Mozart as a Freelance Artist


The most outstanding feature about Mozart’s biography, the one people are most familiar about, is his prodigious musical talent. Everyone is familiar with the story of the precocious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), who led by his father’s hand, traveled to opulent courts across  Europe as an itinerant child prodigy. As he grew older, he became a professional composer who produced an output of hundreds of compositions in a diversity of genres and styles with many of those works ranking as some of the most inspired music ever composed.

The late German author, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, brought to light in his thick tome about Mozart’s life and work another facet of the native from Salzburg that is perhaps less familiar in the Mozartian mythology. According to Hildesheimer, Mozart was not only an innovator and a master of every musical form, he was also an innovator in the music business; our hero might have been the first freelance composer. Although F. M. Scherer disputes this notion in his essay The Emergence of Musical Copyright in Europe and claims freelance composers had existed a century before Mozart’s period, it is quite clear Mozart possessed an innate rebellious nature that rendered him as an inadequate candidate to vegetate in tedious comfort as a court composer. Not that he felt a conscious need to manifest a rebellious attitude against the current social order; such a sentiment would have been alien to Mozart’s nature. However he probably searched for a context that allowed him to exploit his powerful compositional skills to the best of his ability.

Until 1781 he was, at one time or another, under the service of Salzburg’s archbishop Colloredo, a job that his father Leopold, a less ambitious man, considered good enough for his son. Not to mention secure. But enough was enough for the budding composer and after a dramatic break with the archbishop (he was literally kicked out of the palace after an argument with Colloredo) he was out on his own, an independent artist at last. In those days the place to make it big was Vienna, a cosmopolitan city for ambitious individuals. Once there, Mozart sank his teeth on every opportunity and scheme that came his way which enabled him to remain as a free agent. He wrote operas on commission, like Die Entführung aus dem Serail (the Abduction from the Seraglio) for the Burgtheater in 1782 which received great acclaim from the public. Other projects followed which ensured his livelihood as an independent musician: he secured the publication of many of his chamber works with the publisher Artaria who later marketed these works. He especially excelled for a while at selling subcription concerts that consisted in a series of concertos for piano and orchestra in public concert halls or private rooms. During the peak of this business scheme he secured some of the most prestigious names in Vienna in his list of subscribers. Last, but not least, he also offered private lessons. He applied some methodology for his teaching which he probably inherited from his father (his only teacher)and he had many students for whom he occasionally wrote music.

Ultimately, his life as an freelance, independent musician would turn out to be a failure by the end of his life for a variety of reasons. Most likely, he had little patience as a teacher, as it kept him from composing more ambitious projects. Often, the music he wrote was too sophisticated for the patrons of the time; his famous opera The Marriage of Figaro was not only based on a controversial subject (the original play by Beaumarchais upon which it was based mocked the aristocracy and it was often banned) but its music was preceived as too complicated for contemporary taste. Therefore, work and clients became more scarce and on top of that Mozart was a chaotic manager of his affairs. Manuscripts of his compositions laid around his house in piles thus he easily lost track of his works and had to rewrite them when needed; more serious, though, was the mismangement of his finances. He spent his money in an opulent lifestyle beyond his means and incurred in debt more than he should which eventually brought him to a financial ruin.

In any case, the time was yet not fully ripe for a musician like Mozart. Late 18th century Europe still did not offer the opportunities that would be available to talented composers in the following century. The tragedy is that had he lived longer than his 35 years, he might have caught up the new winds that were blowing in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Romantic period might have been more suitable time for him and although his brief life prevent him from enjoying a more open artistic environment, it was during that period that he became a myth, a hero and his life the stuff of legend.