Leopold Mozart: Composition and Controversy
Posted on 15th October 2019 at 11:43
November 2019 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Leopold Mozart (November 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787).
Perhaps often primarily known as the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leopold is an almost mythical figure, equated, perhaps partly thanks to the blockbuster film Amadeus, with a stern and conflicted father/son relationship.
Another interpretation is that Leopold, who had supported his child prodigy son for many years, was concerned as Wolfgang pushed for more independence that his son was unfit to look after himself – a worry which proved to be grounded in reality.
Leopold and his wife Anna Maria had seven children, but only his daughter Maria Anna (Nannerl) and his youngest son Wolfgang survived past infancy. His parenting of his adult children is largely the subject that causes controversy, but it seems possible that his over-involvement was motivated by love rather than any negative emotion. Being guardian to such precocious children must have been a huge responsibility.
Although he expended huge amounts of energy promoting his son Wolfgang and his daughter Nannerl, gradually making this the focus of his life, Leopold Mozart was an extraordinary and well-respected musician himself. His 1756 treatise on violin playing ranks alongside those of Flesch and Galamian in the history of violin pedagogy. His skill and influence as a violinist and violin teacher is evident through the work of his son, in particular the violin concertos, and Leopold’s book is a valuable resource for understanding the both development of violin technique and historic musical ornamentation.
His own career as a court musician and composer was somewhat hampered by the amount of time he spent travelling with his children, and his most significant contribution is considered to be his teaching. From 1743 he worked as fourth violinist in the musical establishment of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. In 1758 he was promoted to second violinist, and in 1763 to deputy Kapellmeister, but numerous others were promoted over him to the position of Kapellmeister. His compositions were widely circulated, but biographers describe them with adjectives such as, “undistinguished.”
It’s fair to say that the discovery of his children’s talent transformed his life. He once referred to his son as, “The miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” He began touring with the children in 1762, travelling to cities including Paris, London, Munich and Vienna to perform for both public and aristocracy. It’s unclear whether these tours generated much income. Whist the audience was extensive, costs must have been high, and Leopold was unable to continue his own work for the duration of the trips.
According to the Grove Dictionary, Nannerl later claimed that he “entirely gave up both violin instruction and composition in order to direct that time not claimed in service to the prince to the education of his two children.” After 1762 he seemed to limit his writing to revising his earlier compositions and he composed nothing after 1771.
Leopold’s support for Nannerl was significant. After her marriage, her father would still take care of shopping and the engagement of servants, send her news from Salzburg, Munich, and Vienna to divert her, organise the maintenance of her fortepiano, pay for Wolfgang’s music to be copied and arranged for her to receive it, look after her health, and, according to Halliwell, encouraged her to stand up to her husband when he was being unreasonable. Nannerl’s marriage involved her looking after five step children, and her own son (born in 1785) was initially raised by entirely by Leopold. It is possible that Leopold had hoped to train another child prodigy, but he died in 1787 when little Leopold was not quite two years old.
Scholars are still conflicted over his role as father. Some see him as misrepresented, and frustrated in being unable to guide his son into the sort of role his talent deserved. Others feel he was unable to give his adult children independence, which resulted in considerable problems for them.
As a composer, his contribution is less controversial. He willingly sacrificed his own career for that of his son, but some work survives.
But Leopold’s Cassation in G for Orchestra and Toys (Toy Symphony) is still popular, and there are a number of symphonies, a trumpet concerto, and some other works.
According to Grove, a contemporary report described what Leopold had composed prior to 1757 thus:
“many contrapuntal and other church items; further a great number of symphonies, some only à 4 but others with all the customary instruments; likewise more than 30 large serenades in which solos for various instruments appear. In addition he has brought forth many concertos, in particular for the transverse flute, oboe, bassoon, Waldhorn, trumpet etc.: countless trios and divertimentos for various instruments; 12 oratorios and a number of theatrical items, even pantomimes, and especially certain occasional pieces such as martial music … Turkish music, music with ‘steel keyboard’ and lastly a musical sleigh ride; not to speak of marches, so-called ‘Nachtstücke’ and many hundreds of minuets, opera dances and similar items.
He was interested in creating a naturalistic feel in is work. His Jagdsinfonie (or Sinfonia da Caccia for four horns and strings) requires the use of shotguns, and his Bauernhochzeit (Peasant Wedding) includes dulcimer, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, ‘whoops and whistles’ (ad. lib.) and pistol shots.
Much of his work is now lost, and scholars are only now beginning to assess the extent and quality of his compositions. Some of the work was wrongly attributed to Wolfgang, and vice versa. Much of what survives is light music, and it’s is not known how representitive this is of his output. There is some more substantial work in the Sacramental Litany in D major (1762) and three fortepiano sonatas, all of which were published in his lifetime, and Cliff Eisen describes in his doctoral dissertation on Leopold Mozart’s symphonies, that the G major symphony “compares favourably with those of virtually any of Mozart’s immediate contemporaries”.
Sources and further reading:
Tagged as: CHILD PRODIGY, COMPOSERS, COMPOSITION, FAMOUS FATHERS, GREAT COMPOSERS, GREAT MUSICIANS, LEOPOLD MOZART, MOZART, MUSIC HISTORY, MUSICIAN, VIOLIN PEDAGOGY, VIOLIN TEACHING, VIOLINIST
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