Music, Mortality, and Outliving Mozart: The Whimsical Tale of a Slowly-Built Passion

The great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed away two hundred and twenty-two years ago today. As I was born on his two hundred and twenty-second birthday, I've now outlived him by... let's see... about fourteen hours. I feel very weird about this. Hence, the following.
January 27, 1756: birth of Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (baptismal name*)
January 27, 1988: music teacher Nancy Wilson tells her fifth grade homeroom class that "Today is Mozart's birthday."
After which Mrs. Wilson said, off-handedly, “Have I missed anyone’s birthday?” I looked down at my lap, too shy to announce that it was my own tenth birthday and risk getting sung to. Several of my classmates raised their hands, and she distributed Tootsie Rolls accordingly. I was disappointed in my own cowardice, but she had given me a better gift than candy. I got to share a birthday with someone awesome.

* * *
Mozart, age 5, 1761: Little Wolfgang begins predicting his musical future by composing his first pieces, which his father notes down for him, and which are pretty dang impressive for a five-year-old (see below)
Jenna, age 5-or-6-ish, sometime in 1983-4: Little Jenni (this is before I was Jenna) predicts her musical future during Suzuki violin lessons: first, by learning off a song above her level by ear; and second, by having a fit of shyness that rendered her unable to play it at speed for her teacher**
* * *

One of Mozart's earliest works, from the Nannerl Notenbuch:

* * *

In fifth grade, my understanding that Mozart was awesome was almost entirely abstract. I'm not ashamed of that, but I am ashamed that it continued to be true until just a couple of years ago.

* * *
Mozart, age 6, 1762: begins touring with his sister "Nannerl" (Maria Anna), both as child prodigies
Jenna, age 7, 1985: Jenni (still not yet Jenna) writes her first musical poem in between reading The Chronicles of Narnia during the family moving trip from Tampa to Missoula. The poem reads and sounds like a crappy countryish commercial jingle, but it's a start.
* * *

My best defense for not knowing much about Mozart growing up is that my family listened almost exclusively to pop Christian radio. This, I should explain, was before artists like Third Day and Jennifer Knapp came along and made pop Christian radio listenable.

The album that rocked the only world I knew.
By "almost exclusively," I mean that I remember most of the exceptions, and I remember them as exceptions. My parents homeschooled us for all but three years, restricted TV and movies, and were very selective about whose houses we could visit unsupervised; they had pretty thorough control over what my sisters and I listened to. I assumed Dolly Parton was a naughty person who sang dirty songs until I was in my mid-teens.

To be fair, my parents let go of the stricter rules as we started graduating high school, and my dad and I actually saw Def Leppard and Bryan Adams together a few years back. But that's anticipating the story a little.

Everybody loves Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid.
Even conservative homeschoolers. Source.
The main source of non-pop-Christian music, aside from movies, was an off-the-radio mixtape my parents had. It contained a few ABBA songs and a tune or two each by Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley and John Denver. A handful of other songs made it to my ears as well, and as far as I was concerned, they were usually made of fireworks and magic:
  • "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" by Starship
  • "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel
  • "Orinoco Flow" by Enya (nowadays, Enya is one of my favorites)
  • "Insensitive" by Jann Arden (this played just once in my hearing, on TV; obviously, my parents didn't catch the lyrics)
But my knowledge of music was still mostly limited to Christian radio. Unfortunately, aside from a few markedly sincere anomalies—Keith Green, Twila Paris, and Rich Mullins come to mind—I hated the stuff and preferred silence. I admit, however, to liking those three enough that I will still sing Twila Paris' "How Beautiful" and Rich Mullins' "If I Stand" and accompany myself on the piano. I never bothered learning "Awesome God", though.

* * *
Mozart, age 14, 1770: hears Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere" in the Sistine Chapel and, overlooking the fact that writing it down was at that time punishable by excommunication, writes it out entirely from memory. (The pope was so impressed that instead of excommunicating Mozart, he was all like, "Hey, that's cool! Write it down as often as you want to!")
Jenna, age 14, 1992: having had a few lessons, can now play Beethoven's "Für Elise" and Bruce Rowland's "Jessica's Theme (Breaking in the Colt)" from The Man from Snowy River, just like every other female piano student in Montana. On account of sharing a house with another family for a few months and being too shy to practice in front of them, however, she stops playing the piano. (NB: I was an idiot when I was fourteen.)
* * *

Nothing says "made for greatness" like a list of Mozart's childhood accomplishments. Very few people ever possess the kind of aural recognition and memory that would allow them to write out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" from memory after hearing it just once—let alone this:

* * *
Mozart, age 17, 1773: is appointed court musician by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo
Jenna, age 16 or 17, 1994-5: discovers that Keith Green, Twila Paris, and Rich Mullins are not the heights of musical genius
This occurred thanks to a miracle: my dad switched from pop Christian radio to country music. I more or less responded with, "I thought most music sucked? This is amazing!!"

Don't hate me! I had to start somewhere.

* * *

At seventeen, according to Wikipedia (I know), Mozart wrote the first of his works to still be widely performed today: the motet "Exsultate, Jubilate." Here's the first movement:

* * *

One of my small consolations for not knowing much about Mozart till recently is that at least my deficiency has not just been limited to the music that's most important to me. Lou and I have had the following conversation a minimum of three times:

Me: "I like this song! Who's it by?"
Lou, with a strange look: "The Beatles."

To be honest, I'm still not sure which is which.

* * *
Mozart, age 19-22, 1775-8: being under the Archbishop's employ, tosses off concertos, sonatas, adagios, and divertimentos at the approximate rate of the average junior higher's phone texts
Jenna, age 19-22, 1997-2000: joins—and eventually leads—the worship team for a tiny basement-dwelling church. Duties include: providing a weekly music lineup that satisfies both the hymn fans and the praise song fans, playing guitar, singing harmony, and shepherding a worship band made up almost entirely of youth group members, which at one point includes a tone-deaf bassist.
That was fun. Most of the time. :)

* * *

Maia getting into the new camera case.
This doesn't have anything to do with music; it's just so
George doesn't feel gypped this week.

* * *

After spending my eighteenth through twentieth years convinced that I needed to be a country singer, in pursuit of which goal I used to lock myself in the bedroom every evening with my guitar and piano, I was given a second gift of broadened musical horizons, this time by my youngest sister. Through a friend, she'd discovered rock and alternative, and she decided I needed to listen to them with her.

Muse, photographed by swampa
I lost most of my taste for country music in short order. I still think of that sister with gratitude when I listen to Muse and Keane and The Fray, though technically we bonded ten years earlier over Lifehouse and Coldplay and Train.

* * *
Mozart, age 25, 1781: blows off the job with the archbishop in order to begin an independent career, and proves his capability by things like performing in front of the Emperor
Jenna, age 25, 2003 (approx): plays synthesizer for another worship team and discovers just how far behind she is as a musician
Friendly church pianist: "Wow, you improvise off guitar chords? I wish I could do that."
Me: "Isn't that what you're doing? You're way better at the piano than I am."
Friendly church pianist: "Oh, I'm not improvising. I'm just sightreading."
Me: "That's possible?!!!"

* * *

A handful of classical works managed to creep into my consciousness before I got myself voice lessons (at about age twenty-one): Bach's "Air", the occasional Beethoven, and Handel's "Messiah". I loved those, but classical music in general, and Mozart in particular, seemed—in the short, unrepeated clips I was prone to coming across—comparatively unemotional, and young Jenna was always about the feels.

The feels. Beethoven knew all about them.
Love you forever, Ludwig.
My voice teacher, whose lessons were one of the best decisions I've ever made, taught me to like opera and classical songs. Her influence included loaning me a video recording of Mozart's opera Cosi fan Tutte. I liked Cosi, but my preferences still ran to slower, sweeter Handel arias and Scotch love songs.

Mr. Chant himself,
Gregory the Great.
Portrait by de Goya.
At long last, I learned to love classical music when I met Lou. He introduced me to musical traditions I'd never even heard of—Gregorian chant and polyphony, which caught me, heart and spirit and imagination, from first listen—and taught me that the trick to loving classical music is in exposure; it isn't an immediate dazzle and then overplayed, like pop music, but something that grows on you as you got to know it, like a book you can read over and over again and enjoy more every time.

Mozart still took me a little longer, though.

* * *
Mozart, ages 32-34, 1788-90: despite suffering setbacks, possibly including depression, still manages to do some impressive composing, including the opera Cosi fan Tutte
Jenna, age 33, 2011: finally understands why Mozart is awesome
Technically, I was still thirty-two, but only just.

I don't recall who said, in my hearing, that “People who don’t think Mozart’s music is passionate aren't listening carefully.” They made me ashamed of myself for not knowing better, however, which is the surest way to make me learn something. Not long later, just days before Mozart's two hundred fifty-fifth birthday and my thirty-third, Lou and I saw the Requiem and "Ave Verum Corpus" at the Seattle Symphony. I finally understood Mozart that night, and loved him.

I have just four words to say for myself: Better late than never.

* * *

One of the most beautiful works of art in existence:

* * *
Mozart, age 35, 1791: returns to full productivity and writes a number of great works, including The Magic Flute, the unfinished Requiem (completed by his student Süssmayr), and "Ave Verum Corpus"
Jenna, age 35, 2013: devotes herself to piano practice and church choir, regains some of her vocal strength after several years of cord damage, and discovers a knack for choral conducting and arranging
It's been a good year for me, musically. Which is helpful, because when it comes to my writing, this year has sucked—but that's another blog post.

* * * 
Mozart, age 35, December 5, 1791: passes away at one A.M.; may he rest in peace
Jenna, age 35, December 5, 2013: well, the day's not over yet, but I've made it past one A.M. :)
It's a bit humbling to realize you've outlived someone so much greater than you. It raises the question of why he had to die so young when I, who will never accomplish a tenth of what he did, am still living—but such questions are probably better left unasked. (Number 22 is germane here, however. Though I sympathize with practically all of those. Maybe not #8. But oh, gosh, #7, and #11 and 12, and #17.... ;))

Detail of Mozart, from the family portrait
by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
Mozart composed over six hundred works, and that's just what we have on record; he was prone to not writing things down, and was so disorganized that he didn't bother cataloguing his work. After his death, musicologist Ludwig Ritter von Köchel went through the mess and did it for him.

Six hundred remembered works and six children (only two of whom survived to adulthood) are a lot for just thirty-five years of life.

I don't think I was made for great things, but I'm grateful that he was. And I'm grateful that I can sit down to the piano and fumble through his music today, two hundred and twenty-two years after he died. I won't subject you to a sample of that. But here's to Mozart, in life and in death.

* According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know), 'Amadeus' is the Latin form of the Greek Theophilus.

** I never got very good at the violin. My sisters and I had a few lessons when we were little, and I played in fifth and sixth grade orchestra. In seventh grade, when we went back to being homeschooled, I did a few trios with my sister on flute and my best friend on clarinet (which might be the worst combination of instruments for a trio ever) and then put the violin down upon falling in love with the piano. I regret putting down the violin, but not nearly as much as I regret not falling in love with the piano earlier and more faithfully.


  1. To Mozart!

    This is a great post. Thanks for writing it! It's never too late to love things that are awesome, or to understand what's so great about something you don't get.

    When I first heard "Our God is an Awesome God," I was maybe twelve? I thought it was a parody. Or, I didn't exactly, but pretended I did to avoid being swallowed up in embarrassment. And my native Worship Tradition was basically 100% clunkers -- but that song is just something special. :-/

    1. Thank you!

      HAHAHA. That song really is "something special." Scare quotes intended. I'm pretty sure I was in junior high when I first heard it, too, but I think I took it in full seriousness. Not that I had the least idea what "puttin' on the ritz" meant. :P

    2. P.S. I'll try to get back to War and Peace comments tomorrow (Friday). My brain is barely sputtering right now; it wants Twilight and sleep, but it still has to play the piano, too. :)

  2. I forgot to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    1. Thanks! Although my birthday is in January... yesterday was Mozart's deathday. :)

  3. oops. . . I guess that's why I forgot it the first time I read this! Well, happy future birthday, anyway

  4. Lovely, funny and touching post, Jenna!

    Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer pined about his lack of accomplishment: "When Mozart was my age, he'd been dead for two years."

    FYI, the Beatles, clockwise from top left: John, Paul, Ringo and George.

    1. HAHAHAH. I love the Tom Lehrer quote!

      Thank you! For both the compliment and for straightening out the Beatles for me. :D

    2. Rats, forgot to sign above. Rick wants you to know that you may not be Mozart, but you have 21st Century medicine and won't be buried in a pauper's grave.


    3. HAHA. I'm grateful for that, Rick.

      And I figured out it was you after staring at it for a little while. ;)


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