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Mozart Minute: Leopold's Death

image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
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His genius secured his immortality despite his untimely death. His Requiem - ironically unfinished at his death - he believed he was composing for his own funeral.

Mozart may have been pursued by intimations of his own mortality, but he wasn't haunted by the idea of death. However, the death of his father, Leopold Mozart, may well have been a different story.

Having heard that Leopold was seriously ill, Mozart waxed philosophical about death in a letter of April 4, 1787.

"As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence," Mozart wrote his father, "I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity (you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that - young as I am - I may not live to see another day." (The Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson).

The letter would be Mozart's final letter to his father. Not quite two months later, on May 28, 1787, Leopold Mozart died.

"I inform you," Mozart wrote at the end of that month to his friend the Baron Gottfried von Jacquin, "that on returning home today I received the sad news of my most beloved father's death. You can imagine the state I am in."

Peter Shaffer's Amadeus stage play and film portray the downward spiral at the end of Mozart's life as a volatile mix of unresolved grief over Leopold's death and a party lifestyle that led to increasing financial troubles. Shaffer's assessment might be armchair psychology, but it still might fit.

By marrying Constanze Weber and establishing their Vienna household nearly 200 miles away from Leopold's home in Salzburg, Mozart had declared his independence from Leopold and literally distanced himself from his father's parasitical neediness. But Leopold's death meant that Mozart would never in this earthly life receive the one thing every son seeks from his father: unqualified approval. 

So while for Mozart, death in the abstract may have been a welcome guest, Leopold's death in particular may well have left Mozart with profound unfinished emotional business, along with a standard dose of grief, to contend with. And yet with so much artistic promise still to fulfill, so much schmoozing still to do and so much merriment still to enjoy at balls and soirées, could the gamesome Mozart really have been expected to remain quiet and deal, as we might say today, with his grief?

For Mozart, Leopold Mozart's death was an ending without a conclusion. And where, precisely, in Mozart's soul that particular death may have lodged the key to true happiness, only he and his God will ever know.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.