The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist Robert Lipartito.
November 14 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Georg Leopold Mozart, composer, violinist, teacher, theorist, and one of music’s most famous stage parents. He is best known, of course, as father, teacher, manager, archivist, and personal secretary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The musicologist Alfred Einstein wrote, “Leopold Mozart is and will remain, in the memory of posterity, the father of his son.”¹
Born in Ausberg, Germany into a family of bookbinders, Leopold attended the Benedictine University in Salzburg at first to study theology, later switching to philosophy, jurisprudence, and any other discipline that caught the fancy of his fertile mind. His growing interest in music led to his expulsion in 1739 for poor attendance. The following year he began a career as a court musician beginning as valet (with additional musical duties) to Count Thurn-Valsassina und Taxis. He was later appointed violinist in the court orchestra of Leopold Anton Freiherr von Firmian, Archbishop of Salzburg, eventually advancing to the position of deputy Kapellmeister in 1763.
His personal path as a musician was largely subsumed by his zeal in the education and promotion of the young Wolfgang, born in 1756, the second of the only two of Leopold’s seven children to survive to adulthood. Leopold provided the musical education of Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna (known as Nannerl), wrote and compiled musical exercises for his two talented offspring, collaborated on his son’s earliest compositions, and arranged performing tours first of both children, later of just Wolfgang. A letter in the collections of the Music Division written by Leopold to his wife Anna Maria (née Pertl) on December 22, 1770 from Milan gives an example of the extent of the detail he took in the presentation of his 14-year-old prodigy son in the courts of Europe. Sounding just a bit like Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy, he writes, “irh könnt euch den Wolfgl: in einem Roth Scarlatin kleid mit golden Borden, himelblauen attlas futter vorstellen.” [“Picture little Wolfgang in a scarlet suit trimmed with gold braid lined with sky-blue satin.”] The hardships of touring were formidable due to poor weather, financial difficulties, and the potential threats of highway robbery or illness. Leopold’s wife fell ill and died in July 1778 in Paris while accompanying Wolfgang on tour after her husband was not permitted a release from his courtly duties.
As Wolfgang reached adulthood, his father fervently sought an official court composer position for him. His attempts were often frustrated by Wolfgang’s mercurial nature and desire to assert his independence which resulted in increasing tension between the two. Despite Leopold’s reputation as a tireless advocate for the education and promotion of his children, one should not ignore his own achievements as a composer, writer, and music theorist. The elder Mozart was a prolific composer of sacred music, symphonies, large-scale serenades and other forms, yet a large proportion of these works has been lost. His trumpet concerto is now probably the most often played of his works, which also include concertos for two horns, flute, and piano.
Leopold Mozart is best known for his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing). Published in 1756, the year of Wolfgang’s birth, this pedagogical work was considered the major violin tutor of its time. Based on the Italian method of violin-playing exemplified by Locatelli, Geminiani, and above all Tartini, Mozart’s Violinschule may be considered a snapshot of the musical style of the mid-18th century. It sits alongside similar earlier works by Johann Joachim Quantz for flute or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach for clavier. The composer Carl Friedrich Zelter wrote to Goethe in discussing the Violinschule, “[it] is a work which is very useful as long as a violin remains a violin.”² The Music Division holds copies of the first edition of the Violinschule, the two revised editions (1770 and 1787) published during Leopold’s lifetime, and the 1800 fourth and the 1804 new revised editions. Translations in Dutch (1766) and English (1948) are also found in the collection.
The world owes Leopold Mozart a great debt for having “dreamed a dream” for his now immortal progeny at the cost of having his own considerable accomplishments eclipsed, but in this, the tercentenary of the birth of this talented musician, protean scholar, and dedicated educator, everything’s coming up Leopold.
¹ Alfred Einstein, preface to A Treastise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, by Leopold Mozart, translated by Editha Knocker (London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1948), xi.
² Carl Friedrich Zelter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, March 12 to 22, 1829. In Goether and Zelter: Musical Dialogues, ed. Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate, 2009), 425.