The musical world is inclined to venerate Mozart rather too much, I would suggest. It was not until he was 18 that he wrote the first of the very few accomplished symphonies of his lifetime (No 29, K201 in A) and that was his 39th piece in that form – ten are unnumbered.
Throughout that time he had considerable help from his father who would polish the early attempts. Even that occasion in the Sistine chapel during which he wrote down Allegri’s Miserere – a repetitive piece anyway – there were corrections in his father’s handwriting. Most of that 29th symphony’s predecessors are the experimental compositions of one who is learning a trade by imitation and under a considerable degree of social pressure that allowed hardly any time for developing his undoubted talents beyond the purely mechanical stages.
Why any serious musician should even bother to perform most of those early symphonies – the first reputed to be ‘written’ at the age of seven – is beyond understanding! After all, Mendelssohn demonstrated far broader imaginative and technical command by the age of 15, having achieved a series of very accomplished symphonies for strings, the amazingly ingenious String Octet when he was 16, and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year.
However, there are about ten of Mozart’s symphonies that are well worth hearing, and among those are works of the most remarkable genius – a word too loosely used, but in this case utterly justified. But it could also be argued that Mozart was responsible for the ‘death’ of a number of other composers whose reputations could be far greater now had he not lived. Of course, he couldn’t help living, but we shouldn’t regard his contemporaries as being less worth hearing.
Dittersdorf, a fellow Viennese composer, produced a huge quantity of music (yes, he did live to be 60!) that included 40 operas, 120 symphonies and 40 or more concertos – several for the violin on which instrument he was quite a virtuoso.
Another notable Mozart contemporary was Boccherini whose vast output of string chamber music, quintets, quartets and trios, could easily rival Mozart in inventive quality, technical accomplishment and delight, and yet history doesn’t allow them to be as world famous! Poor old Boccherini was no less talented because Mozart happened to live at the same time, but history suggests he must be an inferior composer. Examination of the music could prove that a far greater proportion of Boccherini’s music is the product of a more mature creative disposition than much of the child-like routine invention of the first half of Mozart’s life. But in the fewer pieces with which Mozart demonstrated his more exceptional talent at its best no one can compete.
The only worthy and acceptable rival at the time was Haydn, and he was a different kind of remarkable composer, exploring harmony rather than Mozart’s later extraordinary ability to explore themes and counterpoint.
It is only a pity that history – unmusical history – is to blame for who survives, and history, whilst being a faithful record of one possible journey through time, is fundamentally ‘stupidity after the event’.