Mozart: The Impoverished Composer

Posted in: Classical by Alistair Briggs on January 31st, 2010 | 8 Comments

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756. He died at the still tender age of 35. During his lifetime he composed over 600 works and is rightly thought of as one of the classical greats. Despite his success, by the time of his death, Mozart was poor.

Mozart (full baptismal name Johannes Chrysotomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart) began composing at the age of five, he was already competent on piano and violin. His talents were soon noted and by the age of 17 he had become a court musician in his hometown of Salzburg. He moved to Vienna to seek something better, perhaps there was the hope that fame and fortune would follow. On the former - he was correct, on the latter – not so much.

Image via Wikipedia

Fast-forwarding to the present day, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has amassed a personal fortune of over £350 million from his work. One would casually presume that Mozart, with his genius and penchant for hard work, would have also amassed a huge wealth. The opposite is true. The reason for this is simply a reason of time. Mozart had the misfortune of being alive at the end of the 18th century. It was a time when there was no recording industry. It was a time when laws of copyright did not exist. There was no way for Mozart to protect his work or to make residual income from it. Repeats of his symphonies and sales of his sheet music did not make a penny for Mozart throughout his life. In modern times, Webber earns money every single time his music is performed. Times have certainly changed.

Some people claim that Mozart lived in poverty throughout his life but that is not the case. During his years in Vienna he often worked as a freelance musician. The money coming in was relatively good. It was enough so that he and his wife could afford to live in a smart high-rent apartment. They could even afford to always have at least one servant. There was one problem though; freelance anything is not steady work, it is an irregular income. There were times when things were too tight to mention. Mozart did try to alleviate such hard times by turning his hand to teaching.

Another problem was that Mozart had little time for authority, there was a growing resentment to it, he refused to ’suck up’ to the aristocrats. In doing so, of course, Mozart may have lost out on commissions or court positions that may have been offered to him had he ‘played the game’ even a little bit. To those that did offer Mozart work, his bad behaviour, off-handedness, and silly antics annoyed them. Mozart once told his father:

“Our riches, being in our brains, die with us – and these no man can take from us unless he chops off our heads.”

Mozart always believed that his sheer talent would see him through anything; perhaps it was an overly arrogant attitude. He was correct though about his riches being in his brains, it was just a shame that he lived in a time when the riches weren’t in his pockets also. By the time of his death, money was so sparse that he had taken to asking friends for loans just to survive.

Image via Wikipedia

Mozart died at the age of 35, on 5th December, 1791. The official cause of death was ’severe miliary fever’ but some people have subsequently questioned this and even come up with varying ideas to what the real cause was. He was buried in a common grave in a cemetery at St Marx. It was claimed that, and in-line with then Viennial burial customs, no mourners attended his burial although further reports claim that three friends and two other musicians were in attendance.

Whatever the truth one thing is unquestionable; Mozart was an extremely talented and prolific composer. His work lives on long after his death and remains popular and often played. Had Mozart been around in modern times he would have been very very rich. As was, he lived in a time where there was less protection of rights for musicians; he suffered because of it.

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8 Responses to “Mozart: The Impoverished Composer”
  • Juancav January 31st, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Incredible there was not protection of author rights.

  • XXElleXX January 31st, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Mozart…hmm…tis true that he composed piano pieces at the tender age of six…and went on to become one of the greatest music composers who ever lived…enjoyed this write Alistair :-)

  • willie wondka January 31st, 2010 at 11:11 am

    i know the feeling, its also true many die b4 anything happens where its worth a fortune when you are dead than alive, which is a shame and a waste of a good talent.

  • Paul Roberts January 31st, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Great research on this, bringing out the more human facts. Friend, fan, smile

  • Watch July 1st, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Could it be that Mozart didn’t want to be rich?
    I honestly think you make the best case for it:

    Example A:
    You say:
    “Another problem was that Mozart had little time for authority, there was a growing resentment to it, he refused to ’suck up’ to the aristocrats”
    Back then aristocrats ultimately controlled societies through money, did they not? There was no protection for Mozart’s work, they must have.. He didn’t want to suck up to the source of wealth in a sense? I like that, he was rebellious.

    You then quote:
    “Our riches, being in our brains, die with us – and these no man can take from us unless he chops off our heads.”

    Well, you cannot really mistake his intention on this: Riches are not our wealth, but our brains. Or is this a translation error?

    If I were to give my opinion, Mozart would scoff at the way ONLY A CERTAIN FEW composers, who play by the rules, get to live so lavishly. Who is to say that a Mozart[of talent and attitude] of this day and age would even desire the riches of Andrew Lloyd Weber?

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