Mozart's Greatest Works

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – the very name of the Austrian genius conjures up Classical music at its most sublime, in all its breadth and range. Here is a selection that bears witness to his diversity across opera, symphonies, choral-, instrumental- and chamber music.

(1756 - 1791)

Early Life

Mozart is the most performed, the most mythologised, the most deconstructed, and the most popular of composers. He excelled in opera and in abstract genres such as the symphony and string quartet. He was an entertainer from his early childhood. His teenage works are playful and untroubled, but even here there are richer, subtler shades. In the Romantic age, his mature music was either patronised for its prettiness or idealised as the emblem of a lost musical Eden. Yet at the same time we have an image of him as a demonically driven, tragic figure.

Mozart grew up in a musical family; his father Leopold was a composer and noted violin teacher, and his older sister Marianne ('Nannerl') a gifted pianist. Leopold was ambitious for his son, but Mozart was a true wunderkind. He composed his first works, for harpsichord, when barely out of his cradle. On an extended European concert tour he was hailed as a child touched with divine powers. He wrote his earliest symphonies before he turned ten, perhaps with a little help from his father.

In 1768 his Missa solemnis K.139 was performed in front of the imperial court in Vienna. Already Mozart had a command of the elevated church style. Two years later, on the first of three Italian journeys, he received a prestigious commission for a serious opera, Mitridate, for the Milan carnival. It was triumphantly received and confirmed the 14-year-old as a master of the operatic style of the day.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 In D Minor, K.466 1. Allegro - Cadenza by Beethoven, WoO 58, 1 Friedrich Gulda, Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Requiem Mass in D minor, K626

Our understanding of Mozart’s Requiem is inevitably coloured by the fact that it was his final work, and that he died before he could complete it. Commissioned in a mysterious fashion by a nobleman who wished to pass it off as his own work (as a memorial to his wife), from the first it has attracted a huge amount of myth and conjecture. It is, however, certain that Mozart was genuinely haunted by premonitions of death as he composed it, and that it was used – at least in part – as his own requiem. Of many worthwhile recordings, a recent version by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort attempts to go back to exactly what Mozart’s close musical associate Süssmayr produced in his completion, and to the scale of the work’s original performances.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Requiem in D minor, K.626 3. Sequentia: Lacrimosa Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, Wiener Singverein

Don Giovanni, K.527

Premiered in Prague on 29th October 1787, ‘Don Giovanni’ is thought to be Mozart’s favourite among his operas. Indeed he was able to write the overture on the morning of its premiere whilst nursing a hangover. Comedy and tragedy are combined in the amorous adventures of the eponymous libertine, his sometimes reluctant servant and three vengeful women. It is a gripping drama, climaxing in Giovanni being remorselessly dragged down into the flames of Hell.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Don Giovanni, K.527 "Dalla sua pace" (Act 1) Rolando Villazón, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K620

A complex allegorical opera combining elements of fairy-tale quest and symbolic references to Freemasonry, The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last opera to be staged. It forms an apt summation of the incredible variety of his art, with the diverse music allotted to all the different characters and situations displaying his outstanding range of invention and style. Comic and serious by turns, this finally triumphant piece comes over vividly in David McVicar’s staging for the Royal Opera House, which reveals all its complexity in a production that is both profound and funny.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Die Zauberflöte, K.620 Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (Königin der Nacht) 2:57 Roberta Peters, Berliner Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Overture from The Marriage of Figaro, K492

The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in 1786, is an ideal place to begin a Mozartian exploration, and the opera’s Overture sets its mood perfectly. It seems to have been Mozart’s own idea to set the scandalous play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais – it had already been banned in Paris and Vienna, but what cannot be spoken can sometimes be sung. A suitably adapted opera libretto by his new collaborator Lorenzo Da Ponte produced from the composer a score that matches the swiftly changing moods of this busy, intricate and amorous comedy.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Le nozze di Figaro, K.492 Overture Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Symphony No.36 in C, K425 ‘Linz’

Mozart’s ability to work fast is evidenced by his so-called ‘Linz’ Symphony; it was composed in the Austrian city on a journey back from Salzburg to Vienna in November 1783, to fulfil a commission from a local nobleman. It took the composer just four days to write the piece, which is a mature production full of compositional ingenuity and wit. There are four movements: the substantial first movement begins with a slow introduction, the second is a slow movement in siciliano rhythm (which has pastoral associations, though not necessarily Sicilian in origin), the third is a standard minuet and trio, and the fourth is a lively finale. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 36 in C major, K.425 - "Linz" 1. Adagio - Allegro spiritoso Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Eugen Jochum

Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K581

Mozart’s affinity for the clarinet is evident in many of his works, but particularly in the late pieces that were written for his friend Anton Stadler to play. The Clarinet Concerto (1791) and the Clarinet Quintet (1789) both date from Mozart’s full maturity, and testify not merely to Stadler’s excellence as a player, but also to the sheer beauty Mozart could draw from this instrument – an expressive immediacy few later composers have matched. Something about the more intimate scale of the Quintet makes it unusually appealing as a sample of Mozart’s chamber music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 1. Allegro Gervase de Peyer, Amadeus Quartet

Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488

Mozart was a great pianist, and initially made his name in Vienna as a composer of piano concertos that he wrote for himself to play at public concerts. One of the finest and most memorable of these is this work in A major, a favourite key of Mozart’s, which incorporates in its central slow movement a particularly haunting and personal expression in the related F-sharp minor key, couched in the form of a siciliano. Around this gem are two far more ebullient movements, perfectly demonstrating Mozart’s ability to encompass dark and light within the same piece.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488 1. Allegro Vladimir Horowitz, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Carlo Maria Giulini

Piano Sonata No.11 in A, K331/K300I

Probably composed in 1783 and published the following year, Mozart’s Sonata No.11 has become famous above all for its finale, the so-called Rondo alla Turca, which is written in the percussive Turkish style that was well-known in Vienna due to the bands of Turkish musicians who would roam the streets and play in public. Mozart also made use of the style in his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’) of 1782. But there is more to the Sonata than that – the opening movement is a particularly clever and charming set of variations, while the slow movement is a graceful minuet and trio. As well as Mozart’s original version, the Sonata has become known via arrangements and sets of variations by later musicians such as Max Reger and Dave Brubeck. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata No.11 In A, K.331 -"Alla Turca" 3. Alla Turca (Allegretto) Friedrich Gulda

Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C, K551 'Jupiter'

If he was keeping count, Mozart cannot have expected his 41st Symphony to be his last – but so it turned out. He certainly wrote nothing more complex than this brilliant, ambitious work, the finale of which offers a display of contrapuntal skills second to none in the whole of music. This is no mere showing off of technical knowledge, however, but instead a revelatory demonstration of what can be achieved by combining thematic material in complex ways, simultaneously. While the rest of the Symphony is first-rate, it is certainly the remarkable writing of the finale that has earned the piece the nickname of 'Jupiter', king of the gods.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 41 In C Major, K.551 - "Jupiter" 4. Molto allegro Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Mozart: Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C, K299/K297C

Mozart is on record as not being particularly fond of the flute, but you would never know that from this delightful (and fairly early) work combining the instrument with its frequent Arcadian companion, the harp. The result is a piece with a sense of never-ending innocence and charm, that also reaches real depth in the slow movement, containing sheer loveliness that would be hard to surpass in any work of its type. The Concerto was composed in Paris in 1778 for a father-and-daughter pair of amateur instrumentalists – the Duc de Guines and his harpist daughter Marie-Louise-Philippine, who was studying composition with Mozart while he was in France.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra in C Major, K.299 1. Allegro Susan Palma, Nancy Allen, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Ave Verum Corpus, K618

Just 46 bars long, this short motet was composed for a church near Vienna where Mozart was friendly with the choirmaster; it dates from the last year of Mozart’s life and is contemporary with his late opera The Magic Flute. The text hails the body of Christ, and the music, acutely chromatic in style, is a bittersweet contemplation of his body as hymned at the Eucharist. Such was the extraordinary harmonic appeal of the piece to 19th-century composers that Franz Liszt made a couple of arrangements of it and Tchaikovsky another as part of his orchestral suite 'Mozartiana'.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Ave verum corpus, K.618 Adagio Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Leonard Bernstein, Bavarian Radio Chorus

Viennese Years

That autumn, with Colloredo's reluctant assent, he undertook a long tour to Mannheim, then famed for its orchestra, and Paris. He met his exuberant 19-year-old cousin, Maria Anna Thekla, en route. She shared his zany sense of humour, and the pair immediately hit it off. Mozart wrote her a series of smutty letters that sometimes hint at deeper feelings. But she was soon replaced in his affections by a 16-year-old soprano, Aloysia Weber, whom he met in Mannheim. Mozart exploited her stratospheric top notes in some spectacular concert arias. Whether or not she shared his feelings, she rebuffed him. Four years later, in Vienna, he would marry her younger sister Constanze.

In Paris, Mozart failed to land a permanent job, much to his father's exasperation. He also experienced personal tragedy when his mother died. Upon returning to Salzburg in 1779 he reluctantly submitted to a life of drudgery as court organist. His travels had made him a more profound musician, however, and he composed some superb music, including the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K.364, which exploits the viola's husky melancholy and the rich orchestral textures Mozart had heard in Mannheim.

Escape came in the form of a commission from Munich for a grand opera. The result, Idomeneo, is Mozart's first real operatic masterpiece. Premiered in early 1781 it is a work of grand, heroic sweep, clearly influenced by the 'reform operas' of Gluck. In May of the same year Mozart departed the service of Archbishop Colloredo. His father was aghast, but for the next few years Mozart succeeded triumphantly in Vienna. He gave keyboard lessons, published his works and promoted himself as a composer-performer in subscription concerts. For these he wrote a glorious series of piano concertos, whose many delights include almost operatic duets between piano and woodwind.

Chamber music and opera were also central to Mozart's Viennese years. The string quartets published in 1785 and dedicated to his friend Joseph Haydn are magnificent. They combine the older composer's thorough technique with Mozart's expressive ambivalence and melodic subtlety.

Triumphs and Death

The Turkish harem opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart's greatest popular success. It was followed by three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. In these, comic opera was raised to a new level. In true Enlightenment spirit, forgiveness and reconciliation lie at their heart, an example being the Countess's pardon of her errant husband in Figaro. This is often expressed in music of transfigured stillness; even in the outwardly cynical Così fan tutte, self-centred and absurd characters are humanised through the beauty of their music.

Don Giovanni was triumphantly premiered in Prague in October 1787, but the years that followed were difficult. Although Mozart never knew real poverty, income from concerts and commissions was spasmodic, and he began to live beyond his means. It was not a simple case of declining popularity: in 1788-89 Viennese concert life was depleted by Austria's costly war with the Ottoman Turks. Mozart's own financial situation was almost certainly exacerbated by an addiction to gambling, shared by many of the Viennese aristocracy.

In the summer of 1788 he wrote his last three symphonies, numbers 39-41. In 1789 and 1790, in poor health, he went on concert tours to Germany. As he told Constanze, these earned him much honour but little profit. These years were relatively fallow, although they did produce Così fan tutte and the Clarinet Quintet, K.581. But 1791, Mozart's final year, was one of the most productive and lucrative of his life. There were major commissions for two operas, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and a Requiem. Future prospects, not least an offer to compose operas for London, looked even better.

Mozart's premature death, probably from rheumatic fever and/or kidney failure, spawned a welter of myths and half-truths. The unfinished Requiem, commissioned by an anonymous Count who wanted to pass it off as his own, excited the febrile Romantic imagination. Then there was the scandal of the pauper's grave - proof, surely, of Viennese neglect. The truth is less sensational. Mozart, in keeping with the custom for economical burials, was buried in a communal grave in St Marx's cemetery.

As far as we can ever know his private character, Mozart was a complex, restless man. His worldliness co-existed with high idealism, irresponsibility with shrewd business acumen, the bawdy and the antic with melancholy introspection. The exquisite surface of his music appeals to the most casual listener. His mercurial, ambivalent, ultimately elusive vision speaks with a unique poignancy and power to modern ears.