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Child Prodigy

It took all of thirty minutes for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to master his first musical composition.

The work, a scherzo by Georg Christoph Wagenseil, had been copied by his father into Nannerl's notebook. Below it Leopold jotted: "This piece was learnt by Wolfgangerl on 24 January 1761, 3 days before his 5th birthday, between 9 and 9:30 in the evening."

Wolfgang's achievement was followed in rapid succession by others: a minuet and trio "learned within a half an hour" on January 26, a march learned on February 4, another scherzo on February 6. It wasn't long before the little boy entered a composition of his own into the notebook. At six measures, this andante in C major (K. 1a) is a mere wisp of a work. Other small compositions would follow. Inconsequential as they were, these bits and pieces were tokens of greater things to come.

No doubt, the boy held great promise as a composer. But Leopold, who could clearly see and hear his children's daily progress as keyboard performers, had more immediate aims. He began to neglect his court career and devote more time to Wolfgang and Nannerl's musical instruction. Ambitious plans began to take shape in his mind. Partly out of parental pride, partly out of a sense of duty, he determined to take his two musical prodigies on tour to the courts of Europe.

The first trip was a brief one. In January 1762, Leopold and the two children traveled to the nearby Munich court of Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria. Very little is known about this trip. Nannerl, as an adult, simply noted that she and her brother had "played before the Elector." After three weeks, they returned to Salzburg.

'We are being talked of everywhere'

Leopold immediately began to orchestrate a much more ambitious campaign. This time his objective was Vienna, capital of the sprawling Habsburg Empire, home of the imperial family and one of the major cultural centers of Europe.

The family set out from Salzburg on September 18. Upon reaching Passau, they embarked upon a post-boat and sailed down the Danube. At Linz, Wolfgang gave his first public concert. Among the audience were a certain Count Herberstein and the young Count Karl Hieronymous Pálffy, a councilor in the imperial Ministry of Finance. Both were astonished and hurried on to Vienna to spread sensational reports of what they had seen. Within days, Pálffy was describing the children's performance to Archduke Joseph, son of Empress Maria Theresa and later Emperor Joseph II.

A few days later the Mozart family landed at Vienna' 1000 s Danube Canal pier, where Wolfgang speeded their passage through customs by pulling out his fiddle and charming the inspector with a minuet.

All of Vienna, it seemed, was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the prodigies from Salzburg. "We are already being talked of everywhere," Leopold reported to Lorenz Hagenauer, his friend and landlord back home. "Everyone is amazed, especially at the boy, and everyone whom I have heard says that his genius is incomprehensible." The children's appearance at Schönbrunn Palace on October 13 was judged by Leopold to be a smashing success. He wrote: "Their Majesties received us with such extraordinary graciousness that, when I shall tell of it, people will declare that I have made it up. Suffice it to say that Wolferl jumped up on the Empress' lap, put his arms round her neck and kissed her heartily."

Taking society by storm

With that, the floodgates were opened and the invitations poured in. Because each appearance was rewarded -- the empress sent an honorarium of 100 ducats -- Leopold tried to arrange as many concerts as many as possible. "Today we were at the French Ambassador's. Tomorrow we are invited to Count Harrach's from four to six, but which Count Harrach he is I do not know. I shall see where the carriage takes us to," Leopold wrote. "The nobles send us their invitations four, five, six to eight days in advance, in order not to miss us."

The pattern established here would be repeated in major centers all over Europe. First, Wolfgang and Nannerl would perform at the most influential local court. Then private concerts would follow as the lesser nobility competed to entertain one another with an appearance by the "miracle children" of Salzburg. Payment came in the form of hard currency or gifts. When private concerts didn't pay the bills, the children would be put on public display. Public or private, the programs could last anywhere from one and a half to three hours. Two programs per day were the rule. "Reading those details of those days in Vienna," sighs biographer Erich Schenk, "we are inclined to say 'poor children.' "

In Leopold's defense, it should be noted that in his day (as in our own) it was not uncommon for child prodigies to be taken on tour. Leopold himself was convinced that it was God's will that he exhibit his children throughout Europe. That he did it with an eye toward his own future as well as that of his children . . . well, it was all the same to him, and to Anna Maria and the children too. Never in their wildest dreams did any of them imagine that there would ever be a time when they would not be together. From start to finish, music was a family business.

The price of success

But it was grueling work, too, and the risks were great. This was made painfully clear in late October, when Wolfgang became ill with something diagnosed as "scarlet fever rash"; now thought to be erythema nodosum, a rheumatic nodular eruption now often associated with tuberculosis. Leopold, under the advice of a local physician, administered a cure that included an occasional glass of milk with ground melon seeds and a pinch of poppy seed. Within two weeks Wolfgang was well again, but the episode was a portent of more serious health problems to come.

Almost lost among Leopold's letters of this period is a brief reference to the fact that his son was cutting a new tooth. This otherwise mundane comment is a startling reminder of just how small he was. J.G. Wolfgang Mozart, the toast of Viennese society, was still two months shy of his seventh birthday.

The Mozarts departed Vienna on December 31 (in style, for Leopold had purchased a carriage) and arrived in Salzburg five days later. Wolfgang had fallen ill again, this time from acute rheumatoid arthritis, and spent his first week home in bed. By now, however, Leopold's appetite for travel was thoroughly whetted. In Vienna he had been invited to Versailles by the French ambassador. He decide 1000 d to accept this offer and, with his sights firmly fixed upon France, departed with his family yet again from Salzburg on June 9. This time they would be gone for more than three years.

The road to Paris

Eighteenth-century Europe, knit together by a dependable postal service and reliable roads, was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. It wasn't at all unusual for professionals (such as musicians) to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles over the course of their careers. Even a middle-class, musical family could safely journey from Salzburg to Paris -- and expect to make a profit by doing so.


Of course, reliable is a relative term when describing the roads of this period. In December, Leopold had complained of the frozen, rutted road between Pressburg and Vienna. The road to Wasserburg, at the very outset of his ambitious grand tour, shattered the wheel of the family's new carriage. Conditions inside the carriage -- unheated and mounted on a crude suspension system that did little to soften the constant bumps and bangs -- were anything but comfortable. Somehow the family endured it.

As an adult, Wolfgang would pass these hours on the road by composing. It was impossible to write -- the jolting carriage would hardly allow that. But compose he would, carrying the music in his head until he had a chance to jot it down.

On this journey, a much younger Mozart let his imagination wander far beyond the cramped confines of the carriage. As the hours rolled by, he invented an imaginary land and named it the Kingdom of Back. "Why by this name, I can no longer recall," his sister wrote much later. "This kingdom and its inhabitants were endowed with everything that could make good and happy children out of them." Little Wolferl himself was the king of Back, and became so immersed in its administration that he persuaded Sebastian Winter, the family servant, to make a map of it and dictated to him the names of all the cities, villages and market towns.

Meanwhile, the miles rolled by too. In her reminiscences, Nannerl laconically summed up the first part of their tour: "Munich, Augsburg, Ulm, Ludwigsburg, Bruchsal, Schwetzingen, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Worms, Mainz, Frankfurt on Main, Mainz, Coblenz, Bonn, Brühl, Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, Liège, Tillemonde, Louvain, Brussels, Mons, Paris, where they arrived on the 18th November 1763."

A  visit to Versailles


Upon reaching Paris, Leopold wasted no time in making connections. One of his first acquaintances was Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm, a German national who had resided in Paris since 1749. Grimm, an acquaintance of many of the Encyclopédistes and publisher of the Correspondance littéraire, arranged concerts at which Wolfgang and Nannerl performed, and also arranged the children's appearance at the French court.

Grimm became the family's best friend and most effective publicist. In his Correspondance, which circulated in handwritten manuscript to an elite group of subscribers throughout Europe, he effusively praised the accomplishments and talents of Leopold's children: "His daughter, eleven years of age, plays the harpsichord in the most brilliant manner; she performs the longest and most difficult pieces with an astonishing precision. Her brother, who will be seven years old next February, is such an extraordinary phenomenon that one is hard put to it to believe what one sees with one's eyes and hears with one's ears."

On Christmas Eve the Mozarts moved to Versailles for two weeks, long enough to give them taste of life in that most famous of all European courts. Leopold was predictably pragmatic, mostly making note of how expensive everything was. But he had time for gossip too: "Madame de Pompadour is still a handsome woman. . . . She is extremely haughty and still rules over everything."

The Marquise may have been distant and aloof, but that was not the case with Queen Maria Leszczynska and Louis XV. The royal couple invited the Mozarts to court dinner on New Year's Day, and then insisted that the family stand behind them during the meal. "My Wolfgang was graciously privileged to stand beside the Queen the whole time, to talk constantly to her, entertain her and kiss her hands repeatedly, besides partaking of the dishes which she handed him from the table," Leopold wrote. "I stood beside him, and on the other side of the King . . . stood my wife and daughter."

In February, Wolfgang became ill again. Leopold's description lends itself to a diagnosis of tonsillitis (streptococcal angina). He treated his son with a mixture called "pulvis antispasmodicus Hallensis" (saltpeter, potassium sulfate and cinnabar) and, after only four days, made him get up and be active again.

That month Leopold published two harpsichord sonatas with violin accompaniment (K. 6 and 7). They were dedicated to Louis XV's second daughter, Louise-Marie-Thérèse de Bourbon. In April two more sonatas (K. 8 and 9) were published with a dedication to Madame la Comtesse de Tessé, lady-in-waiting to the wife of the Dauphin. These little pieces, which Leopold probably had a hand in crafting, were Wolfgang's first published works.

Across the Channel

Once in Paris, Leopold, perhaps encouraged by Grimm, began seriously to consider extending his tour to England. London was Europe's most populous city and also one of its most lively and lucrative musical markets. The lure was too tempting to resist. He made up his mind to go there.The family packed lightly, storing most of their heavy, winter garments in Paris. In April they journeyed to Calais, where Leopold hired a boat to carry them across the channel. "The Maxglanerbach," he jokingly called it in reference to a tiny stream near Salzburg. But the crossing was no fun at all. They were miserably seasick, and Leopold had the worst of it.

Within days they were received by King George III and Queen Charlotte. The affable young king (George III was 27 at the time, his bride 21) must have taken a shine to Wolfgang. A week later he happened upon them as they walked in St. James Park. As he passed by in his carriage, the king "opened the window, leaned out and saluted us and especially our Master Wolfgang, nodding to us and waving his hand." Less than a month later they were invited to perform again at Buckingham Palace.

Leopold had grand plans for London, but several things worked against him. For one thing, they had arrived in the spring, at the end of the performance season. Most of the music-loving gentry were out of town or otherwise occupied. And the rich musical environment, ironically, hindered more than it helped. More than once his concerts had to be postponed because of competing events. Despite this, things seemed to be off to a good start with a June program Leopold shrewdly scheduled to coincide with the king's birthday. Members of the nobility, returning from the country, paid half a guinea apiece to hear the Mozart children play. Altogether, Leopold happily reported, he took in "one hundred guineas in three hours."

Then disaster struck. In July Leopold, constantly worried about his children's health, became seriously sick himself. The family picked up and moved to an estate in Chelsea on the outskirts of the city, where presumably the clean air and quiet surroundings would aid his recovery. Leopold lingered for weeks, as he thought, at death's door. They remained there until late September.

Leopold's illness provided the children with an extended quiet period during which they were free from the pressures of performing. Presumably this left time for play, and for Wolfgang, play meant composing music. He turned his attention to a new and unfamiliar form. "In order to occupy himself, Mozart composed his first Symphony for all the instruments of the orchestra -- but especially for trumpets and kettledrums," Nannerl wrote much later. "I had to copy it out as I sat at his side. Whilst he composed and I copied he said to me: Remind me to give the horn something worthwhile to do!"


In October the Mozarts appeared before the royal family for the last time. Various concerts followed during the winter, but London was growing weary of this family of itinerant musicians. As far as Leopold was concerned, the feeling was mutual. His earlier infatuation with England had gone sour, and he was more than ready to return to the continent.


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