I recently listened to an excellent audio biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (grab it free with Audible trial here). It was extremely inspiring and thought provoking to say the least.
Besides teaching me a lot about history it especially got me thinking about the parallels between Mozart’s days and ours. Of course, musical styles and the tools of making music have since evolved to something completely different. But there’s a lot – and I mean A LOT – of common ground underneath when it comes to conducting the craft itself.
Mozart lived 1756-1791, succumbing to mortal illness at the age of 35. He was an extremely skilled musician and a composer and always incredibly productive. In many ways he was also a game changer of his time.
We know a lot about him because many letters written by him and his large circle of family and friends have been preserved. He was also a celebrity in his lifetime.
He composed a mind boggling amount of music taking into account his short years. He also loved to perform his own music.
There are so many timeless lessons in his life, his art and his creative process that we can learn from and be inspired by.
This post is based on a memo I put together for myself while listening to the audiobook.
1. Do Your Groundwork
In modern narrative Mozart is often perceived as a wonderchild or a freak of nature. The reality however is less mysterious.
From a very early age he worked extremely hard to gain his skills. Under direction of his father (also a musician) he started practicing playing the clavinet at the age of three. He practiced daily and was already composing little pieces when he was five.
Ever since his early childhood he always stayed extremely dedicated to practice and research. For him there were no shortcuts.
He loved to imitate and mimic different composers and styles. This was his way of learning.
There is something very important to understand that relates to this:
Prior to reaching his peak as a composer, Mozart had become extremely proficient with several instruments and all existing compositional styles and techniques of his day.
Years and years of dedicated groundwork gave him structures to build on. Eventually it enabled him to connect the dots, to work extremely fast and take things to next level. Which is exactly what he went on to do in many spectacular ways.
2. Treat Each Project as an Interesting Challenge
No different to our time, it was common for composers of Mozart’s day to financially depend on commissioned work. In very difficult times Mozart even had to resort to ghost writing despite being a very proud man.
Artistically it was definitely not always possible to go as wild as he may have liked to. But still he always pushed for something new and interesting within the frames that he was given, introducing his own nuances upon everything he touched.
Take this to your heart: Whatever it is that you maybe we working on, it is always possible to carry it out in style and inject your own personality into it. Sometimes it calls for subtle strokes, sometimes you can go in harder.
If you’re working on an album of your own music, discover boldly. If it’s dull commissioned work – let’s say a soundtrack for a shampoo ad… That still doesn’t mean you should succumb to the norm and do something boring.
Treat each project as a challenge, make it good and don’t be afraid to put your personality into it. Consider the context but find ways to make it special in some way. Put thought into it.
The people who call call the shots are always listening. Each project is a stepping stone for something new and potentially better.
3. Be Controversial in Your Own Art
All classic great music has one day been new music. And a lot of it has first been perceived as controversial.
This is no different with Mozart. He was a rebel and an innovator who received a lot of praise in his liftetime, but his music wasn’t liked by everyone – not even by a long shot.
It is hard to grasp for those of us without a thorough understanding of the history of classical music. But stylistically what Mozart did to classical music was perhaps a little bit similar to what Elvis did to rock. Many loved his bold new take on the music. But there were many, many people who couldn’t accept it.
Very often his music was perceived as way too complex and difficult to listen to.
Mozart wasn’t concerned about that. He simply wasn’t content with writing the kind of music that had already been done.
He wanted to push into new frontiers.
And this by definition meant being a little (or in many cases, a lot) strange.
A good example of this is his exploration of dissonances and using them as contrasting elements.
In fact, it was not unusual that at the time the sheets of his compositions were thought to include mistakes introduced by the replication process, or that the musicians were simply playing it wrong!
It was just difficult for many of Mozart’s contemporaries to accept that music could sound like this on purpose.
To give you an example, here is the 1st movement of his String Quartet No 19 (K.465).
Even now the first few minutes of the piece still sound a bit out of this world. It very skillfully treads a fine line between wrong and beautiful.
Have a listen:
Sounds very modern in a sense – right? To think this work was published in 1785! Imagine how it must have sounded like to people back then?
The lesson here is this:
It takes time for new ideas to take seed, grow and become accepted by the general public.
If you want to be an originator, you must understand that you will never be liked by everyone.
You must be willing to put yourself out there, break the prevailing rules and atmosphere. And for doing so you must be ready to be ridiculed by some.
So the hell with being conventional. Explore and be strange.
4. Get to Your Important Work Early in the Day
Mozart was usually up at five in the morning. By six he was composing and he spent all morning on it.
Quite often he would work until the late night hours, but he always tried to make sure he was up early to get to his work.
The mornings are a great time to be doing creative work for several reasons.
- Our brain works better on all levels when we are rested. We have better focus and it’s easier for us to generate ideas and form associations.
- Early mornings are often a peaceful time with very little distractions.
- Our internal body clock (science calls this circadian rhythm) naturally supports this kind of sleep-wake rhythm (going to bed around 10pm and waking up about 5-6am).
- There is nothing like the feeling of having won before most people have woken up.
If you’re saying to yourself “I’m not a morning person”… Well I used to think like that, too. It’s an excuse. The truth is nobody really ever likes waking up.
Getting up early largely comes down to habits and what your internal body clock is used to. Once you get the hang of it you will appreciate the benefits.
I think anyone who isn’t willing to give early mornings a try is doing themselves a great disservice.
And I am sure Mr. Mozart would agree.
5. Be a Creator of Worlds
Great music is about discovering and creating worlds. It’s about showing people places where they have never been to before.
Instrumental music, being arguably the most abstract form of all arts, gives you infinite ways to do that.
Mozart used imitation as a form of practice and he was very good at it. But in his serious work he was never content with repeating what others were doing.
In fact in his day it would have probably provided him a much more stable living had he succumbed to the easy way and focused on composing easy popular music styles. Of course then he wouldn’t be remembered the way he is now. Sound familiar? Our time is not so different in many respects.
It’s important to study other music, to learn from it and to be inspired and influenced by it.
But this is all groundwork. It should’t be obvious.
When it comes to creating, let your instinct guide the way and explore your own worlds.
6. Don’t Let Hardship Put You Down
Mozart’s whole life, from childhood to his early death at 35, was filled with psychological hardship and physical suffering.
To give you some perspective, here are some of the things he endured in his short lifetime:
- He lost four of his six children.
- He had an extremely difficult relationship with his father, and lost his mother when he was 22.
- He was physically fragile and his life was plagued with all kinds of illnesses ever since very early age. From severe smallpox that scarred his face for life to frequent attacks of tonsillitis and chronic kidney failure, the list of the illnesses he suffered from is long and sad. He rarely saw a healthy day.
- His wife Constanze was also frequently ill.
- He lived in severe debt for the last four years of his life.
- All of this naturally contributed to troubling his mental state.
But you know what?
Under these extremely difficult conditions this man wrote an amazingly large repertoire of masterful music. And even though his health was deteriorating and while living poor and under severe debt, he kept making music feverishly until the very end of his life.
His last work – Requiem – was left unfinished but fortunately completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
It is an epic masterpiece that brings together all of the experience and skill Mozart had accumulated during his life. Even on his deathbed he was still mentally occupied with finishing it. Listening to Requiem leaves me without words.
It must also be appreciated that his musical work aside and despite all of his suffering, Mozart lived a very social life. He had a vivid sense of humor and a large social circle. He loved performing and was not a recluse or a captive of his work by any means.
That, perhaps, is Mozart’s greatest lesson to us.