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06 December 2008

Mozart, RIP

I missed the anniversary of W.A. Mozart's death yesterday - 217 years ago, December 5, 1791, in Vienna. He was less than 2 months shy of his 36th birthday. Mozart always struggled financially, but this is most likely due to his having a difficult personality in an aristocratic age when being a major-league suck up was critical to success. He left us an astonishing body of work, and it's painful to think of what we never got to hear. While his death may not have been unusually early for the time, it's early for a major composer since few have accomplished so much at this age.

While the mind probably reaches its creative peak in the mid/late twenties, serious composers usually take a little longer to reach theirs. Lennon and McCartney, for example, peaked in their mid-twenties. Beethoven only began to compose seriously in his mid-twenties. He completed his "breakout" work, the Eroica, when he was 32. Brahms didn't begin to hit his stride until his 30's. He completed his magnificent 4th Symphony when he was 52. Notable exceptions are Schubert, who died at age 31, and Rossini, who produced the bulk of his operas between the ages 18 and 28, and retired from composing in his 30's.

So were Mozart'z creative powers in a state of decline at his death or likely to have continued to blossom? Had he died a year or two earlier it might have appeared that way, but his final year was one of his most productive. I've tabulated the number of works he produced at each age of his life, according to this Kochel listing. Since his birthday is in January, I've simply taken each year of composition less 1756 as his age. I made some effort to divide works evenly among years where a range of years is given. It's not a perfect accounting - his majestic B flat Piano Concerto in counted in his 35th year, though actually published in early January and so obviously written a prior year - but overall it's accurate enough to see a trend. Here's how is output looks over time:

While he did indeed have a couple off years when he was 33/34, the general trend was clearly one of increasing output as he aged. The sheer number of compositions hardly tells the whole story. In 1791, he wrote the operas La Clemenza di Tito and the Magic Flute along with the Clarinet Concerto in A as well as much of his Requiem. As for some of his other major works:

Piano Concerto in D minor - age 29
Marriage of Figaro - age 30
Don Giovanni - age 31
Symphonies 39, 40, 41 - age 32
Cosi fan Tutti - age 33
Piano Concerto in B flat - age 34

So there's no evidence that Mozart was past his peak, and it certainly seems likely more astonishing music was in his (our) future. Talk about the day the music died.

10 Comments:

Blogger Steve Sailer said...

A music scholar once wrote up a ten page speculative biography of the second half of Mozart's life from age 35 to 70. Highlights include Mozart's triumphant visit to London in 1794 following Haydn's landmark success there, his 1806 collaboration with Goethe on the opera of "Faust," and his 1826 visit to New York City, where his old librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had, in real life, wound up as a professor at Columbia.

December 07, 2008 7:05 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

Good post.

I have to believe a mind that incredible would have continued turning out brilliant works for as long as he was around, or at least close to that time. Besides, it's not like he was financially secure and could live off his investments and royalties, like the driving forces of the Beatles.

Two other great composers of the time who continued turning out great works until a ripe old age were Bach and Haydn.

December 07, 2008 2:31 PM  
Blogger agnostic said...

Not that you've said otherwise in the post, but it's worth emphasizing that those who do produce major works in middle age were pumping out great stuff starting in their teens or 20s.

We now say that we've got to make them wait so long because there's so much background material to absorb before striking out on their own -- baloney. It's not like there wasn't a mind-boggling amount of math for Gauss to absorb, or music theory and songs for Mozart to absorb.

No one just bursts out onto the math or music scene in their 30s or after, having lain dormant up till then. Nuts to "finding yourself" in and after college -- just take something and run with it!

December 07, 2008 4:59 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

That's true - Beethoven composed his first 8 sonatas from age 24 thru 27 - culminating in the breathtaking Pathetique. I think with orchestral music there's just a lot to learn, particularly in those days without recording technology. Some, like Schumann and Mussorgsky, never really grasped it.

December 07, 2008 9:36 PM  
Blogger Figgy said...

I see Gladwell used Mozart as an example in his latest scholarly offering. Something like if one puts the work in and has some luck (like one's Dad being in the music biz), there could be lots of Mozart candidates.

December 12, 2008 8:30 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

I'm sure there were many talented people in the eighteenth century who never caught a break and got dropped along the wayside. But it's unlikely we're missing much - luck at Mozart's brilliant contemporary Carl Stamitz - his music is barely played today.

But another Mozart? Well, we've had well over 200 years, and except for Beethoven, no one even comes close. No other composer has 4 operas, a half-dozen symphonies, 7 piano-concertos, a violin concerto, clarinet concerto, horn concerto, near a dozen overtures, plus an assortment of chamber and sacred works regularly played in the modern repertoire.

Then his notion that he was "lucky" to have an accomplished musician as a father is absurd because musical talent is among the most highly heritable of all human skills.

December 14, 2008 10:14 AM  
Blogger Gobbie said...

I once heard a radio announcer talk about formula from which you could calculate Mozart's approximate age at composition from the Kochel number. Does anyone know of the formula?

April 09, 2010 7:42 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Based on the data I came up with to build the graph, the formula is

A = 10.36 x .04K

(A = age and K = Kochel listing, obviously). It's a bit off in the early years (as you can tell by the intercept of 10, when Mozart actually began composing at age 5), but by age 12 it's pretty darn accurate - in fact, the correlation of the results of the formula to Mozart's actual age when he composed each work is .95!

April 10, 2010 12:29 PM  
Blogger Gobbie said...

Thank you Ziel - that works! Also easier but a bit rougher is A = K/20 + 4

April 10, 2010 9:13 PM  
Blogger Robin Elliott said...

It should be 10.36 + .04K, not 10.36 X .04K, and yes this formula is amazingly accurate (though limited on occasion, of course, by chronological errors in Köchel's catalogue).

April 01, 2016 10:11 PM  

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