Mozart Wasn’t Born A Musical Genius

By Robert Grimminck on Tuesday, May 27, 2014
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“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” —Aristotle

In A Nutshell

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is often thought of as someone who was born with natural talent. However, the earliest pieces by Wolfgang, supposedly done when he was a child, are in his father’s handwriting, making it unclear as to who wrote the music. Also, his father was a music teacher who taught Wolfgang from a young age, so that when he did start performing, he actually had been training extensively and routinely with a professional instructor for years.

The Whole Bushel

Mozart was born January 27, 1756 to Anna Maria and Leopold Mozart. Anna Maria gave birth to seven children, but only Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna survived past infancy. Leopold was a composer, albeit a minor one. He was mainly a teacher, publishing an influential textbook on the violin in the same year Wolfgang was born. From the age of three, Wolfgang sat in on the music lessons for his sister and took an early interest in music. At the age of four, he started to learn how to play the clavier, and he was apparently composing music at age five.

That is where things get a bit murky. It’s impressive enough that someone at such a young age would start to play instruments. Writing original music is a bit tougher, and there is evidence that shows Mozart was at least helped as a child when he wrote his music. First, much of the handwriting is that of his father. Second, his father, who was a composer, stopped writing music when Mozart started composing his work. So while there is no definitive proof of how much Leopold helped, corrected, or even wrote, there are certainly some unanswered questions.

Aside from the handwriting, there is also the fact that Leopold was making money from the performances of his children, whom he billed as prodigies. They would travel around Europe and play in front of nobility. Therefore, it was in his best interest to make it seem like Wolfgang was some sort of superhuman musician as a marketing ploy. Taking all the information into account, what seems more logical? Did a five-year-old compose symphonies, or did his father, a trained musician and teacher who made money on the talent of his kids, have a little more “influence”?

That isn’t to say Mozart wasn’t a musical genius, because he very much was. He just wasn’t born that way. In his book, Talent Is Overrated, author Geoffrey Colvin argues that Mozart got to be great because of how much training he received. He was given daily lessons from his father starting at a young age. Then he was performing in front of nobility and spent much of his youth traveling around performing. At the age of 14, he wrote his first opera, which was a minor success. However, it’s important to note that at this point he had been training with professional teachers, one whom he lived with, almost every day for nine years.

It’s also interesting to note that while they traveled, Mozart met and spent time with famous composers like Johann Christian Bach, who would have a big influence on him. He was also accepted into a prestigious music academy at the age of 14, where he developed further. When he was employed by the ruler of Salzburg, Austria at the age of 17, he had been living and breathing music for 14 years. Going further, Mozart continued to work full-time as a musician (with dry spells of unemployment) throughout his teens into his early twenties. So by the time he achieved success and real fame with Die Entfuhrung, he was 25. He was in his early thirties when he started writing his most famous pieces using his lifetime of experience.

Mozart was a brilliant musician and incredible composer, but he became that because he worked hard at it for years. It came down to how hard he worked and how much time he put into his craft, but he wasn’t born with some miraculous gift.

Show Me The Proof

Biography: Wolfgang Mozart
NY Times: The Careful Construction of a Child Prodigy
Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores, by Alan Tyson
Talent Is Overrated, by Geoffrey Colvin