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Mozart's Salzburg

“Salzburg is no place for my talents. In the first place, professional musicians there are not held in much consideration; and secondly, one hears nothing, there is no theatre, no opera; and even if they wanted one, who is there to sing?”

Thus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a letter written in the summer of 1778 to a close family friend, the Jesuit priest Joseph Bullinger. Mozart’s well-documented dislike of his native city formed the foundation of an image of Salzburg that has until recently served generations of writers on the composer. It is an image of a small claustrophobic backwater under the rule of a conservative and absolutist ecclesiastical court. Yet, as is so frequently the case with Mozartian lore, the truth is not quite so straightforward. To attempt a more accurate picture, we need first to look briefly at the history of the city-state into which Mozart was born on 27 January 1756.

The Early History of Salzburg

Evidence of human activity in the Salzburg region dates back to prehistoric times. The discovery of salt near Hallein led to the area becoming an important trading centre that resulted in the establishment of a number of small settlements in the hills and mountains that surround the modern city. In 15 BC the Romans became rulers, founding a town on the left bank of the River Salzach. It was this town, Iuvavum, which would become modern Salzburg. At the end of the seventh century Bishop Rupert of Worms received the remains of the Roman town from the Duke of Bavaria, founding the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and a convent on the Nonnberg mountain. The following century witnessed a rapid development in ecclesiastical importance, the town becoming an Episcopal see in 739 and an Archdiocese in 798. It was also during the eigth century that we find the first use of the German name Salzburg. In 800 Salzburg became incorporated into the federation of independently ruled states known as the Holy Roman Empire, a status it would retain until the dissolution of Charlemagne’s grandiose conception in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Salzburg gained many of the fortifications visitors still see today, in particular the Hohensalzburg fortress that dominates the city. In 1278 the emperor Rudolf of Habsburg made the Salzburg archbishops imperial princes, thus bestowing on them temporal in addition to ecclesiastical power. The following two centuries were largely peaceful, a period during which both the power of the city-state and the wealth of its citizens increased exponentially. It was during this time, too, that the otherwise unknown Monk of Salzburg, one of the last of the Minnesingers, achieved the distinction of becoming of the first composer known to be associated with the city. 

The City Transformed

Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau was born into a wealthy family from Vorarlberg, the most western province in Austria. In 1587, at the age of only 28, he was elected archbishop of Salzburg. A man of huge ambition, Wolf Dietrich set out to transform the Gothic city into a “German Rome” that would realise his dream of the ideal town according to the principals of the Venetian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. Although Scamozzi’s grand design came to nothing, Wolf Dietrich’s plans received inadvertent impetus when on the night of 11 December 1598 the splendid Romanesque cathedral was badly damaged by fire. Much to the outrage of the citizenry of Salzburg, the archbishop tore down the remains of the building and set about planning a replacement. It was an initiative Wolf Dietrich would not live to carry through, his imperious behaviour and the “Salt War” with Bavaria (1611) resulting in his resignation and imprisonment in the Hohensalzburg fortress by his nephew and successor Marcus Sitticus.


It was Marcus Sitticus who commissioned another Italian architect, Santino Solari, to rebuild the cathedral, but he too died before it was completed and given a magnificently festive consecration on 25 September 1628, an event that included the performance of a sumptuous Te Deum for 12 choirs, dispersed in the galleries, by the Italian composer Stefano Bernardi. The consecration took place against the background of the surrounding chaos of The Thirty Year’s War, an upheaval from which Salzburg escaped largely unscathed thanks to the heavy fortification and the astute diplomacy of the incumbent prince-archbishop, Paris Lodron, who ruled from 1619-1653. Solari became the master architect of Salzburg during this period, adding to the redevelopment commenced under Wolf Dietrich and Marcus Sitticus and helping to create a city that today remains one of the jewels in the crown of Baroque architecture, a city whose buildings, squares and fountains consistently look back over the Alps to the south.


The seventeenth century Salzburg archbishops were enthusiastic patrons of the arts, especially music. In 1614 an Orfeo, frequently cited as Monteverdi’s, became the first opera known to have be given outside Italy, while shortly afterwards sacred music drama was established at the Benedictine university, creating a part of Salzburg’s musical life that was still in existence in at least the earlier part of Mozart’s life. Later in the century the court attracted a number of eminent composers into its service, among them Heinrich Biber, who was given a court post on his arrival in Salzburg in 1670 and rose to become Kapellmeister in 1684. The music Biber composed for the court – polychoral masses in the Roman style, instrumental music for the court, sacred dramas, and an opera Chi la dura la vince (Arminio)  – reflects strongly a vibrant music life and a substantial roster of musicians. Among them was Georg Muffat, an outstanding composer who served as organist and chamber musician from 1678 until 1689, although his stay there parallels Mozart’s life in Salzburg to some degree in that he was granted by the archbishop extensive leave to visit Italy and ultimately left the court dissatisfied with his terms of service.


By the end of the seventeenth century Salzburg’s prestige had increased to the point where it had become, in the words of Cliff Eisen, “the most important and influential archdiocese and sacred state in German-speaking Europe”, with extensive territory that extended into Bavaria and as far to the east as Graz. In the city itself the final touches to its architectural splendour were added during the reign of Archbishop Johann Ernest Thun (1687-1709), members of whose family would later become valuable supporters of Mozart. Thun employed the services of two great Austrian architects, firstly Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, a pupil of Bernini’s in Rome, and then Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who completely transformed what became known as the Mirabell Palace.   

Salzburg in the Eighteenth Century

The Salzburg that the Mozart family would have known was, then, a symbiosis of the baroque city that had been re-developed over the past 150 years and the remnants of the old medieval city, whose narrow streets on the left bank of the Salzach included Getreidegasse, the street in which Mozart was born at No. 9. The administration of the city and its lands was entirely in the hands of the prince-archbishop, an absolute ruler whose spiritual power was supported by a chapter of 24 canons, themselves mostly members of the local nobility and responsible for electing the archbishop. Temporal power was exercised by a large executive that oversaw every aspect of life from business and legal administration to education and the army. Few of the city’s 16,000 or so inhabitants were not in some way connected with the court; not one was unaffected or uninfluenced by its rule. The political and religious stance of the court during most of the eighteenth century was one of extreme conservatism well illustrated by the exodus of a large number of Protestants, who left Salzburg territory early in the 1730s after a sustained period of repression. Administration was inefficient, the education system old-fashioned, and censorship frequent.


It is within such a context that the well-travelled Mozart’s view of Salzburg as claustrophobic and repressive must be placed, although as we will see profound changes were taking place in the decade before he left his birthplace to settle in Vienna. It also at least in part accounts for the differences that developed between Mozart and his father Leopold. Educated by the Jesuits in Augsburg (his birthplace) and at the Benedictine University in Salzburg, Leopold retained throughout his life a certain formal piety – albeit one that allowed a healthy degree of scepticism regarding the princes and dignitaries of the church - that was not shared by his son, whose leanings toward Enlightenment thought became increasingly marked.

Musical Life in Salzburg

As we have seen, throughout its history Salzburg had not lacked distinguished court musicians. To those already mentioned, we can add such names as Heinrich Finck (1444/5-1527), one of the major early Renaissance German composers, and the locally-born Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), considered the most renowned organist of his time. Following a peak of musical distinction during the period in which Biber and Muffat were in the service of the court, the first half of the eighteenth century is less spectacular in musical terms. But during the reign of Franz Anton, Prince of Harrach (1709-1727) it was enlivened by frequent visits from the Imperial court Hofkapellmeister, Antonio Caldara, several of whose dramatic works received their first performance in Salzburg.


The most distinguished court musician during this period was Johann Ernst Eberlin (1702-1762), whose education was remarkably similar to that of Leopold Mozart. Both received their initial education in Augsburg before attending Salzburg University, where neither completed the law course. Like Leopold, Eberlin joined the court’s musical establishment in a humble capacity, in his case as fourth organist, rising through the ranks to be appointed Kapellmeister in 1749. Leopold, not a man to give praise lightly, thought highly of Eberlin’s capabilities, writing of him that he “deserves to be called a thorough and accomplished master of composition”, adding that “he writes with such quickness that many people would take for a fairy-tale the manner in which this profound composer brings this or that to the music stand.” Eberlin’s “quickness” resulted in a vast body of works that includes several hundred Masses in addition to many other sacred works that continued to be performed until the end of the 1770s. Eberlin’s juxtaposition of the old-fashioned “learned” contrapuntal style with more modern styles imported from Italy would serve as a blueprint for following Salzburg composers, not least Mozart, who shared his father’s admiration for Eberlin.


That the majority of Eberlin’s output for the Salzburg court consists of sacred music occasions no surprise, since the composition and performance of cathedral music formed the principal activity of the musicians attached to the court. Thanks to a report on the state of music at the Salzburg court made for a Berlin newspaper in 1757, we have a detailed first hand account of the strength of the musical establishment at the time. Almost certainly written by Leopold Mozart, it provides assessments of the leading musicians at the court, including that of Eberlin already quoted above. In addition they include the vice-Kapellmeister Giuseppe Francesco Lolli (Eberlin’s successor from 1763), and three other composers, one of them Leopold himself. The roster of instrumentalists included: eight violinists; two each of viola players, cellists and double bassists; two keyboard players; three oboists (or flautists), four bassoonists; two horn players and a trombonist. Solo singers are numbered as a court chaplain, a soprano (though the report notes there were three vacancies) and a pair each of tenors and basses. The choir was divided into three groups: twenty-one gentlemen, who included falsettists, eight hymn singers, and fifteen choirboys, who were taught by the organist and who also received instrumental tuition from the leading court musicians. Three trombonists from the city waits supplemented the choir, their function doubtless being to double vocal lines. Finally, there was a group of ten trumpeters and two timpanists whose duties were largely employed on ceremonial occasions, but who were also capable of playing string parts when larger forces were required. The total amounts to around a hundred performers, which, as Stanley Sadie has observed, is a highly impressive figure for a modest-sized court.


In addition to performing for the liturgy in the cathedral, when as many as forty musicians might be required for special occasions, table and other entertainment music was required within the precincts of the court, while the musicians had several other functions dispersed around town. Salzburg was a city of many churches and religious establishments that at festive periods or on special occasions employed the services of the court musicians. Among the most important was the Archabbey of St. Peter’s, for which both Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart provided works, along with Michael Haydn, the younger brother of Joseph, who joined the court establishment as concertmaster in 1763 and succeeded Mozart as court and cathedral organist from 1782. Another important duty was the composition and performance of the sacred dramas presented at the Benedictine university, a tradition that as we have seen dates back to the early seventeenth century. Developing from pedagogical works that featured elaborate scenery, spoken drama, dance, and music, by the mid-eighteenth century these entertainments had come to resemble Italian opera, with a succession of recitatives and arias. The importance of such pieces within the musical life of the city can be gauged from the fact that Eberlin composed no fewer than 91 such dramatic works, performed not only at the university, but also in the small court theatre and the Nonnberg convent, one of the oldest in Europe. Mozart, too, made a contribution to the genre, in the form of his Apollo et Hyacinthus, K38, given between the acts of a Latin tragedy in 1767. 


The university was also the origin of an orchestral form unique to Salzburg, the serenade. Every August the students had a large-scale work performed for their professors in connection with the end of term graduation ceremonies. This serenade, known as Finalmusik, typically opened and closed with the arrival and exit of the performers playing a march, interspersed between which were anything between seven and nine movements, several of which were scored in concertante style featuring one or more solo instruments. The piece was played twice, first at the Mirabell Palace in honour of the archbishop, then again in the square in front of the university building. The tradition has been traced back to the 1740s, although it maybe older. Leopold Mozart is known to have composed more than 30 such pieces, although none survive complete, while Mozart composed four serenades for this purpose. Serenades were also given at other times during the university year, in addition to which prominent citizens commissioned them for celebratory occasions. Two of Mozart’s best known serenades fall into this category, both the “Haffner” Serenade, K250 and what we today know as the “Haffner” Symphony, K385 having been commissioned by the wealthy merchant and former mayor Sigmund Haffner, K250 having been composed for the wedding of his sister Elizabeth in July 1776, while K385 was written on the occasion of Sigmund’s ennoblement. Both are excellent examples of the way Mozart expanded occasional entertainment music to a symphonic scale, K385 now of course known only as the symphony the composer produced by reducing the number of movements to four, the remaining serenade movements being lost.


During much of Leopold Mozart’s period in the employment of the Salzburg court and the earlier part of his son’s life in the city, the archbishop was Siegmund Christoph von Schrattenbach, who reigned from 1753 until his death in 1771. Schrattenbach was a pious, paternalistic man who preserved the prevailing conservative atmosphere of the court, which remained largely untouched by the Enlightenment thought then starting to make inroads elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, he was a keen supporter not only of the arts in general, but of locally produced talent in particular.  He paid for several female singers (including Michael Haydn’s future wife Magdalena Lipp) to be educated at the Pièta in Venice, giving them court appointments on their return, and paid generous travel leave to his vice-Kapellmeister Leopold Mozart during his frequent leaves of absence once he started on his journeys with his prodigiously gifted young son. Indeed, during this period Leopold seems to have been conscious of the highly favoured treatment he was receiving. Writing to his regular Salzburg correspondent Lorenz Hagenauer during the first trip to Vienna he made with his family (1762-1763), he stressed that although he is now in a position to make a living in Vienna, he still preferred Salzburg “to all other advantages”.


Times change and times changed for the Mozarts with the death of Schrattenbach on the day after they returned from the first Italian journey, 16 December 1771. The event was marked by the composition by Michael Haydn of a substantial Requiem in C minor, performed at the archbishop’s memorial service. His successor, Hieronymous Joseph Franz de Paula von Colloredo, was elected after the most bitter contest in the history of the archbishopric, one in which for the first time intervention from the Imperial court in Vienna played a major role. Colloredo differed greatly from his predecessor in both character and outlook. He has gone down in history, not entirely fairly, as one of the demons of the Mozart story, a man whose lack of understanding of the young man’s burgeoning genius led him to treat his greatest musical asset with a disdain that borders on philistinism. Colloredo formally took office on 29 April 1772, but there is no evidence that Mozart’s serenata Il sogno di Scipione, K126, originally intended for the fiftieth anniversary of Schrattenbach’s ordination, was performed on the occasion, despite a hasty change of name in the final licenza.


The new archbishop was a man with a mission and he had urgent work to do, both practical and philosophical. Schrattenbach had left Salzburg with huge debts that Colloredo immediately set about trying to reduce. Notwithstanding such belt tightening, one of his first acts was to award the 16-year old Mozart his first salary in his capacity as concertmaster, a position Mozart had previously occupied without pay. In outlook Colloredo was a reformer who followed the Enlightenment principles being pursued in Vienna by Joseph II. In terms of civic life, he attempted to modernise the structure of society in Salzburg, introducing innovatory reforms in the fields of administration, education, health and the economy. Religious practice, too, underwent significant change, with pomp and ceremony reduced, church decoration limited and musical settings of the Mass shortened. Mozart detailed these changes in a famous letter written in 1776 to the great theorist and teacher, Padre Martini of Bologna, a man greatly esteemed by both Mozarts:


Our church music is very different to that of Italy, since a Mass with the whole Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle Sonata, the Offertory or Motet, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei must not last longer than three quarters of an hour. This applies even to the most Solemn Mass said by the Archbishop himself. So you see that a special study is required for this kind of composition. At the same time, the Mass must have all the instruments – trumpets, drums and so forth.


In addition to curtailing ecclesiastical music, Colloredo found far less time for musical entertainment at court than had his predecessors, despite the fact that he was himself a violinist. In part this was because his major concerns lay elsewhere, in part because it was in his nature to espouse simplicity. One result of this was an increase in the amount of music making that took place outside the court. In 1778 Count Johann Rudolf Czernin, an enthusiastic amateur musician, founded an orchestra that met every Sunday afternoon. Leopold Mozart sent Wolfgang, then in Paris, an amusing account of its first meeting, at which both Leopold and Mozart’s sister Nannerl played.  Czernin managed to gather a sizable orchestra for these concerts, Leopold’s listing including eight first and six second violins, two violas, five cellos, three double basses, and pairs of horns and oboes.


In the course of this same year Salzburg’s musicians were deprived of another source of activity when the university theatre was closed, thus ending the long tradition of music drama dating back well over a century. Three years previously, in 1775, Colloredo had ordered a public theatre to be built at the city’s expense on the site today occupied by the Landestheater. Its repertoire consisted of plays performed by visiting troupes, one of which was led by Emanuel Schikaneder, later to become the librettist of Die Zauberflöte. There seems, however, to be no evidence that it was ever used for music drama, a conclusion that would seem to be supported by the words of Mozart quoted at the start of this article.   


By the late 1770s the relationship between the archbishop and the Mozarts had deteriorated significantly. Another letter to Padre Martini, this time written by Leopold in December 1777, tells the story:


For the past five years my son has been serving our Prince for a miserable pittance [all italics are Leopold’s] in the hope that his efforts and his slight knowledge would in time be appreciated. But we were wrong! I refrain from giving you a full description of the manner in which our Prince prefers to think and act. Suffice it say that he was not ashamed to declare that my son knew nothing and that he ought to betake himself to some conservatorio of music at Naples and study music. And why? Simply in order to make it quite clear that a young man in a subordinate position should not be so foolish as to feel convinced that he deserved better pay and more recognition […] This disappointment made me decide to allow my son to resign from the service and go off elsewhere.


As so often, there is more to this outburst than at first meets the eye. It follows a petition by Leopold to the archbishop for promotion either for himself, his son, or both. The negative response was exacerbated by the archbishop’s refusal to allow both Mozarts to undertake another lengthy journey, this time to Paris. In response Wolfgang had written to the archbishop in a manner that the prelate might with some justification have considered impertinent. The result was an ironically ambiguous response, agreeing that both father and son “have permission to seek their fortune elsewhere”. Leopold, terrified that this meant dismissal for both of them, decided to stay at home, instead sending his wife Maria Anna to accompany Wolfgang on a journey from which she would not return.


Although he had failed to find the much sought-after position away from Salzburg, Mozart did not return to his native city in the middle of January 1779 to find himself unemployed. The court and cathedral organist Anton Cajetan Adlgasser, who had served in the post for nearly thirty years, had died some thirteen months previously and Mozart not only had has contract as concertmaster renewed, but was also appointed in place of Adlgasser. The new post carried a substantial rise in salary, although one less than Leopold had suggested to Mozart before his arrival home. The duties included not only playing the organ at the court and in the cathedral, but also teaching the choirboys, and the composition of new liturgical works, a task that Mozart performed considerably less assiduously than did Michael Haydn, his successor in the post.


Mozart’s failure to provide much in the way of new music for the cathedral – only two Masses, K317 and K337, date from the period of his tenure – doubtless did not escape the attention of the archbishop, who in turn annoyed Mozart in June 1780 by issuing an archiepiscopal letter demanding less elaborate church music and the introduction of German hymns, a number of which were indeed later composed by Michael Haydn. The final act in the drama played out between the haughty archbishop and his discontented employee would take place less than a year later. Immediately following the success of his Idomeneo in Munich, Mozart was summoned to join Colloredo’s retinue in Vienna. Bridling at being placed at table among the archbishop’s servants, furious at not being given permission to play at a private concert attended by the emperor, Mozart demanded his dismissal. It was granted at a famous audience with Colloredo’s steward, Count Arco, who administered the notorious kick up the backside that ended Mozart’s life in Salzburg. Henceforth his fortune would lie as a free agent in Vienna. As for Leopold, he remained in Salzburg, continuing as vice-Kapellmeister until his death in May 1787 at the age of 68. And Prince-Archbishop Colloredo? Contrary to his reputation as a musical philistine, he established a series of Lenten public subscription concerts in Salzburg in 1786 (an earlier series had been given during his absence in Vienna in 1781) that, according to Leopold Mozart, achieved great success. In 1797 a local repertory company was finally established at the theatre, performing several of Mozart’s most popular operas (all in German) alongside the plays of Goethe and Schiller. A contemporary observer noted that as far as Mozart’s opera’s were concerned, the public seemed “more to affect taste than really feel it; for this immortal composer was born and brought up in Salzburg.” One cannot help wondering what Colloredo’s reaction was to the performance of his former employee’s operas. He continued to reign until 1800, when the political situation forced him to flee Salzburg. When he resigned as head of state three years later Salzburg was secularised, bringing to an end ten centuries of ecclesiastical rule.


But for the accident of the birth of one of the greatest of all composers within its walls, the small city-state of Salzburg would probably have occupied little more than a brief paragraph or two in the annals of the history of music. That it was the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bestows on the city a special status in that history, one it has not failed to exploit.

Select Bibliography


Anderson, Emily (ed.): The Letters of Mozart and his Family, 2 vols. 2nd edn. London, 1966.

Eisen, Cliff: “Salzburg under Church Rule” in Man & Music: The Classical Era: From the 1740s to the end of the 18th century ed. Neal Zaslaw. London, 1989.

Eisen, Cliff & Simon P. Keefe (eds.): The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia. Cambridge, 2006.

Kenyon, Max: Mozart in Salzburg. London, 1952.

Robbins Landon, H. C. (ed.): The Mozart Compendium. London, 1990.

Sadie, Stanley: Mozart: The Early Years 1756-1781. Oxford, 2006.  


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