Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) ranks with J.S. Bach and Beethoven as one of the greatest Western composers. His father, Leopold, was a musical pedagogue and a musician at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. When Leopold began to give clavier-lessons to his seven-year-old daughter, Nannerl, her younger brother listened attentively, started playing it himself at the age of four, and was composing his first pieces at the age of five. Between 1762-1773, Leopold brought the two child prodigies on tours around the main European cities and courts, from Rome to London, hoping to promote his son’s future career. Young Wolfgang worked as a court composer for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, but, desirous of a better salary and opportunities to compose operas, he resigned in 1773. After several years of visiting different cities in search of a suitable position, he settled in Vienna, where he spent the final decade of his life. At Vienna, he composed most of his greatest compositions, and his greatness was recognised by both established composers, such as Haydn, and up-and-coming ones, such as Beethoven. Despite his premature death at the age of thirty-five, he left a huge body of work, with masterpieces in sacred, orchestral, and chamber music, concertos, and opera.

In this interview, Simon P. Keefe recommends some books that can help us learn about Mozart’s music and penetrate it more deeply as we listen to it.

Simon P. Keefe is James Rossiter Hoyle Chair of Music at the University of Sheffield, a life member of the Academy for Mozart Research at the International Mozart Foundation in Salzburg and President Elect of the Royal Musical Association. He is the author of five monographs on Mozart, including Mozart's Requiem: Reception, Work, Completion (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Marjorie Weston Emerson award from the Mozart Society of America, and editor of a further seven volumes for Cambridge University Press, including Mozart Studies, Mozart Studies 2 and Mozart in Context.

  1. The Letters of Mozart and his Family (3rd edition)
    edited by Emily Anderson
  2. Mozart: A Documentary Biography
    by Otto Erich Deutsch
  3. Mozart's Requiem: Reception, Work, Completion
    by Simon P. Keefe
  4. Mozart in Vienna: The Final Decade (Kindle)
    by Simon P. Keefe
  5. The Mozart Family: Four Lifes in a Social Context
    by Ruth Halliwell
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.

Briefly, what was missing from the opening summary of Mozart’s life?
You have given a quick synopsis of Mozart's life. It is perfectly fine as it stands.

One could perhaps give more emphasis to his travels as a child.  It is often estimated that, before moving to Vienna in 1781, he spent around a third of his life on the road, including the Grand Tour of 1763-66, his time in France and Germany (1777-79), and the Italian trips (1769-73).

In many ways, this is one of the core things that one needs to appreciate about Mozart and how he became such a cosmopolitan musician. He was exactly the right person to have had the experiences that his father Leopold organised for him during his youth. He had so much access to other musicians and styles. He also had the remarkable ability to process and absorb everything. He becomes such a cosmopolitan musician, with an international mindset, well ahead of what would have been remotely normal.

So, his travels, before he moves to Vienna in 1781, are particularly important.

The other thing that I sometimes wrestle with is whether Mozart’s prodigiousness in his youth is as remarkable as the music from the last ten years of his life. It strikes me that there is no easy answer to that!  Marginally, I’d favour the late music, which I have always found most attractive to study, although I have also worked and published on his early music.

Nevertheless, it is extraordinary how those two aspects of Mozart life and work go together. On the one hand, here is an incredible prodigy who has all these remarkable experiences in his youth. On the other hand, there is the extraordinary quality of the music that he produced throughout the 1780s up to his death in 1791.

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Often a question that comes up among Catholics is, “How could Mozart be such a committed Freemason?” Indeed, some of his compositions—such as The Magic Flute, the Masonic Funeral Music, and the secular cantata Die Seele des Weltalls—celebrate Masonic ideas. However, Pope Clement XII had already condemned freemasonry in 1738 for its reductive conception of Christianity. How serious was Mozart about his Catholic faith?
He was very serious about both his Catholic faith and his status as a mason.

Yes, there was a controversial, sometimes confrontational, relationship between masonry and Catholicism in late eighteenth-century Europe.  Indeed, there was quite a complicated coexistence between them in Vienna and the Habsburg lands during the late eighteenth century.

This is partially because Joseph II was an enlightened emperor. He certainly had his faults and had a lot of difficulties to contend with. The end of his life – he died young in 1790 – is also a sad one.  He had to roll back many of his enlightened advances from the early 1780s, largely on account of the French Revolution and the nobility’s fear and uncertainty about what could ultimately happen in Austria.

However, Joseph II was a very devout Catholic and tolerant. That toleration extended not only to Jews and Protestants, but also to Masons. So, while the relationship between Catholicism and masonry was difficult in all kinds of ways, it was an acceptable relationship in late eighteenth-century Austria.

You put up the figure of Joseph II, who was not entirely orthodox. For example, sometimes he is known as the Sacristan Emperor because he overstepped his bounds and dictated many liturgical norms. He closed down monasteries unless, like the Cistercians, they dedicated themselves to parish ministry. So, there was a very rationalist strain that goes against the supernatural and Catholic tradition. Did Mozart have that same tendency?
That is difficult to tell. You are right. In terms of orthodox Catholicism, Joseph II is a controversial and complex figure. But, yes, Mozart's precise religious views are difficult to determine.

The relationship between his religious views and those of his father is interesting, perhaps capturing a generational conflict. It is not that Mozart was not devout. He clearly was.

My sense from reading the Mozart letters is that there is less of a fundamental, critical interest in religion than there is for his father, Leopold.

Leopold is a wonderful figure in Mozart’s biography and wrongly maligned in some circles. The amount of effort that he put into nurturing Mozart, educating him, and taking him around Europe, was extraordinary. He was an intensely serious man, especially about religion. And there was some conflict between the two of them where religion was concerned. Leopold would say, “I accept that it is God's will that something should happen, but you must do everything you can to influence that situation.” Wolfgang's response was always, “Well if it is God's will, there is not much I can do about it.”

I interpret that not as a lack of interest in religion on Mozart’s part, but as a kind of formulaic statement. For example, when he states, “the most important thing next to my father is God,” he is saying what he wants his father to hear. This is not to say that he is not a devout or good Catholic, needless to say.

However, for Mozart, music was his life and his world. His father accuses him of not being very practical in the way that he thinks about life and moves through it. And, to some extent, this is a valid claim. Mozart was totally and utterly immersed in the musical world. Although he was influenced by other things, music was basically at the core of everything he did and thought about.

He says as much himself and tells his father, “I am completely immersed in music. I think about it all the time.” And everything else is a kind of adjunct to that.

Leopold’s religious way of thinking about things differs from his son’s.

"He was exactly the right person to have had the experiences that his father Leopold organised for him during his youth."

Your question is a good one, it is difficult to say where Mozart sat relative to a religious thinker, albeit a controversial one, like Joseph II.  Here, it is worth bringing Prince-Archbishop Colloredo into the equation, Mozart’s employer in Salzburg up until 1781.

Famously, Mozart detested Colloredo. Leopold detested him too, among other reasons because he was passed over for promotion.

Colloredo was haughty and dictatorial. However, he had to deal with a very difficult financial position. The previous archbishop (Schrattenbach) had been profligate, and Colloredo had to rein things in. The Mozarts took that personally and Wolfgang was desperate to get away from Salzburg from at least the mid 1770s onwards.

In the 1780s, both Colloredo and Joseph II rein back the lavishness of Catholic services. There was a maximum amount of time that a Mass could take, around three-quarters of an hour. This inevitably meant that music had to take a back seat.

Mozart composed little sacred music during the last ten years of his life. The vast majority of it, over ninety percent, precedes his move to Vienna in 1781. That is because there was no encouragement to write a lot of sacred music during the 1780s. Mozart, nonetheless, remained very interested in it, which is conveyed among other things in fragments he worked on.

Each of the sacred works from the Viennese final decade has an unusual genesis.

There is a bit of a mystery attached to the C-minor Mass, K. 427. Mozart probably wrote it in response to personal circumstances, perhaps relating to his marriage and/or his wife Constanze’s recovery from an illness. It was intended for Salzburg: for the so-called bridal visit, when Mozart took Constanze to visit Leopold and Nannerl in 1783.

The Requiem is also a one-of-a-kind, unfinished work from the end of his life.

The Ave verum corpus is a short work for Corpus Christi, either for first performance in Vienna, or more likely Baden.

They are wonderful works. Each is very different from the others. However, they are not central to Mozart's main musical business in the last ten years of his life.

Perhaps we can approach the same question from a somewhat different angle. We listen to Mozart because his music is spiritually enriching, in the broad sense of the term. The Christian spirituality of the sacred music of Bach and Bruckner often seems to suffuse their instrumental compositions. At least, that is how I hear it. However, Mozart’s non-sacred music, written at the height of the Enlightenment, strikes me as having a more humanistic than a religious orientation. The ethos of his music is more like that of Shakespeare or Molière than Dante. This question may sound silly or pompous, but to what extent does Mozart’s music convey certain spirituality or ethos, and to what extent is it Christian?
That is a fascinating question. I am not sure I am properly equipped to answer it, though. I am not religious myself; I am an atheist but have great respect for and interest in religion.

It is also a difficult and personal question. You were talking about the values that you sense in Mozart’s music. I would agree. There is a strongly humanistic quality to his instrumental music. I hear it that way as well. My first book on Mozart, an outgrowth of my PhD dissertation, was on Mozart’s piano concertos and how Enlightenment themes are conveyed through them: collaboration, cooperation, and confrontations and their resolutions, and the way these are mapped out in individual movements and across the span of whole works. That is fundamentally a humanistic phenomenon.

I am not necessarily the right person to talk about Bach in this regard, although what you are saying is exactly what religious friends of mine would also say about his music. Bach’s music is quite remarkable too. How one interprets it is a different question. However, I certainly hear a humanistic quality coming through in Mozart’s instrumental music.

Even in Mozart’s operas, especially the ones in which he collaborated with the Italian priest and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, there are religious themes, sometimes implicit, at other times explicit. The impenitent Don Giovanni faces divine retribution. Così fan tutte is an exploration of human frailty. In Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, Salieri attends the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro and is amazed at how an opera buffa concludes with a sublime chorus on forgiveness.
Yes, I would not disagree with any of that. Whether one sees those as religious or humanistic themes is a different matter. I certainly would not regard them as exclusively religious, although they have religious resonance.

With opera, one needs to tread carefully in terms of where authorship and responsibility lie. An opera and its design derive from a collaborative process. Principally, it is a collaboration between the librettist and the composer. But there are many others involved, such as the singers, whose individual needs had to be factored into the equation. An opera’s status as an adaptation of an existing work, or as essentially a new work is also important. Figaro is an adaptation of the controversial play that Beaumarchais had written a few years earlier. In Don Giovanni's case, the Don Juan legend goes back at least 150 years, to Molière and others. Da Ponte expands the Don Juan legend considerably, relative to the main source he drew upon. He is without doubt a brilliant librettist. In contrast, he shortens Figaro because the play is much longer, convoluted, and has more characters than ultimately appeared in the opera. In other words, he makes it more concise. Così fan tutte is a combination of all kinds of earlier eighteenth-century sources and quasi mythological ones from the Renaissance.

One is perfectly entitled to see a religious dimension in Mozart’s operas, of course. I would argue that they could be represented in an Enlightened, humanistic way as well.

"When you travel through his repertory and listen to his music in different areas, you can hear bits of all these ways of thinking about music, different styles, different genres as you go through it. The quality is so high that it is an enriching experience in every way."

What attracted you, as a musicologist, to Mozart rather than any of the other great composers?
That is a good question.

First of all, as an oboist in my younger days, I was attracted to playing Mozart’s well-known works for this instrument: the oboe quartet and the oboe concerto. That was probably my initial attraction to Mozart.

For me, Mozart’s sheer diversity of works and achievements is quite remarkable. There is probably more diversity to him than to any other composer in the late eighteenth century, as much as I admire many of them, especially Joseph Haydn.

One thing about Mozart is that he appears everywhere across the musical spectrum. He is a fantastic dramatist. He is also a fantastic pianist. He is an extraordinary composer of piano concerti, symphonies, and string quartets and other chamber music. In short, he has all bases covered. When you travel through his repertory and listen to his music in different areas, you can hear bits of all these ways of thinking about music, different styles, different genres as you go through it. The quality is so high that it is an enriching experience in every way. That he died at only thirty-five, makes his achievements all the more remarkable. No one is like him when it comes to covering so much musical territory. That is always one thing that I have always found attractive about Mozart.

There is also the Shakespearean way that he can turn on a dime. Suddenly, you can go from power to poignancy, from great emotion to reflection. He makes these pivots so adeptly, resourcefully and cleverly. That has always been extremely attractive to me as well.

Bach resorts extensively to counterpoint in his compositions, whereas Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms often develop movements or whole compositions out of a motif. Mozart’s compositional technique is harder to pin down. What are the distinct characteristics of Mozart’s music? How does his style of composition differ from that of his contemporaries?
Sometimes, in old secondary literature, scholars explain how the eighteenth century moves from contrapuntal geniuses, such as Bach and Handel, to the less complex style of composers such as Haydn and Mozart.

I am very wary about thinking about things that way, though. Both Haydn and Mozart were extremely skilled writers of fugues, the highest form of counterpoint.

You asked how Mozart is different. It goes back to something I was saying earlier: his cosmopolitan qualities.

In many ways, it is difficult to talk about him as a Viennese composer, a Salzburg composer, or even an Austrian composer (insofar as Austria existed at that time). Rather, he absorbs so many styles and ways of thinking about music. This comes out in all sorts of ways in his music.

Some people parse this state of affairs qualitatively. That is fine. Not many will dispute that, qualitatively, Mozart surpasses every other late eighteenth-century composer, with the possible exception of Haydn.

However, we need not think about things in this way. We can also think about how style transmits itself over the course of a work. There are so many aspects to his music. Mozart can be both suave and then slightly crude or crass, both poignant and powerful - and all within the space of minutes!

Mozart demonstrates complete control of his material – what it expresses, and what it represents. This applies equally to his instrumental and vocal music, including his operas.

Four of the five books that you have recommended are biographical. Is it essential to know about Mozart’s life and context to appreciate his music, or merely helpful?
Again, this is a good question. I would say that it is essential to have some biographical understanding, broadly construed.

The books I have chosen are predominantly biographical, although not all are biographies in a conventional sense.

As I was saying earlier, Mozart is immersed in music the whole time. The classic way of thinking about him is that, as he said himself, all the composing goes on in his head, and is then written down. This is a simplification, all told, emanating both from Mozart and from many of his biographers.

However, he lived constantly with music and was totally absorbed in it. So, you need to understand what he is going through, and how he progresses through life in order to get a sense of what his music may or may not mean relative to his circumstances, including how it is significant (or not).

What is biography? This is the heart of the question here. Biography is much more than simply telling a tale of someone’s life and works. It needs to be considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than that. Hopefully, this comes through in the books I have chosen.

"When you dip into the letters, you can still hear Mozart thinking through all sorts of issues. His personality comes alive for us."


Your first selected book is Emily Anderson’s edition of letters of Mozart and his family. What makes them a good read and how they help us appreciate Mozart’s music?
This is Mozart from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. There is so much here that is relevant to his life and his music. We have his views on aesthetics and instrumental music. We have the practicalities of life, such as issues relating to travel. We have references to other musicians. We learn about his emotions and relationships. He speaks to us directly.

My latest book project was a study of the reception of Haydn and Mozart in the nineteenth century (Haydn and Mozart in the Long Nineteenth Century: Parallel and Intersecting Patterns of Reception published by Cambridge University Press in 2023). I had to look at a lot of the early biographies in the course of my work. One is particularly problematic, and was written by Constanze Mozart's second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen.

Nissen’s biography is kind of patchwork quilt. It pulls together numerous previously published sources. Nowadays, we would say that it was plagiarised, but plagiarism did not exist in the same way in the early nineteenth century as it does today.

Its major contribution was to publish, for the first time, enormous tranches of letters, mainly from Constanze and Nannerl. In the reviews of the late 1820s, it is clear that readers cannot believe that this is Mozart suddenly speaking. To them, this kind of immediacy, thirty years after Mozart's death, was extraordinary. We cannot expect now that experience of the letters’ novelty and the great release of all these ideas. The words, phraseology, and so on have been discussed and dissected with a fine-tooth comb. However, when you dip into the letters, you can still hear Mozart thinking through all sorts of issues. His personality comes alive for us, even if Anderson’s translation is a bit too Victorian and makes him sound as if he were from the late nineteenth century rather than the late eighteenth. Mozart wrote in a Salzburgian dialect, and not particularly elegantly. However, Anderson translates the letters into elegant prose. This is problematic, but does not bother me unduly, because Mozart’s ideas and personality still come alive throughout.

It is fantastic to read them from cover to cover or just to dip into them.

The correspondence between Mozart and his father represents the letters at their best and most engaging.

For example, Idomeneo premiered in Munich at the end of January 1781, when Mozart was still based in Salzburg. Mozart went to Munich a few months before in order to discuss the music with the singers and to carry out and complete the work. Meanwhile, the librettist, Giambattista Varesco, was based in Salzburg. Leopold became the go-between for Mozart and Varesco. You can see the drama and the music taking shape for both of them in their letters. Leopold has his say about how Idomeneo should function dramatically and musically. There is this wonderful correspondence for two or three months—between the end of 1780 and the beginning of 1781—that is all about musical ideas, how instruments should function, and other practical issues.

Idomeneo, incidentally, was a great success in Munich. In these letters, we witness the genesis of the opera in front of our eyes. They are a wonderful read.

The relationship between Leopold and Mozart certainly had its difficult and problematic moments. At their very best, though, Mozart and Leopold were great thinkers about music.

"If you write a boring biography on Mozart, you have failed because there are so many interesting things to say about him."