While he is best remembered today as the father and teacher of Wolfgang, Leopold Mozart was a prolific composer and in his own lifetime enjoyed a reputation as a man of intellect and discernment in his own lifetime.
Born in Augsburg to a respectable family of tradesmen, Leopold sang in the choir of the Church of the Holy Cross as a child and was singled out by the clerics early on for a career in the Church, a sequence of events fairly commonplace for a talented youth in the Eighteenth Century. Leopold, however, had no intention of becoming a priest and once in Salzburg, to study at the University, abandoned his theological studies in favour of logic and jurisprudence. Inevitably, the financial assistance from Augsburg dried up and in the late 1730s, Leopold broke off his studies and entered the service of Count Johann Baptist Thurn-Valsassina und Taxis as a valet and musician.
For the next two decades Leopold's career resembled that of numerous professional musicians of the period. He composed, performed, taught and took a leading role in the musical life of his adopted city. In 1740 he 'etched with his own hand' a set of six Chamber and Church Sonatas for two violins and bass which he dedicated to his 'paternal beacon, the Count, whose beneficent influence had lifted him out of the harsh gloom of his distress and set him on the road to happiness'. A series of major sacred works followed, including a Passion Cantata "Christ Condemned", composed in 1743. By 1744 the newly appointed Court Composer was also in charge of the choirboys' instruction in violin playing. Far from viewing this work as professional drudgery of the worst kind, Leopold seems to have been an enthusiastic and gifted teacher and one, moreover, who approached the task very seriously as future events would show.
The birth of his seventh and last child, Wolfgang, on 27 January 1756 - or more precisely, the awakening of his musical genius several years later - dramatically changed the direction of Leopold's life. With few if any misgivings he made the decision to sacrifice his own professional ambitions in order to dedicate himself to the task of educating his two prodigiously gifted children. By one of those odd coincidences, 1756 saw him achieve the other crowning glory of his professional life, the publication of his Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, which brought him at once to the attention of the European musical intelligentsia. Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, the influential German theoretician and critic, reviewed the publication in 1757, writing: "One has long desired a work of this kind but hardly dared to expect it. The sound and skilled virtuoso, the rational and methodical teacher, the learned musician; qualities, each and all which make a man of worth, are manifested here". Marpurg also made Leopold a Corresponding Member of the Berliner Gesellschaft der Musik Wissenschaft founded by him in 1759.
Leopold Mozart's Violinschule is at once a treatise on the fundamental principles of violin playing, as its title suggests, and also an essay in musical aesthetics, advising on matters of taste, warning against empty virtuosity and making a plea for sound musicianship. It is a remarkable achievement, one which alone would have secured him a place in music history, but much of its real significance to later generations lies in the glimpse it provides us of its author's teaching methods. Herein lie the seeds of Wolfgang's astonishing musical development and a reminder that without a teacher of Leopold's driving ambition and breadth of intellect he might never have reached his full potential.
A year after the publication of the Violinschule Leopold wrote a brief sketch entitled "Account of the present conditions of the music of his Grace the Archbishop of Salzburg in the year 1757" for Marpurg's Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik together with a short outline of his own life and achievements up to the age of thirty-eight including a brief overview of his compositional output:
'... Of Herr Mozart's compositions which have become known in manuscript, the most noteworthy are many contrapuntal and ecclesiastical works; further a large number of symphonies, some for only four, but others for all the usual instruments; likewise over thirty grand Serenades, in which solos for various instruments are interpolated. Beside these he has composed many Concertos, especially for Transverse-Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Waldhorn, Trumpet and so forth; also twelve Oratorios and a multitude of theatrical works, even Pantomimes, and in particular, certain Occasional Compositions, such as Military music with trumpets, kettledrums, drums and pipes, beside the usual instruments; Turkish music; music for a steel piano; and finally a Sleigh Ride with five sleigh bells; not to speak of Marches, so-called Serenades, beside many Minuets, Opera-Dances, and pieces of the same kind'.
Two points must be borne in mind when attempting to judge Leopold's worth as a composer. Firstly, the works which are most often played and therefore considered typical of his output are the ones least representative of it: The Musical Sleigh-Ride, The Peasant Wedding and other occasional pieces are oddities. His best works, those written for the Church, are virtually unknown and of his symphonies, concertos and serenades, few are played and fewer still available in recordings. Secondly, Leopold ceased composing on a regular basis in the early 1760s as a result of his concentration on Nannerl's and Wolfgang's education.
Although little of Leopold's music is currently played, it has of course attracted a great deal of attention over the years as scholars have searched for influences on Wolfgang's work. Leopold may have played a quite major role in the composition of Wolfgang's earliest works but his influence as a composer on his son was probably minimal. In his dual role as critic and arbiter of good taste, however, Leopold's influence was both profound and lasting. During those crucial years when the Mozarts were travelling around the courts of Europe, he carefully introduced his son to the works of the best living composers, musicians who were known in Salzburg by name only and sometimes not at all. Some of these became personal friends, models to be admired and emulated, and Leopold's good opinion of them still echoes down through the ages. Other figures were subjected to withering criticism, their works held up to ridicule as examples of the vulgar and inept.
As Wolfgang grew older, relations between himself and Leopold became increasingly strained. Ultimately, Wolfgang's independence as an artist and as a man, illustrated most dramatically by his decision to pursue a freelance career in Vienna and marry Constanze Weber, could only be achieved through direct conflict with his father. Although they were estranged for a time and never regained the easy intimacy of earlier years, Wolfgang continued to value Leopold's acute critical faculty even in the years of his greatest artistic and worldly success.
When Leopold Mozart died in Salzburg on 28 May 1787, his old friend Domenicus Hagenauer, Abbot of St Peter's, wrote in his diary:
'Leopold Mozart, who died today, was a man of much wit and wisdom, and would have been capable of good services to the state beyond those of music ... He was born in Augsburg, spent most of his days in court service here, and yet had the misfortune always to be persecuted and was far less beloved here than in other great places of Europe. He reached an age of 68 years'.