For all of his talents as a violinist, violin teacher, conductor and composer, history would have forgotten Johann Georg Leopold Mozart almost entirely had he not fathered and trained one of the greatest members of our species ever to have lived, his son Wolfgang.
Leopold Mozart gave his son what was – very possibly – the greatest music education ever given anyone, for which posterity must be grateful. But more than just his son’s teacher, Leopold became his Dr. Frankenstein, his creator: Wolfgang’s ghost-writer, concert producer, travel agent, booking agent, public relations huckster, investment councilor, valet, and, in the end, oppressive tyrant. In the process, Leopold crafted one of the most troubling parent-child relationships since Oedipus and his mother Jocasta.
In the long history of excessive parenting, of tiger mamas and tennis fathers, Leopold Mozart must be considered among the very greatest of the type.
He was born on November 19, 1719 into a family of artisans that had for generations lived in the city of Augsburg, in southern Germany.
Young Leopold was a talented singer and violinist, and as such he participated in performances at school and in church. Intelligent though he was, it took him seven (or eight) years to complete the six-year program at the gymnasium. Leopold Mozart was held back once, perhaps even twice. Why? We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that his lack of academic enthusiasm was in response to his father’s insistence that, as the first-born, he become a priest.
In February of 1736, Leopold’s his father unexpectedly dropped dead, leaving the sixteen year-old Leopold with some real choices. He could stay in school, go to work in his father’s bookbinding business, or pursue music, for which he’d already shown a great talent.
If you guessed that Leopold opted for the career in music, you’d be absolutely … wrong. Leopold decided in school. Perhaps he was trying to please his family, honor the memory of his father, keep his options open, who knows. What we do know is that, one, in November of 1787 Leopold matriculated at the Benedictine University in Salzburg as a student in philosophy and jurisprudence and that, two, in September of 1739 he was tossed out on his keister for “want of application and poor attendance” and thus, according to the authorities, “has clearly rendered himself unworthy of the name of a student.”
Rather than go home and face the music over his expulsion, he stayed put and took a job as chamberlain and court musician in Salzburg. In doing so, the 18 year-old Leopold Mozart – eldest son and presumptive male head of his household – abandoned his recently widowed mother and five younger siblings, his family’s business, and his country of birth. His actions scandalized his native city of Augsburg and brought great shame to his family.
With this information as a backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Leopold’s family did not approve of his marriage to Anna Maria Pertl in November of 1747. Leopold’s mother refused to award her first-born the 300 Florin dowry that she had given to his siblings when they were married. (That really rubbed Leopold’s rhubarb wrong. He wrote a friend:
“All of my brothers and sisters have now married; and each received 300 Florins as an advance upon my mother’s future legacy … and I have received nothing … [if she fails to give me the money] she can go to Hell today or tomorrow.”
The dowry was never paid, which led to a bitter and permanent estrangement between Leopold and his mother. He never wrote to her, saw her, or spoke to her again even though she lived for another 19 years, until 1766, by which time Wolfgang was 10 years old.
For Leopold, the making and giving of money came to represent love and acceptance or disrespect and rejection. Monetary issues would lie as well at the heart of his relationship with his only son, Wolfgang.)
Leopold slowly worked his way up the musical ladder in Salzburg. In 1763 (when Wolfgang was 7) he was named deputy Kapellmeister, the highest rank he would attain. His bitterness and contempt for authority grew with age.
According to Maynard Solomon:
“[Leopold] remained constitutionally incapable of simple obedience to his superiors, and his deep resentment of authority frequently erupted in imprudent words or actions; compounding his constitutional dissatisfaction and mistrust was his sense -pervasive yet non-specific – of having been deeply wronged, which in turn required that he find some means to restore his status and to pay back his prosecutors.”
Over time it became clear that Leopold Mozart was not going to be able to fulfill his ambitions – particularly his more vengeful ones – through his own talents. He was a competent though undistinguished composer who gave up composing after 1762, when Wolfgang was six. As a violinist Leopold’s career came to even less than his career as a composer. He resented having to play in the Salzburg court orchestra and all but refused to give lessons.
But he had a card up his sleeve, and that card was his little boy. By the time Wolfgang was six, Leopold was convinced that he would bring him wealth, social status, and – of equal importance – vengeance for his past humiliations. Leopold says just so much in a letter dated December 1777, in which he writes that his 11 year-old son:
“Will certainly do his utmost to win glory, honor, and money in order to help us and to save his father from the scornful mockery and sneers of certain persons, whose names I dare not mention, but whose ridicule would, as you know, most certainly send me to my grave. Wolfgang’s good fortune and success will be our sweetest revenge.”
From the time he was a toddler little Wolfgang’s “role” was to play the part of a sweet, impossibly gifted child in order to pile money, fame, and social standing at his father’s feet. It was to the Mozart family’s advantage for Wolfgang to appear to be an “eternal” child, and to that end Leopold Mozart routinely lied about his son’s age, in order to make his abilities appear to be even that much more prodigious. At some point the entire Mozart clan came to see Wolfgang as a permanent child. But he was not a permanent child; he grew up. But that didn’t stop his immediate family from continuing to consider him as being “the child”.
As a small child, young Wolfgang idolized his father. But even the most compliant children become surly with age (on this I speak with the authority of experience), and by the time Wolfgang was an adolescent, Leopold could no longer count on his unqualified obedience. Leopold Mozart was nothing if not adaptable, and so overtime time his bullying took ever new forms, including harangues and guilt trips that would make even my Jewish mother blush, and no slouch was she.
In May of 1781, completely against his father’s wishes, Wolfgang quit his day gig in Salzburg and put out his shingle in Vienna. In 1782, completely against his father’s wishes, he married a singer named Constanze Weber. (For this Leopold Mozart did to his son what had been done to him: he disinherited Wolfgang, thereby denying him his share of the money he had earned during the concert tours of his childhood! The beneficiary of Wolfgang’s disinheritance? His sister: Maria Anna.)
But what really galled Leopold (and his weasel of a daughter) was that their prediction that Wolfgang – the “eternal child” – would crash and burn the moment he was on his own was so very wrong. On the contrary: Mozart the man and musician quickly took Vienna by storm, a success fueled as much by his work ethic, perseverance, entrepreneurial spirit and business savvy as by his talent.
When Leopold died in 1787, Wolfgang’s star was still near its apogee. Perversely, nothing could have made him less happy, and he died an angry, embittered man.
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