More than 200 years after his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains one of the most renowned music composers. His distinctive compositions are still regularly performed by symphony orchestras and have been widely used in television and film. As a composer and musician, Mozart would certainly have been influenced by the instruments he played, and those that were commonly used in orchestras during his lifetime.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756. His father was a talented violinist who encouraged his son's musical aptitude. By the age of 3, Mozart could already play several instruments. By age 5 he was composing his own music and had already given his first public performance. Mozart was a natural musician, and there are numerous accounts of young Mozart's advanced musical ability. In one such account, 7-year-old Mozart picked up a violin and sight-read a passage that he played flawlessly, despite having never received a single violin lesson from his father.
Mozart the Musician
Between 1763 and 1766, Mozart toured Europe, often performing before royalty. As a pianist, Mozart was considered one of his era's most talented virtuosos and wrote many piano concertos for himself to perform. Mozart was also skilled on the violin and viola, and the same holds true for the concertos he wrote for those instruments. Mozart also played the organ, the harpsichord and a variety of wind and string instruments.
Instruments of Mozart's Era
By contemporary standards, Mozart's orchestras were comparatively small. There are three reasons for this: concerts were held in smaller venues, in palaces or homes; pianos of that era were not as loud as modern pianos, so it was important it not be drowned out by the other instruments; and many of the instruments typically found in a modern orchestra had yet to be invented, such as brass instruments, saxophones and contra-bassoons. Instruments used during Mozart's lifetime included piano, violin, harpsichord, mandolin, a rudimentary horn (similar in shape to a French horn), wooden flute, glockenspiel and clarinet.
In his article entitled "Mozart's Violin," violin-maker Dmitry Badiarov outlines the difference between modern violins and those of Mozart's day. Not only was the construction process of the instruments different, but so was the sound. Violin-makers of that time sought to achieve one of two ideal sounds. One of these was called "human voice" and was best-suited for performing violin-based concertos and compositions. The other was called "silvery" and was suited for use within an orchestra. These differing sounds were achieved by changes in the instrument's shapes and proportions. A "human voice" sound was achieved by an even thickness throughout the violin, while a "silvery" sound came from a thicker middle that thinned out toward the violin's ribs.
The Basset Clarinet
According to Christopher Seaman, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozart wrote his "Clarinet Concerto" for an obscure instrument called the basset clarinet, which has a significantly lower range than a modern clarinet. "If the piece is played on the regular clarinet," explained Seaman, "passages using those lowest four notes of the instrument have to be changed." In May 2011, Seaman conducted a performance of this piece utilizing this seldom-used instrument, presenting one of Mozart's most popular compositions in the manner in which the composer intended it to be heard.
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