Mozart was born on January 27, 1756 in the Austrian city of Salzburg, where his father Leopold was a moderately successful musician. It was obvious very early on that the boy was a musical genius: he began composing at age six and wrote his first opera at twelve. Young Wolfgang was a keyboard and violin virtuoso and had an uncanny knack for improvisation.
After several years touring Europe, Mozart settled into an unrewarding position at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The death of his mother in 1779 kept him from pursuing commissions elsewhere. In 1781, his early opera seria triumph Idomeneo was well-received in Munich, and Mozart finally left Salzburg for Vienna, where he would spend the rest of his life. In 1782 he married Constanze Weber, and the couple lived modestly on an income from teaching and concerts.
Between the years 1786 and 1789, Mozart, the thirty-year old genius from the then provincial town of Salzburg, would create three of the most memorable and beloved of all operas with his gifted librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. These operas, The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, Don Giovanni in 1787, and Cosi fan tutte in 1789 are often referred to as Mozart’s ‘Da Ponte’ operas, for the librettos created by Jewish Italian immigrant who became the favorite author of Austrian emperor Joseph II, are literary masterpieces in and of themselves.
1788 was a terrible year for Mozart. He had little work, his wife was sick, and he barely made enough to keep hearth and home. He planned a series of subscription concerts for which he would write his final three symphonies – unquestionably his greatest symphonies, numbers 39, 40 and 41 – but the subscription series was cancelled due to poor sales.
The emperor had just returned from the Russian-Turkish war, in which the Austrians fought alongside the Russians, and he was ready to close the Italian opera in Vienna because it was losing too much money. But he was convinced by Da Ponte to keep it open, and as a result of the tremendous success of a revival of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna that year, the emperor commissioned Moart to write a new opera in collaboration with Da Ponte.
The story of Cosi may have been suggested by the emperor himself and was supposed to have been based on actual events in Tireste. The intriguing tale of fickle young lovers was the subject of a great deal of gossip among good Austrian society. Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri tried his hand at setting the story to music, but never completed the project.
Mozart wrote the music for Cosi in a dazzling blaze of speed, taking just the month of December 1789 to finish the opera. By the end of January 1790, the opera premiered to rapturous applause – its run of performances was cut short only because the emperor passed away shortly after the premiere. Of Mozart’s 22 operas, Cosi is number 20 – to be followed by La Clemenza di Tito, which was only a modest success, and The Magic Flute, which is considered by many to be among his greatest works. During the 19th and early 20th century Cosi was considered to be risqué, and it fell out of favor with audiences. Since World War II, however, it has regained its rightful place among the most beloved of operas.
More than four hundred of Mozart’s compositions survive, in almost every form and style. His catalogue includes 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, 25 string quartets, 17 operas, countless other instrumental and vocal music, and the great, unfinished Requiem Mass (it was completed by his pupil Süssmayr). The most famous of his operas are Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791). He died in Vienna on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35.