Mozart the touring pop icon: how the great composer’s manuscripts reveal his life as a musical celebrity

  • Mozart’s autograph manuscripts reveal the secret stories behind his life as a musical celebrity, according to research from the University of Sheffield
  • Study uncovers how hidden layers of the manuscripts reveal how Mozart regularly changed major works as he took them on tour to different cities and countries
  • Rather than being precious about his music, Mozart regularly updated it to suit different performers, venues and orchestras
  • This approach established the template for the modern pop musician doing new covers and versions of their greatest hits – and contests the idea that we should stick strictly to a definitive musical text when performing Mozart’s music today, argues leading scholar

An illustration of Mozart

Mozart’s autograph manuscripts reveal the secret stories behind his busy life as a touring musical celebrity, according to a musicologist from the University of Sheffield.

250 years since the 13 year old Mozart’s landmark 15 month tour of Italy, the research by Professor Simon Keefe from the University’s Department of Music highlights how the famous composer made his mark by touring Europe as a performer.

And the study, which follows on from a major recent biography by Keefe, emphasises how open Mozart was to changing his music to fit different circumstances.

“We may think of Mozart as the composer of musical masterpieces that he conceived as perfect works,” said Professor Keefe. “But in reality, he thought of his compositions as serving events to showcase his skill, not to create monuments to his genius.”

He added: “For example, he wrote six of his string quartets to play with Haydn, the most esteemed composer of the day – a landmark meeting that allowed Mozart to show Haydn what he could do and to expand his own reputation by association. Mozart's experiences of the works in performance found their way into the scores published a few months later.”

Findings from the study also reveal how all of his greatest operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute) were written to exploit the individual skills of specific singers at the opera's first run, not for contemplation by future generations.

Mozart, ‘Per pieta’, from Cosi fan tutte, bars 112–121 (including deleted material)

The Figaro Revival and Così fan tutte

The Figaro Revival and Così fan tutte

Download high-res version of bars 112–121 (PDF, 1.7MB)

And, Keefe explains, “When Figaro and Don Giovanni were re-staged after their premieres, Mozart replaced several of their most famous arias just to accommodate new singers. It wasn’t about ‘improving’ the operas for posterity or being true to a single ‘authentic’ vision of his music.”

He added: “Playing his own piano concertos, Mozart made frequent changes to his scores to impress his listeners. He thought all the time about his audience's immediate reactions and almost never about producing a perfectly-chiselled, finished work. He even made changes to his own solo part of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467 ('Elvira Madigan') so that the orchestral instruments could be better heard.

“His focus was entirely on how to create the biggest impact in performance, just as contemporary pop musicians like Ariana Grande and Take That change their arrangements to suit different venues today. That sensitivity to how the music comes across, and how his appearances affected his reputation, is what makes Mozart the 18th century prototype for the modern musical celebrity.”

The research on how Mozart’s manuscripts reveal his life as a performer is published in Keefe’s recent books Mozart in Context and Mozart in Vienna: The Final Decade (both from Cambridge University Press).

For more information on the books, visit: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/mozart-in-context/9FC9034A78F0F1FD0EE4BBDCAF24B1ED

Additional information

Music at the University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield’s Department of Music is one of the UK’s leading centres for music research in the UK, according to the latest Research Excellence Framework.

Researchers in the department are at the cutting edge of studies in areas such as composition, ethnomusicology, musicology, music technology, performance and the psychology of music.

Sheffield music researchers have recently been involved in projects such as: developing new insights into how music can be used to help people suffering from insomnia; producing a new universal music notation system to make it easier to share musical ideas across cultural boundaries; and working with contemporary arts organisations to help them trial new strategies for recruiting and retaining new audiences.

The University’s Department of Music has a focus on research-led teaching and offers one of the UK’s most diverse and flexible music degrees in which students can study music on its own or with other subjects to tailor their degree.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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Contact

For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852
s.barton@sheffield.ac.uk