Mozart's 250th Birthday Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart turns 250 years old Friday. Guests in Salzburg, Austria, talk about his life and the tributes and concerts marking his birthday.
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Mozart's 250th Birthday

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Mozart's 250th Birthday

Mozart's 250th Birthday

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Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth. To mark the occasion there will be tribute concerts all over the world, but as we all know the best way to mark a really big birthday is with a big bash. Well, if there's a party, Talk of the Nation does not want to be left out. So right now we're going to the biggest and best celebration in the composer's hometown, the city of Salzburg, Austria.

We're going to the studios of NPR's Performance Today, which has been broadcasting live from Salzburg all week. Joining us now is Ulrich Leisinger. He's the head of the Mozarteum, which is the center of the universe for all things Mozart. He's also the presenter of this week long party. Nice of you to be with us today.

Dr. ULRICH LEISINGER (Head of the Mozarteum, the Center for Research and Archival Materials on Mozart, and presenter of the Mozart Festival in Salzburg): Hello. Here I am.

CONAN: Also with us is Hannes Eichmann, who's there and he works in Salzburg as a music producer and a host for Austrian radio. Good of you to join us this evening.

Mr. HANNES EICHMANN (Cultural producer, Austrian Broadcasting Corporation): Well, same here.

CONAN: And you listeners if you have questions about the life or the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or about this big celebration, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255 or send us an email: Ulrich Leisinger, let me ask you, Mozart famously did not like Salzburg very much. There's a pretty serious party going on now that I think he probably might have enjoyed. What's it been like all this week in Salzburg?

Dr. LEISINGER: Oh, it's a great week. We have had really nice winter weather, and we hope so that it was the same 250 years ago. Plenty of people are here. Everybody is looking forward to the great day.

CONAN: Now, how did you fill the roster of performers? I suspect everybody wanted to be part of this.

Dr. LEISINGER: Yeah, sure there are so many people who could not participate in this week's celebrations, but we will have a Mozart week every year, and so we hope to accommodate most and if there are concerts in other places we enjoy them too.

CONAN: Hannes Eichmann, let me ask you, there was a 200th birthday celebration back in 1956, how has Mozart's appreciation in Austria changed over the past 50 years, do you think?

Mr. EICHMANN: Well, 1956, Mozart was a figure of identification for Austria. Many patriotic speeches were mentioning Mozart as the great Austrian. Many politicians and scientists, well, more politicians I would say, attributed all kind of positive images that they wanted to attribute to Austrians into the figure of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 1956, in January, was really the end of this great year of celebration in Austria, where we got our state treaty in May 1955, they reopened the state opera after it had been destroyed in the war in November 1955.

And so, Mozart's 200th birthday was really like the crowning end of that year. And ever since, it for sure has changed, science, musicology has changed, Mozart is now maybe looked at a little bit less sentimental, maybe with more intellectual approach. But still, Mozart still is an important public figure, and when a year ago in Germany it was stated that Mozart was German all Austrians cried out and said no, no, no he's Austrian. But really it was Salzburg, because Salzburg was an independent country in those days.

CONAN: Yet he did spend a fair amount of time in Vienna, as well. Nevertheless, at the time and given the status that musicians and composers had, he was sort of, well, is indentured servant too strong a term? I mean he was once at the palace and found himself housed, as I understand it, somewhere between the cooks and the valets.

Mr. EICHMANN: That's right and that was tradition in those days. It was not until maybe around the year 1800 that musicians would become freelancers, would not only be employed by aristocracy after the French revolution, when the citizens became stronger, when citizen institutions, like music organizations, Muzik Verhines(ph), etc., were founded, then that changed. But in the 18th Century, in the small Archbishop's court here in Salzburg, Mozart for sure was part of the servants and more than once, I would say, he had to wait in front of the door, maybe with a violin ready, and wait until the Archbishop asks for music. You couldn't press a button and play a CD in those days.

CONAN: No, no, of course not. Uh, Ulrich Leisinger, let me ask you. Tell us a little bit more about the business life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Was he constantly waiting on the patronage of nobles?

Dr. LEISINGER: He was looking for great musical experiences, and apparently he did not bother enough about money, or if he had some he spent it as easily. When he was young it was less him than his father who expected him to get a decent and permanent position. Mozart probably liked traveling around and would have enjoyed life as a (unintelligible) to a certain degree, but at the age of 25 it was clear that either he got a good job or he would have to leave the city. And, since in Salzburg the best positions were traditionally taken by Italians, and this was also typical for many places in southern Germany and Austria, he had no chance but to leave.

CONAN: Hm. Let's get a listener on the line. And this is Rommel. Rommel's calling us from...

ROMMELL (Caller): Yeah, this is Rommell, from Bowler, Wisconsin.

CONAN: Well, thank you for correcting my pronunciation. Go ahead with your question please.

ROMMELL: I don't know that you guests can answer, but do they know if Mozart had any descendants, and if they're known, how do they feel about having a famous ancestor? And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Rommell. And Dr. Leisinger, I think that's to you.

Dr. LEISINGER: Yes, Mozart had two surviving sons, and, unfortunately, both of them died without ever having been married. And if you think about illegitimate children, we do not know anything for sure, so, right now there is nobody who can claim to be a direct descendant of Wolfgang.

CONAN: Let's get another caller, this, and by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Amanda's calling from Gainesville, Florida.

AMANDA (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

AMANDA: I just, I wanted to know, is there a real character, a Salieri, he was a, you know, "rival" of Mozart, and did he, Mozart even know he existed? And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, thanks for the call, Amanda. Well, we all saw the movie, Hannes Eichmann.

Mr. EICHMANN: Yes, sure enough, we all saw the movie. It was a wonderful movie, perfectly done, by Milos Foreman. Quite entertaining, and yet, as a movie, it didn't have to fulfill scientific demands, so Mozart as depicted in the movie is one possible answer to the question, Who was Mozart? But, the real scholars maybe would say, ah, that is little bit easy, was simplified.

Salieri, there, for the plot to be a competitor to Mozart, but in reality, one really couldn't believe that. Because Salieri, for instance, was the teacher of Mozart's son, and so, would you think that somebody would have hated Mozart would have taught his son? CONAN: Hmm. And Salieri of course himself a composer, thereby the storied rivalry, whether it was accurate or not. How is he regarded today, just in terms of his music?

Mr. EICHMANN: Salieri is regarded a quite fruitful composer of the turn of the century. Around 1800 he was the teacher of many famous composers, I believe also Franz Schubert was a Salieri pupil, and as a composer the Italians do value him. And La Scala, in Milan, recently performed an opera by Salieri. But, I would say a composer still to be discovered.

CONAN: Ulrich Leisinger, as I understand it, there was a program broadcast recently there in Austria after what some people thought was the skull of Mozart had been recovered. What did we find out from that, if anything?

Dr. LEISINGER: We found out several things, and it's a long story and we will keep it very short here. At this point, it's, that, in the end there, at least two skulls, which claimed to be Mozarts, and if they were both real, one of them must be the skull of the young Mozart, as we jokingly say...

And then, the situation was more complicated because people were hoping to find some DNA in the skull and in the bones of several people to be in, or to, that were buried in the family grave. And what we know at this point that none of the people that have been researched are related to each other, so we don't know anything. But, in the end, we were always more interested in what once was in that skull than the skull itself.

Mr. EICHMANN: Let me add something to what Ulrich Leisinger just said. I remember having talked to Ulrich's predecessor some years ago, who had the skull in his office. And he used to say, you know, what do you care about the skull? It doesn't compose anymore anyway.

CONAN: In other words, it sounds like, well, you may not understand the reference, it's an American reference, it sounds like it may have been Al Capone's vault, in which it turned out there was nothing inside.

Anyway, have we gotten any definitive information on the cause of Mozart's death? Which again, the movie version would suggest that nefarious doings were involved involving poison?

Mr. EICHMANN: The term they used in the 18th Century, which I give in German first, hertzeges freisle feber(ph), doesn't mean anything, it just meant that the final illness was some high fever, and what we know from the circumstances that kidney problems were the fatal end of Mozart's life. There is no reason to believe that there was any poisoning. Who should have poisoned him? We have already seen Salieri was not the character to do this, especially for the simple reason that, not Mozart was the rival of Salieri, or, that actually it was Salieri who was in the stronger position anyway. So all these stories will be asked again, and we will sit here in 2041 and ask what we know about Mozart's final illness.

CONAN: Yes. We're talking with Hannes Eichmann and Ulrich Leisinger, who are at the NPR Performance Today studio in Salzburg, Austria, where I guess the celebrations get fully into swing just a little bit later tonight, which will be, at midnight, it'll be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 250th birthday.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. Annette is with us from Denver.

ANNETTE (Caller): Yes?

CONAN: Go ahead please.

ANNETTE: Yes, hello, this is Annette Grayna, I'm calling from Denver, Colorado. Herr Mozart was born in, I'm from Salzburg, and Herr Mozart was born in Getreidegasse, in number 9, and my home was in Getreidegasse, in number 2, so we were neighbors. I'm also a graduate of the Mozart (unintelligible) and my grandfather was one of the directors there, and Salzburg is my hometown. And of course I really want to wish my neighbor a wonderful 250th birthday. We are having a big party here tomorrow in honor of him. I always have remembered the 27th of January as a special holiday.

CONAN: You're a little confused there Annette, because you still have your radio on, and we're running on a little bit of a delay. But, Dr. Leisinger, I guess there are people like Annette all over the world getting ready for celebrations.

Dr. LEISINGER: Yes, but not everybody was so close to Mozart as Annette was. So, we have many fans, but not very many neighbors of Mozart.

CONAN: Annette, congratulations, and the party tomorrow, how many people are going to be showing up? I think Annette has left us to go turn down her radio. Anyway, let's go to David. David's in his car, in Berkley, California.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, hi. My question was, how, in terms of Mozart's fame, how legitimate or how defensible is it, in light of discovering other composers, maybe digging up other composers? I always feel that history and the media explodes these things. I've lived with Mozart my whole life, certainly, I've always kind of preferred Bach. I'm no expert. And I've never, you know, felt that, you know, Mozart, I never liked his music as much as everyone says I should like it, I suppose. And I wondered if you had any comments on his fame and how it, you know, how deserved, and whether there aren't some other people buried in there that we might find, you know, who could compare to him over the years. And I'll take my answer off the air, thanks.

CONAN: Okay, David, thanks for the question. Hannes Eichmann, why don't I put that to you?

Mr. EICHMANN: Difficult question, but, not so difficult to answer. Mozart, for sure, if you study his life, if you study his compositions, is unparalleled by any other composer. One can say that for sure. Yet, I am a fan of Bach myself, and I remember when I came to Salzburg twenty years ago, for me, Mozart was something like a composer for Mother's Day, sweet, and harmless. And it took me about twenty years dealing with Mozart to find out, not sweet, not harmless. And there are lots of layers of appreciation. Mozart is a composer who appeals to the layman as well as to the musicians, and I think that can be said quite objectively.

CONAN: Ulrich Leisinger, some people question his genius, partly, I think, because it seemed to come so easily to him.

Dr. LEISINGER: I think this rather speaks in favor of his genius, because for most of us, working is quite hard. And, on the other hand, Mozart himself was proud of studying well, not just taking everything as it came. But he, and we can see it from the manuscript, he really worked hard, he worked fast, but I think this is not a disadvantage.

CONAN: Yet, sometimes we're told he'd try to compose symphonies while playing billiards and that sort of thing.

Dr. LEISINGER: Yeah, but he could do this only because he had a very clear idea how the symphony had to be shaped. And there are some parts of your work and my work which we can do while playing billiards or while being in the swimming pool, and it's never less, it can be good work.

CONAN: Well thank you both very much for joining us this evening, taking time out from what I'm sure is one great party. And it's going to be going on for some time.

Hannes Eichmann is the cultural music programming director for Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, O.R.F., and he teaches at the Department of Mass Media and Communication at Salzburg University. Also with us was Dr. Ulrich Leisinger, the Head of the Mozarteum, the Center for Research and Archival Materials on Mozart, Presenter of the Mozart Festival in Salzburg. Thank you very much for joining us from the NPR Performance Today Studios there, in Salzburg, where the celebrations are under way.

Mr. EICHMANN: Well, thank you for having us. Bye.

CONAN: We'll go out listening to, who else, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Tomorrow, Joe Palca will be here filling in for Ira Flatow. We'll see you Monday. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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