur C. Colman