Mozart was one of the top composers of music’s Classical period. In this lesson, we’ll look at three categories of his greatest works: the genres of opera, symphony, and piano concerto.
Mozart and His Music
Musical boy genius, periwigged piano virtuoso, and giggling guy from the movie Amadeus: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is a legend whose fame extends from the concert hall to pop culture. Mozart was one of the top composers of music’s Classical era, a stylistic period that lasted from the mid-17th century until the early 18th century.
Classical-era music was orderly, accessible, and full of tuneful melodies. Many musicians consider Mozart’s elegant yet powerful music to be the pinnacle of Classical style.Mozart was an Austrian musician who began his career touring Europe as a five-year-old piano prodigy. For much of his adult career, he worked as a freelance pianist and composer in Vienna until his tragic early death at the age of 35.
He wrote music in nearly all the genres of his time, including songs, string quartets, church music, and outdoor serenades. In this lesson, we’ll focus on three genres for which Mozart is particularly famous: opera, symphony, and piano concerto.
An opera is a theatrical production in which the lines are sung rather than spoken. In Mozart’s time, opera was a popular branch of show business, full of epic tales, slapstick humor, elaborate sets and famous stars. In other words, it was a lot like Hollywood.
This flashy genre and some of Mozart’s greatest shows are discussed in another lesson.Perhaps Mozart’s most famous operas are those in the style called opera buffa, which means ‘comic opera’. To remember that term, just remember that the Italian word ‘buffa’ gave us the English word ‘buffoon’. There’s plenty of buffoonery in Mozart opera buffa, but these works are also known for their biting social commentary and the psychological complexity of their characters.For example, take Mozart’s opera buffa Don Giovanni (1787).
Its protagonist, a Spanish nobleman named Don Giovanni, is a rich, charming, lying womanizer; think Don Draper from ‘Mad Men’. He exploits his aristocratic power throughout the show, even getting away with murder, at least (spoiler alert) until the final act, when a statue of his victim drags him literally down to hell. Despite being a ‘comic’ opera, the show raises big questions about the strain between social classes.
Mozart was brilliant at musical characterization. In this excerpt, Don Giovanni is trying to seduce an innocent peasant girl, and he’s so suave that it’s hard not to be charmed (please refer to the video at 02:52 to hear this).
Opera may have been the Classical period’s most glamorous music genre, but symphony was a genre that brought a composer prestige among musicians and connoisseurs. A symphony is a work for orchestra written in several successive movements, or sections. A Classical-style symphony is usually split into four movements, each with its own mood, speed, and emotional character.Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of eight and followed it up with more than 40 symphonies over the course of his life. Mozart’s mature symphonies are elegant, dramatic works, full of the contrast between wind and string instruments, and between bright and dark harmonies.
Some of his symphonies are named after the cities in which they premiered, like the Prague Symphony. Others are just identified by their key and the order in which Mozart wrote them.For example, Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor doesn’t have a descriptive title. It’s a great example of a late Classical-era style called Sturm und Drang, which was popular both in literature and music. This German phrase means ‘storm and stress’, and you can certainly hear those qualities in this work, one of Mozart’s few symphonies in a minor key. Its famous opening features quiet, agitated string parts, interrupted by sudden bursts of sound from the full orchestra (please refer to the video at 04:39).
Mozart’s Piano Concerti
A concerto is a music genre written for orchestra and a featured solo instrument. Since it’s an Italian word, the plural of concerto is technically concerti, though many musicians also use ‘concertos’ as a plural.Just like back-up singers in pop music help highlight a vocalist’s performance, a concerto with orchestra is a great way to show off an instrumental soloist. Mozart wrote concerti for many different solo instruments, but his piano concerti are particularly interesting because he wrote them to perform himself. Mozart’s piano concerti helped him earn a reputation as one of the top pianists in Classical-era Vienna.
All of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti are formatted in three movements: an opening fast movement, a slow second movement, and a fast finale. They tend to feature exciting dialogues between the orchestra and the piano, as well as plenty of opportunity for the piano soloist to show off technical skills and musical sensitivity.Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G Major is a great example. In this excerpt from its first movement, you’ll get to hear the piano part Mozart would have played, in dialogue with the other instruments of the orchestra (please refer to the video at 06:17).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the most prominent composers of the Classical era, a stylistic period that lasted from the mid-17th century until the early 18th century. Adept at all of the Classical era’s music genres, Mozart is particularly known for his mastery of characterization in Classical opera. His most famous opera buffa, or comic opera, is Don Giovanni. Mozart wrote more than 40 symphonies, multi-movement works for orchestra, including his dramatic Symphony no. 40 in G minor. Mozart composed 27 piano concerti for his own performances, including his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G Major.
Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Recall when the Classical era occurred
- Describe Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s importance to this era
- Identify some of Mozart’s works in opera, the symphony and his piano concerti