Mozart’s musical style and the music of the late eighteenth century Classical era are virtually synonymous. The goal of Classical era music was to conform to specific standards and forms, to be succinct, clear, and well balanced, but at the same time, to develop musical ideas to an emotionally satisfying fullness. As a quintessential Classicist, Mozart’s music has become universally extolled; his music represents an outpouring of memorable graceful melody that is combined with formal, contrapuntal ingenuity.
During the late eighteenth-century, a musician’s livelihood depended solidly on patronage from royalty and the aristocracy. Mozart and his sister, Nannerl, a skilled harpsichord player, frequently toured Europe together and performed at the courts of Austria, England, France, and Holland. But in Mozart’s native Salzburg, Austria, he felt artistically oppressed by the Archbishop and decided to relocate to Vienna. There, he received first-rate appointments and financial security that emanated from the adoring support of both the Empress Maria Thèrése, and later her son, the Emperor Joseph II. Opera legend relates the story of a post-performance meeting between Emperor Joseph II and Mozart in which the Emperor commented: “Too beautiful for our ears and too many notes, my dear Mozart.” Mozart replied: “Exactly as many as necessary, Your Majesty.”
Mozart said: “Opera to me comes before everything else.” He composed his operas in all of the existing genres and traditions: the Italian opera seria and opera buffa, and the German singspiel.
During Mozart’s time, the Italians set the international standards for opera: Italian was the universal language of music and opera, and Italian opera was what Mozart’s Austrian audiences and most of the rest of Europe wanted most. Therefore, even though Mozart was an Austrian, his country part of the German Holy Roman Empire, most of his operas were written in Italian. In opera seria, Mozart recognized its excesses; their cardboard-style characters who were rigid and pretentious, and their scores saturated with florid da capo arias, few ensembles, and almost no chorus. He would follow Gluck’s guidelines and strive for more profound dramatic integrity; he parted from existing traditions and endowed his works with a greater fusion between recitative and aria, the use of accompanied recitatives, many ensembles, and greater use of the orchestra.
Mozart’s most renowned opere serie are Idomeneo (1781), and his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”), the latter a work commissioned to celebrate the coronation in Prague of the Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. By Mozart’s time, the opera buffa, nurtured by the Renaissance commedia dell’arte, had become a favorite genre, its first popular incarnation Giovanni Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona (1733), a work with only three characters, but a quintessential model of the genre: it contained lively and catchy tunes which underscored the antics of a servant tricking an old bachelor into marriage.
The greatness of all art forms is that they express the soul and zeitgeist of their times. The eighteenth century was dominated by the Enlightenment, a philosophic movement marked by a profound rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas, and an emphasis on rationalism; the Enlightenment inspired a rebirth in the ideals of human dignity and freedom. Opera buffa provided a convenient theatrical vehicle in which those Enlightenment ideals of democracy and humanism could be expressed in art: opera buffa became an operatic incarnation of political populism. The ruling aristocracies identified and even became flattered by the exalted personalities, gods, and heroes portrayed in the pretentious pomp and formality of the opera seria, but in contrast, opera buffa’s satire and humor provided an arena to portray very human characters in everyday situations; the genre presented an opportunity to examine and express class distinctions and the frustrations of society’s lower classes. As such, opera buffa became synonymous with the spirit of the Enlightenment and the Classical era of music: the genre was enthusiastically championed by such renowned progressive thinkers as Rousseau; its music was intrinsically more natural, and its melodies elegant, yet emotionally restrained.