The Mozart Myth

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about how Mozart would compose entire musical scores in his head and only write them down once they were finished. Even authors who stress that creativity requires false starts and hard work have said that Mozart may have been an exception. But maybe he wasn’t.

In his new book How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton says that the Mozart story above is a myth based on a forged letter. According to Ashton,

Mozart’s real letters—to his father, to his sister, and to others—reveal his true creative process. He was exceptionally talented, but he did not write by magic. He sketched his compositions, revised them, and sometimes got stuck. He could not work without a piano or harpsichord. He would set work aside and return to it later. … Masterpieces did not come to him complete in uninterrupted streams of imagination, nor without an instrument, nor did he write them whole and unchanged. The letter is not only forged, it is false.

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3 thoughts on “The Mozart Myth

  1. The first time I’ve heard of it was not long ago, in this course.

    If I remember correctly, Craig Wright explained there that the analysis of Mozart’s hand-written scores strongly supports this story (fluently written with very little corrections or erasures, and so on).

  2. Omer: Maybe Mozart composed his works in fits and starts, working at a keyboard, memorizing the compositions as they grew. Then he could indeed write the scores out fluently at the end. That would be consistent with what Kevin Ashton and Craig Wright both have to say.

  3. Many scholars have studied Mozart’s compositional process by analysing his Requiem—which, as is well-known, was left unfinished. Mozart probably needed to have at least a general idea of the structure of a composition before he began writing (remember, paper was expensive back then, too, so keep practical considerations in mind). He would often sketch out (in the case of the Requiem at least) the most important things, vocals and figured bass, as well as indications for the instrumentation in this case. That way, he could go back and finish the orchestration—an easy task usually saved for last—at a later time, since the indications are there to remind him of what he was thinking.
    The inauthentic letter was actually forged by Friedrich Rochlitz, in one of his several “factually tainted” anecdotes. Romanticism in the 19th century has largely contributed to the several myths about Mozart.

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