Searching For Mozart In the City That Turned Its Back On Him

Salzburg from the garden of the Hohensalzburg Fortress

There’s that face again. It’s a recurring thought for anyone stepping into Salzburg without knowing who Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was. For the millions who do claim awareness, the sudden appearance of his visage on a bottle of cherry liquor can still come as a surprise. In fact, to now think of Salzburg without Mozart is a lot like imagining Agra without the presence of a certain white mausoleum.


There’s more to the fourth-largest city in Austria, of course. Primarily, that other never-ending tribute it continues to pay — to Hollywood musical The Sound Of Music. To paraphrase, then, Salzburg now survives on two of its past rejections: a composer it failed to appreciate, and a movie it wasn’t really interested in.

The view from Mozart’s first home

And so, one takes tour guide recommendations related to the composer and musical with a large pinch of salt. Incidentally, the name Salzburg came from toll-paying barges carrying salt on the Salzach river. Its original Roman name, Juvavum, was changed by Saint Rupert of the Frankish royal Merovingian family.

As I strolled through its ancient streets though, the gorgeous Alps standing tall in the backdrop, what struck me more than anything else was the all-encompassing presence of Mozart. Even the home he was born in — Hagenauer House at Getreidegasse 9, where the family lived from 1747 to 1773 — found itself on rows of refrigerator magnets lining the shelves of souvenir stalls. Outside the building stood a few hundred tourists, huddled in a digital camera-driven frenzy usually reserved for someone performing on stage. Inside were carefully preserved displays of his first violin, first clavichord, first handwritten score, even a few carefully preserved locks of hair. It was all a far cry from when the composer actually walked those wooden floors, when the city of his birth compelled him to look for fame and fortune in other parts of Europe.

The bridge, named after Mozart, connecting Old Salzburg to the town

It didn’t start out as a tragic story. When Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born (January 27, 1756), his father Leopold was vice-provost of the court orchestra. Struck by the obvious genius of his only son to survive birth (daughter Maria Anna was born five years before), Leopold did what most fathers in an age of reality television would now choose to do more easily — put the prodigy on display. Both children were schooled in music early, but Mozart was clearly in a league all his own. By 6, he was playing his own compositions to an astonished audience.

For a while, it was great. There were successful concerts across the continent, duly impressed members of royalty, and enough money to convince Leopold he had made the right decision. The young Mozart was obviously pleased too, and responded by promptly composing his first sonatas. As a teenager he continued to tour, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, gathered new admirers, and eventually went one up on his father by landing the post of provost.

The house where Mozart was born

And then, Salzburg turned its back on the man who would one day be blessed by its department of tourism. His relationship with his employer, the Prince Archbishop, deteriorated rapidly. He was forced to quit and move to neighbouring Vienna, where he found love, became a father, and created some of his finest operas. The size of his audience began to shrink. He was eventually hired as a court musician by the Imperial Court of Emperor Joseph II, but his financial position was precarious. Touring again was the only option, until a sudden illness — rumours about this range from poison to a heart attack — claimed him on December 5, 1791, weeks before he turned 36. He was buried in a mass grave in Vienna, far from home, with no crowds to mourn his passing.

Here he was now, two centuries later — and more than 600 works to his name — smiling at a gaggle of tourists from coffee cups, lighters, ashtrays and umbrellas. Jostling for space among these tasteful reminders of his prodigious talent were T-shirts bearing the name ‘Wolfie’, Mozart wine from Langenlois, Mozart Sausages, and waffles filled with nougat and marzipan.

Old Salzburg

It all made me think of the Mozart Effect — research that indicates listening to his music may improve performance of some mental tasks. Salzburg had obviously experienced it. The city no longer remembered Mozart, the man. All it knew was a face; one to adorn a million souvenirs.

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