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Mozart's Last Year
with Neal Zaslaw

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, Mozart scholar and Cornell University Professor Neal Zaslaw joins PT guest host Lisa Simeone, as we revisit the prolific final year in the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s a story with all the trappings of a Hollywood epic--love, celebrity, conspiracy and untimely death.

Mozart spent most of 1791 in good health, writing, performing frequently and enjoying an active social life. He loved dancing, and retained an annual commission to compose dance tunes for the court balls each January and February. These works are often neglected because they don’t fit the modern definition of a “masterpiece.” But in Mozart’s day, the public didn't make so great a distinction between “serious” composition and music for pure entertainment. We listen to the Contradanse No. 1 from February 1791, performed by Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Mozart Ensemble.

As one of the greatest pianists in his day, Mozart often used the piano concerto to showcase his abilities. He completed his Piano Concerto No. 27 on January 5th, and performed it frequently at theaters and parties throughout Carnival and Lenten season that year. Mozart based one movement on a simple song he had published, called “Longing for Springtime.” We listen to this joyful movement and the finale to Mozart’s last piano concerto, performed by Garrick Olhsson with conductor Michael Palmer and the American Sinfonietta at the Bellingham (WA) Festival of Music.

Mozart’s involvement in a secret society of Freemasons adds to the mystery surrounding his death. But his participation in the society was in many ways helpful to his career. As a member, Mozart could socialize with some his patrons on a first-name basis. He would also write a number of compositions for his lodge, including a hymn that would become the Austrian national anthem in 1947. Zaslaw explains how Mozart’s last opera, “The Magic Flute,” subtly revealed some of the society’s secrets, much to the displeasure of some members. In 1791, Mozart also completed another opera which was commissioned for the coronation of the emperor. We hear the Overture to “La Clemenza di Tito” performed by the ensemble Tafelmusik and conducted by Bruno Weil.

By September, Mozart was working at an exhausting pace to complete “The Magic Flute” in time for its premiere. He was also under pressure to finish his last major instrumental work, the Clarinet Concerto in A. Mozart himself conducted a performance of the concerto on November 18, 1791. Two days later he became ill and would never recover. We hear the Clarinet Concerto in A performed by clarinetist David Shifrin in concert at the OK Mozart Festival in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Zaslaw offers insights into the portentous circumstances surrounding the commission of the "Requiem", a funeral mass. Heavily in debt, despite his success, Mozart struggled against serious illness to complete a requiem mass that he gradually came to see as his own. He was the loser in this tragic confrontation with his own mortality. Mozart was able to complete only certain parts of the “Requiem,” including the introduction and the “Kyrie.” After his death on December 5th, Mozart’s wife entrusted his best student to put together the unfinished parts and complete the work. We listen to the beautifully haunting--and authentically Mozartean--first two movements of the “Requiem” as performed by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Mozart’s untimely death has inspired innumerable theories. Doctors and scholars are still coming up with new medical diagnoses, though we know that Mozart was generally not a healthy person. Then there is the intrigue of potential enemies: snubbed members of the secret society, the Austrian government, and the jealous court composer Salieri. Zaslaw says that no theory will ever satisfy our inability to accept the basic fact: Mozart died in his prime, cutting off an incredible outpouring of creative genius right at its peak. Fortunately, that genius lives on in his music.

Listen to Zaslaw and PT host Lisa Simeone discuss Mozart's prolific last year on the latest installment of the Milestones of the Millenium series. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This stereo audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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