Mozart's Compositional Method

by Scott Thompson

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an Austrian musical prodigy and composer who first showed signs of genius as a very young child. Mozart's ability to compose sophisticated music from a young age has contributed to a legend that he had no particular method of composition, and the legend has been further strengthened by a forged letter.

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Mozart the Prodigy

Mozart began composing music as a 5-year-old boy and toured as a performing musician for the first time at age 6. His first completed opera was written when he was only 14 years old and was a critical success. However, Mozart never succeeded in finding a long-term aristocratic patron, and he died in poverty at the age of 35. According to both a letter in his name and later interviews with his widow Constanze Mozart, the composer had no systematic method and composed as if divinely inspired, without writing anything down until the score was complete.

The Forgery

A letter purporting to be written by the composer Mozart supports the myth that his music was spontaneously inspired. The letter is supposed to be from the composer to a Baron von X, and it describes his scores as being given to him through revelation while in a trance-like state. This letter has had a great deal of influence on the myth of Mozart, but internal details reveal it to be a forgery. For example, the letter refers to Mozart's father-in-law as still being alive, but he was actually dead at the time. Mozart's biographer Otto Jahn revealed the letter to be a forgery, but despite this fact, it is still often quoted as an authentic document.

Constanze Mozart

Mozart's wife Constanze spoke of him in very romanticized terms in interviews given after his death, and this tended to contribute to the myth that he had no method of composition. She described him as working primarily in his imagination, essentially composing the piece in his head before sitting down with an instrument. He would only write down the score as the final stage. In later interviews, she said that Mozart could compose without using an instrument at all. It has been suggested that she may have been influenced by the forged letter, not realizing that it was fake.

Mozart's Actual Method

Despite both the forged letter and his widow's later romanticized descriptions, Mozart does seem to have had a method for composing music. Several references in genuine letters refer to the fact that he did not feel himself capable of composing if he did not have his clavier, so contrary to what his wife said later he did actually compose on an instrument rather than in his head alone. Also, contrary to the claim that he did not write down scores until the piece was completed, several sketches for partial scores have survived. Despite his extraordinary talent, Mozart's method of composition seems to have been much the same as that of any other musician. He improvised and experimented on his favorite instrument and scored out his ideas as he worked.

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