It may seem like I’ve been exploring Europe willy-nilly for the past couple of years. But in a way, I’ve had an untold mission as I crossed the continent, from one capital to the next. Without knowing it, I’ve been on a Mozart odyssey.
You may remember my recent visit to Salzburg, Austria, best known for two things: The Sound of Music, which was filmed there in 1964, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in the city in 1756. But my Mozart odyssey began far earlier.
Back in 2013, I spent a few days in Vienna on the way to a Mediterranean cruise. And if you spend much time in Vienna, you’re sure to bump into Mozart. He spent a large part of his life there, writing some of his most famous music. (In fact, he died there at a young age, which you know if you’ve seen the movie Amadeus.) And his music is featured in the concerts held in St. Stephan’s Cathedral, in the heart of the old city.
He also lived near the cathedral, and you can visit his home – that is, if you can find it. I saw it mentioned in every travel book, and highlighted in tourist maps. But no matter how many corners I turned, I just couldn’t find it. Until one day I turned the map around and found my way through a little arch, where a fellow directed me around the corner and down a narrow, twisting street.
And there, in an undistinguished-looking building, was a sign announcing the Mozart house. Up a couple of flights of stone stairs, and I was in the rooms where he, his wife Constanze and their young family lived from 1784 to 1787. These were momentous years: Mozart was writing works that would be known for centuries after him, such as The Marriage of Figaro. At the same time, he was having the time of his life, throwing lavish parties and buying champagne by the case.
The rooms themselves were without furniture except for a few display cases. So it was a bit hard to picture Wolfgang Amadeus and his family at home. However, they were filled with pictures, letters and documents that painted a vivid picture of the time when he lived there – a time when Vienna was a cultural centre of Europe.
They also shed a little light on some of the mysteries of his life – such as the shadowy patron who commissioned the Requiem he was writing when he died. (Apparently, it was a nobleman who wanted to present it at his wife’s memorial service, and pass it off it as his own.) There was even an original page from his Requiem hanging on the wall.
The displays also gave a little insight into Mozart’s reputation as a social climber and playboy: all true. In one letter, he coyly solicits a rich patron to buy him an extravagant red coat. And a financial record shows that in one year he borrowed the equivalent of a year’s pay from one of his noble friends to pay his gambling debts.
I didn’t think much more about Mozart until I went to Prague in 2015. Few of us realize it, but Prague was a cultural centre in the 18th century as well, and the streets of the old town are littered with signs advertising string quartet performances in little theatres around town. One of the most prominent corners in old Prague is occupied by the grand Municipal House Theatre (seen at right), home of classical music in the city.
But I hadn’t heard about its Mozart connection until I turned the corner a few blocks away and came across some actors dressed in period costume. They were standing in front of the Estates Theatre, where the regular feature is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. That’s because back in 1787, the great Wolfgang Amadeus travelled to Prague to stage the opera’s very first performance in that theatre.
So, another stop on Mozart’s musical journey. I seemed to be chasing him around Europe. But while I’d seen where he lived and performed, I had yet to see where he came from. That finally happened this year, when I visited Salzburg.
If you don’t know about Salzburg’s Mozart obsession, you find out pretty quickly when you walk through the city’s old section, nestled between the Salzach river and a steep cliff. His image is everywhere – on pictures, chocolates, fridge magnets, even on rubber ducks.
Mozart is like the city’s patron saint. And the house where he was born is a shrine, visited by hundreds of tourists every day. They gather around the front door, taking selfies and posing for keepsake photos all day long, making it almost impossible to photograph it.
It’s also a museum, much like the house in Vienna, and walking through it, I filled in many of the blanks in the Mozart saga. Mozart came by his talent honestly: his father, Leopold, was a renowned violinist and author of an instruction book that was widely used by music students. So he was more than happy to see his little son show amazing musical talent at an early age. In one document, he shows off Mozart’s first composition, written when he was five years old.
That early excellence led Leopold to take young Wolfgang and sister Nannerl on musical journeys across Europe. The little prodigy, dressed in velvet and lace, amazed audiences with his playing. In Vienna, he played for the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who tested him by insisting he play with a cloth over the keyboard. According to witnesses, when he finished playing, he jumped onto the empress’s lap and demanded a kiss.
Unlike the Vienna house, this one has a couple of rooms restored as they would have been when the family lived there. Here’s a look at the kitchen.
But the centrepiece is the room where Mozart was born. It’s a large room, filled with glass cases and artifacts from his life, and it takes a little imagination to stand there and imagine a baby being born there – even one bound for greatness.
I also visited another house across the river, where Mozart and his family lived after moving out of their original home. The “Mozart Wõhnhaus” sits on a pleasant little square, and you can have a coffee on the back patio if you like. It was closed when I visited, so I only looked into the courtyard.
It seemed my Mozart odyssey was over. But after leaving Salzburg, I embarked on a Viking cruise of the Danube, and a few days later found myself back in Vienna. After a bite at Café Landtmann, I set out for the one major attraction I missed on my first visit: the Schönbrunn Palace, summer home of Austria’s imperial family.
The palace is a vast building, with hundreds of rooms, and I wandered through them, admiring the lavish furniture and classical paintings. And arriving in one of its many finely appointed salons, I consulted the guidebook to find that I was standing in the room where the child Mozart played for the empress back in 1762.
My Mozart odyssey was at an end – at least, for now. Without meaning to, I had chased the great composer and child prodigy around Europe, and found out a lot more about him than I had ever imagined. So I’ll leave you with a few of the odd and amazing facts of his all-too-short life:
- Mozart was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He later substituted “Amadeus” for “Theophilus”, both meaning “lover of God or “loved of God”. In some documents the name is written as “Gottlieb”, which means the same in German.
- Mozart died at the age of 35, but in that time he composed more than 600 works, from songs and arias to operas and symphonies. Works like The Marriage of Figaro and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik are still some of the best-known music in the world.
- Mozart had six children, but only two survived infancy. His youngest son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, who was born after his death, had moderate success as a pianist and composer.
- Mozart knew and studied under Johann Christian Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was a good friend of Joseph Haydn.
- Mozart was a Freemason, and even wrote music dedicated to the organization.
- The Mozart house in Vienna has a vaulted basement that can be rented for concerts, weddings and even children’s birthday parties.